My youngest was never keen on being held by strangers so this emotionally charged picture is what we took home from his first formal Christmas photo shoot. Although it never made it to being framed and displayed on the mantelpiece, I’ve often looked at it over the years and thought how much it sums up how Christmas can make us feel inside.
It seems strange that a holiday meant to be celebratory and happy can also be a very painful time. I’ve come to the conclusion that the intensity of the lead-up, coupled with the pressure of expectations of what makes a perfect Christmas, work together to cause this single day to serve as a magnifying glass for whatever we happen to be dealing with. On this single day, our circumstances – whether euphorically happy, mildly challenging, or brutally tough – come into sharp, enlarged focus.
If our current picture is pretty good, life seems to be on track, and we’re spending the day with delicious food, perfect presents and all our very favourite people, that enjoyment is magnified when viewed through the lens of the accepted expectations of the day. The moments become even more special and that Christmas becomes cherished as having been a memorable one.
But current pictures can differ from year to year. In a year where there’s been loss, those who are experiencing their first Christmas without someone present may feel that absence all the more profoundly. Others figuring out how to navigate Christmas in the framework of divorce, financial or employment uncertainty, or even celebrating with a poignant knowledge that it’s likely to be the last time a treasured person will be with them – for them too, grief can increase under the scrutiny of the Christmas magnifying glass.
For a variety of reasons and at different times over the years, I’ve certainly experienced Christmases where I’ve felt a bit like my son’s face in the picture. I don’t have all the answers, but I figured out a few things that helped – and I hope they help you too.
Be realistic and absolve yourself from expectations
It sounds obvious, but it was only when I stepped back and thought about it that I realised our perceptions of the perfect Christmas are just ideas that are presented to us by various forms of media. Whether it’s a retailer selling the vision of an idyllic setting in which their product is a vital component, or a movie crafting a beautiful setting to heighten a compelling scene, the images we’re offered are appealing, but they are just images. We are not obliged to strive for them. If the reality of circumstances are such that your family can’t be gathered harmoniously around a twinkling gift-laden tree – comfortably lethargic with turkey-tryptophan and waiting for the Queen’s speech to begin – simply take that pressure off. It’s OK and even normal for things not to be perfect all the time, including on Christmas Day.
Be kind to yourself (and others)
Work out what IS a good day for you, and aim for that. One of the unique things about Christmas Day is that your normal routines and connections aren’t generally available. With a few exceptions, the country does pretty much shut down. So how to spend the day positively will inevitably take some considering.
A friend who lives far away from relatives, and whose ex-husband had their daughter for Christmas Day, turned down my offer to join my family. I understood. As well-meaning as my invitation was, sometimes joining other families can be difficult too. She instead lined up about eight girlie movies, cooked a favourite pasta meal for lunch, and topped the picture off with a glass of prosecco – all in the comfort of her pyjamas.
A couple I know who have conflicting family expectations pulling them in different directions opt out of the festivities all together, and volunteer with a team serving lunch at a local homeless shelter. They love it so much that even if family life suddenly did become easier, I suspect they’d still do it!
Amongst my friends, a few have taken a stand against the financial pressures of the season through a range of strategies, such as setting a £10 ceiling on individual gifts, drawing names from a hat and each buying just one gift for one family member, or even agreeing to give presents only to the children.
Our challenges are all different, and one solution does not fit all. However, for each of us, figuring out what will make a good day in our own circumstances is freeing and healthy.
Remember you’re not alone
Last Christmas, controversial politician Nigel Farage tweeted a photo of himself watching the Queen’s speech alone in his kitchen. With true British propensity for humour in response to anything publicly awkward, the photo was gleefully seized and shared many times over, with a variety of creatively considered re-captions, or outrageous images replacing the Queen on his visible screen. However, the fact is Nigel Farage is unusual in having shared this slightly subdued portrait of himself. Most of the time, social media purveys a platform for showing how much fun we’re having and how great things are all the time. An acknowledged side-effect of this is that it feeds a culture of high expectations, and those of us not having a great time at any moment can feel even more alone with our difficulties by comparison. It’s not true though. The nature of being human is that we all go through times where we experience joy, and others where we face challenges.
My hope is that wherever this Christmas finds you, you can celebrate in the best way that works for you. And please remember that you’re part of a world-wide community who are all figuring out the highs and lows of being human alongside you.
Emma Howden is a mum, sister, daughter and friend. She is a communicator at heart, believing understanding gained through clear communicating and listening can usually go a long way to help most relationships stay healthy. In a previous century she started her work life as a mainframe computer programmer, but now is loving a second career in communications, which has taken her to roles at a number of great charities. She has a strong-willed cat who regularly challenges her authority at home, and two teenage sons who make her laugh often and help keep her ideas and outlooks fresh.