By Nethmi Dissanayake
Christmas is meant to be a time of great connectedness, joy, and spirituality, and is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. It is also a strange time of year in many ways; we are expected to be feeling happy and festive, but it’s not always that simple. While the holidays can fill our lives with joy, they can also lead to feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, and other difficult emotions.
The traditional image of Christmas is incredibly optimistic. Nearly every portrayal shows a cosy, cheerful, tastefully decorated home, surrounded by pristine snow, in which a happy family gathers to share a large dinner cooked to picture-postcard perfection. Sadly, life is just too complex and messy to ever guarantee the mainstream portrayal of a perfect Christmas. For some people, over the years, Christmas can sometimes start to lose its magic, and some may not enjoy it like they used to.
‘Christmas will not be ruined if you are melancholy’
University of Colombo law undergraduate Hansi Perera spoke to Brunch about the not-so-magical side of Christmas.
“December is a difficult time of year for many people. TV, magazines, and media are filled with articles, ads, and images of people being happy, and when you’re not feeling particularly happy, seeing those images can make you feel even worse. The pressure to be joyous and happy and filled with the seasonal spirit is pretty immense.”
“It’s clear that the struggle doesn’t take a day off for the holidays. The gremlins don’t go on vacation. Checks bounce, chemotherapy appointments are scheduled, relationships keep unravelling, being alone feels even lonelier, and the ‘never enough’ is in full swing,” she added.
Perera further said: “Christmas will not be ruined if you are melancholy. The most important thing for most people is spending time with those they care about. Sometimes, that means jolly belly laughs and silly Christmas crafts. Other times, that can mean sharing a meal quietly in the glow of the Christmas tree. If you’re feeling more ‘blah’ than ho ho ho, you aren’t alone. You don’t owe anyone false happiness or participation in things that don’t feel right for you. It might be hard to see this when family, work, school, and church obligations loom. What I learned is that if you need to pass this year, that’s okay. You don’t have to do it all, you only need to do what you can.”
A year ago, many of us were looking forward to the new decade with optimism and hope. In contrast, these two years of this new decade have brought much anxiety, fear, confusion, frustration, disappointment, loss, and grief. This year will be the second Christmas with Covid-19 circulating around us. The global death toll currently has surpassed five million, which means that millions of people are grappling with the recent loss of a loved one. Even when the world is not in the grip of a pandemic, for many, the holidays can resurrect grief. Hansi shared her own not-so-hallmark-movie experience with us.
“Hundreds of thousands of families spend Christmas with an empty seat at the table, and my family is also one of those families. We lost our father to Covid last year , and he loved Christmas. So it’s difficult to bring ourselves to even think about decorating the house without one of us having a meltdown. And our house looks pretty naked right now. So we have decided to skip the decorating part. Instead, we will be making a Christmas lunch with our father’s favourite dishes, hoping to get through the day and make new memories whilst remembering our dad in the coming years,” she added
Perera further said: “My siblings and I have restricted ourselves from thinking what Christmas should or could have been this year. As I started therapy, one thing my counsellor said to me was to practise mindfulness, be in the present moment, and slowly take your attention away from distressing thoughts and memories. I also started journaling my thoughts and feelings, because that helps me. For others, maybe sharing their feelings and worries with a trusted loved one would also help. When my counsellor recommended this, she mentioned that there might be others around you who are feeling similar emotions and there can be great comfort in knowing you are not alone.”
Lastly, Perera mentioned that we should choose to do things that help us manage our feelings, rather than letting our feelings manage us.
‘The pressure to be happy is amplified during the holidays’
Licensed clinical psychologist Shanelle De Almeida shared her view on how the pressure of a “perfect Christmas” takes a toll on people this time of year.
“Holiday depression is not considered a clinically diagnosable condition. However, symptoms of loneliness and the pressure to be happy are amplified during the holidays, especially when it comes to those who have been through a recent personal loss, like a death of a loved one, job loss, or a divorce/break up. Because the whole world seems to be celebrating and holiday ‘cheer’ is seemingly everywhere, and thanks to social media, this can lead to a sense of isolation and regret.”
These days, social media means we can see how great everyone else is at their Christmas efforts, inducing extra pressure to conform, and even do better to maintain your status in your community. Sharing her opinion on this and as to how to stay regulated during Christmas, she added: “There are many ways to deal with it. Some include minimising the use of social media, reaching out and talking to loved ones, and also taking action such as volunteering/donating, creating personalised holiday gifts, and, of course, self-care; moving our body, getting enough sleep, and going easy on the sugary treats and alcohol are helpful to centre yourself during the holiday season.”
Christmas can be an exceptionally lonely and challenging time for someone who is marginalised or treated unfairly in society. This is why depression and mental health issues often increase during the holiday season, and why it should be everyone’s objective to reach out to those who may be alone, neglected, or disregarded during this time. Because Christmas is not so much about opening presents but opening our hearts. Respect others for their religious or cultural beliefs and allow them to have a space to practice their religions too.