With glimmering fairy lights all over the city, the glowing conifer trees, the beautiful décor, the holiday fervour, Christmas starts making its presence known about two months before the day, depending where you live in the world.
Extravagant family meals and all kinds of traditional dishes, the candy canes, cookies, chocolates, and the gifts that Santa leaves on Christmas Eve, everything seems to be so cheerful. It’s a season of joy after all, or is it?
The fact that this season coincides with a spike in mental health issues is a matter of concern. A survey done by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) in 2017 in the UK, found that family arguments are the most nerve-racking part of Christmas, with 76% of people claiming that this affects their mental well-being negatively. Financial pressure, loneliness, burnout, anxiousness, unpleasant associated memories, are just some of the challenges that Christmas can trigger. In the last two years, the pandemic has added itself to the list.
Feeling low in spirits around Christmas is especially true for the unemployed (38%), divorced (35%), or widowed (31%), according to a recent government report. It’s less so, but not unusual, for parents with kids living at home (23%). The same report interestingly highlights that, while only 35% of men feel stressed around Christmas, for women the figure is 51%. Perhaps the burden of preparing dinners, choosing gifts, décor and making all ‘perfect’ arrangements is more burdensome on the women.
My memory of Christmas as a kid is limited to drawing zig-zag lines of a fir tree on a card that said Merry Christmas in art class. I saw it just as a day off. I was curious though about Santa Claus who brought gifts only to Christian kids. Twenty years later, as a Human Resource professional, I facilitated the Secret Santa tradition in my office and decorated the Christmas tree. We wore Santa hats, relished on delicious rum cake, and exchanged thoughtful presents.
I am a writer on mental health and I also write on other topics, from spirituality to nature. In my fourth piece on Inspire the Mind, I decided to understand how Christmas is viewed by different people across the world by interviewing a few online friends.
I started by talking to Amelia Canaris, a mum in her 40's living in Brisbane, Australia. Her rituals are similar to the ones in the UK except for hanging stockings — with the summer in full swing, the woollens don't make sense! Amelia’s focus has always been to ensure that kids understand that Christmas is not a season of excess. Gifts are always meaningful and based on what the children really need. The only real excess in her celebrations is the feast, thanks to the Italian nonna who cooks Italian Christmas dishes for the family! Nonna is also famous for living minimalistically and being generous when it comes to giving gifts to her family, especially the kids.
While in conversation, she asked a significant and valid question “When is enough, [enough]?”
“It’s always been a challenge to provide anything above the normal almost every year. I wondered you’d have to be really rich to ever feel like you did Christmas ‘right’! I was once a young broke mum amongst much older and well-established families. My kids always got gifts but often I couldn’t escape the feeling of ‘it’s not what it is supposed to be’.”
What is it supposed to be?
Who decides that?
You. Just you.
Ways to cope
Don’t compare, just share With lavish decorations and parties being posted on social media, the festivity often turns into a race of “who’s done it the best”. Not only scientistsbut wise old sages and their spiritual knowledge also tell us that comparing is the easiest way to spiral down on to emotions of inadequacy and irritability, stealing our joy and inner peace. Listen, you can scroll through your Instagram feed and look at the posts with incredible décor and traditions and you can look at others’ way of celebrations and admire their beauty, without comparison. Everyone has their own way of celebrating and none is “better”. However, the best way is to share. Not the posts, but your kindness, empathy, and charity.
A 2008 study in Harvard Business School found that spending money on others promoted participants’ happiness more than spending it on themselves. Charity does give a sense of satisfaction. What better way to celebrate a festival than by sharing our fortune with the ones in need?
In a 2006 study, Jorge Moll and colleagues at the National Institutes of Health found that when people donate, it activates the mesolimbic system of the brain that is associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust, creating a “warm glow” effect. Various studies confirm that altruistic behaviour releases endorphins in the brain, producing the positive feeling known as the “helper’s high.”
Guilt-free boundaries You need to figure a way for Christmas to work for you. If you feel overwhelmed, allow yourself to take a break. Go for a short walk, get away from whatever is making you anxious. The festive season exists to bring joy to everyone’s heart, starting with your own.
If extended family dinners are a source of stress for you, consider skipping those. If you cannot, avoid conflict-prone topics and people. If you are the one hosting, remember that it should not be an energy-draining time for you too but a time of celebration.
Melissa Ostrom, an author living in the United States, tells me how she loves preparing meals for her extended family during the holidays but makes sure that on Christmas day, there is no pressure to do anything. It is just five of them — the couple, two kids and their fur-baby, Mocha, doing their Christmas rituals — opening gifts, a walk nearby, sledding on the snow, watching ‘A Christmas Story’ together, and a lot of lounging around and cookie eating.
A merry one indeed!
Three studies done in September 2016 and published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research tested the relationship between family rituals and holiday enjoyment and established that family rituals improve the holidays because they amplify family closeness and involvement in the experience. However, family dinners frequently turn into a political battlefield or a place to settle old family scores.
Related to this, there is another phenomenon called holiday regression, which happens when we go back to our childhood homes where we revert to our old roles — our teenage selves. There is chaos with the old schemas(cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information) trying to confuse our mind space with the now-adult self.
Your personal boundaries — physical, time, financial, expectations and more — would have to be defined and followed by you. There should be no guilt for prioritizing your mental health before anything else.
Help those with mental health concerns
People who are struggling with their mental health are in a vulnerable position at this time of year. To understand how we can help others struggling, I spoke with Carmine Pariante, a Professor of Biological Psychiatry at King’s College London, and Consultant Perinatal Psychiatrist at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. He agrees that the festive season is difficult for people with a mental disorder because they are socially isolated, and the comparison with society’s perceived happiness makes it even more upsetting. It is difficult to give one piece of advice that works widely because it varies on a case by case basis but he suggests to try making an effort to engage in social contact through family, friends, or local society (religious groups, voluntary organizations, for example) even if it feels very difficult to do so.
“Avoid being alone for a long period of time, especially since health and social services support may decrease during the festive period.” Friends and relatives of people with mental disorders should understand their role in such times and reach out to them as Professor Carmine suggests personal contact and meaningful human support is key.
“If they resist and say no, try to find alternative ways that you can help. If someone is resisting spending a whole afternoon with a larger group of friends and relatives, you can offer a five minutes’ visit bringing some food as a gesture to express caring.”
Less is more The traditional and mainstream portrayal of Christmas is just picture-perfect. And while every festive event brings the promise of joy, it can often fall into chaos and a messy maze to achieve that perfection.
Solutions? Limit splurging on gifts. Children can receive gifts and adults can decide not to gift anything to each other — perhaps a small token of love that doesn’t cost much. The way you teach kids about gifting can change their whole perspective.
There is a Greek word, haplotes. It means ‘sincerely, generously and without pretense or hypocrisy.’ This is how we should give and receive gifts. Always!
I loved what Amelia, the Australian friend who I chatted with at the start of this blog, told me:
“I remember one year not doing a big tree and feeling deliciously wrong. I did a potted tree with bows and loved it so hard. You have to just do your best.”
And everyone’s best can look different. Yet it remains the best.
May the Holiday season bring more reasons for your heart to smile!