What’s the big deal about surviving Christmas?
We love to have family and friends get together, overindulge in delicious food, give and receive presents, and engage in traditions and rituals—religious or otherwise. A few more tasks on the ‘To Do’ list, but hardly need for need for a survival guide. Right?
Well, wrong. Christmas and the festive season is a time of significant vulnerability for many people—to the extent that suicides, heart attacks and family violence all peak. Risk is greatest for those who face major challenges in their lives, especially people experiencing grief and loss, family breakdown, illness, or financial problems.
The more privileged among us are not entirely immune to the stress and strain of the season either. I must confess to a Christmas that I spent most of the day alone at home in the company of a bottle of champagne, trying to simply avoid it all. Like most people, I love the idea of Christmas—but often the expectations and the reality don’t match.
Instead of peace, love, joy and togetherness, Christmas can be a time of stress, family conflict, despair and loneliness.
Women, in particular, often put pressure on themselves to be all things to all people at all times, and this can reach epic proportions at Christmas. So, below are some things to look out for, ways to survive, and how you can help others get through the silly season.
Some major tensions rise sharply at Christmas, starting with financial worries. It is hard not to get sucked into the marketing of the spirit of the season and go overboard and blow your budget. To mitigate this, think about what you still remember from last Christmas—did those very expensive gift wrappings that you just had to have for everyone’s presents really make a difference? Most likely not—they were barely noticed and went straight into the recycling bin. Make a budget and stick to it. Not leaving things until the last minute will help you to plan and get better deals.
Realise that you don’t need to buy presents for everyone. Gifts for extended family, friends and their children, workmates, etc is excessive. In the western world most of us already have everything we need and more – often, no one even remembers who they got what from when they are bombarded with so many presents. Particularly children—I recall when my children were little, they received so much from so many people in the extended family that I gave a lot straight to charity—the kids didn’t even notice. However, I did feel bad about all the time and money someone special had put into buying an unappreciated gift. Buy for your nearest and dearest so that you can choose something meaningful. For the rest, if the act of giving is important to you, make a donation in their honour to The Hunger Project or other charity.
Cooking and catering—what was once just Christmas lunch has extended to Christmas eve drinks/supper, Christmas breakfast/brunch, and the Boxing Day BBQ, and every woman feels the pressure to flaunt her inner Nigella. We all look forward to gastronomical excess at Christmas, but don’t be the martyr in the kitchen doing everything—delegate! These days everyone wants to show-off their own masterchef skills.
Families are complex, increasingly so as the range of family situations expands. Christmas can force together family members who don’t have much other than ancestry in common; people with very different world views and values. Add alcohol and too much time spent in close quarters, and something is bound to explode.
Deal with this by setting some boundaries. Try to limit the time together so that people are able to keep on their best behaviour. If you are doing the visiting you can always have somewhere else to go. If everyone is visiting your place, this is a bit trickier.
One strategy is to go for a walk or organise an active game after lunch. This has multiple benefits as it stops people settling in to drink and talk with more and more opportunity of the family sores being scratched open. Plus it can help start to work off all the excess food that’s been consumed.
It is probably a moot point to say limit the alcohol—but this is clearly one of the best strategies to help stop things getting out of control. The champagne often starts at breakfast, so pacing yourself, and your guests, is essential.
The Christmas stereotype is of large happy families and their many friends all getting together for a wonderful time. But many people are alone at Christmas, for lots of different reasons – family breakdown being a main one. Children may have to take turns with one side of the family, leaving those on the other side feeling left out, and connections with grandchildren and other extended family may have been severed altogether. Men are particularly vulnerable after family breakups, as they often have less well developed social networks to support them after a split.
Some people are away from their own family because they are living and working in a different city or country. These people often resourcefully find each other, and put together their own ‘expat’ festivities.
Be aware of people who might be alone at Christmas and consider adding a few more to your table. And make a point of checking on your neighbours, especially if they are elderly.
The joyful hype around Christmas can make people focus on what’s missing in their own lives. It can seem that everyone else is successful and having a great time, but not you.
The festivities critically heighten awareness of those who are gone – the first Christmas after the death of a loved one is especially painful. It is helpful to talk about and acknowledge the people who are missing; make a point of reminiscing and recall the good times and happy memories. Lighting a special candle to represent the missing person can help you to feel that they are still with you in spirit.
Reaching out compassionately to help others also wards off feelings of despair. There are many opportunities to volunteer, like hamper preparation or delivery, or serving Christmas lunch for the homeless. A note of warning, though—many people choose to volunteer to make their Christmas more meaningful, so you need to get in early. Deciding on the day that you feel miserable and suddenly want to reach out and help others to perk yourself up won’t work. Plan ahead; search volunteering at Christmas or go to your favourite charity website to find out what you need to do to register to be involved.
Social comparisons exacerbate people’s sense of missing out and being unworthy, and today’s social media magnifies the reach and impact of this effect. The antidote to this is gratefulness. Finding what you have to be grateful for in your life will lift your mood. You don’t even have to uncover lots of wonderful things to be grateful for – recent research shows that just the act of searching for them improves wellbeing.
So, get ready to survive Christmas this year―don’t set your expectations too high, delegate, determine boundaries, cultivate compassion for others, and search for what you have to be thankful for. If all that fails, then grab a nice bottle of chilled champagne, take to the couch with a good movie, book or some great music, and be grateful that it is 364 days till next Christmas!
Dr Debra Rickwood is a professor of psychology at the University of Canberra and Chief Scientific Advisor at headspace National Youth Mental Foundation. She is (of course!) a Premium member, connect with her here.