Many have lost sight of what Christmas is really about. It is not all financial…

All song lyrics attest to it: Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, life is joyful, and families come together for one, big, sparkly celebration.

And yet, Christmas is for many the most anxiety-inducing, depressing and lonely period of the year. Their lack of a social circle becomes more apparent. Their toxic family becomes unbearable. Their recent bereavement is painfully resurrected.

So, how can Christmas be both mistletoe and magic and also melancholy?

Aside from its religious significance, Christmas is a cultural celebration of family and community, with relationships forming a central role. For many, this is a thing of joy, as they have a rich and extensive social network comprised of people they love.

But there is a flipside to this.

For those who do not have family or friends or a partner or a community, Christmas serves as a harsh reminder of what they lack. It can also accentuate the cracks in existing relationships, forcing people together and highlighting their incompatibility.

People who are alone at Christmas time feel strongly alienated from the rest of society, which promotes togetherness, acceptance and warmth. Take the Sainsbury’s Christmas advert (British Supermarket Firm) for example: festive family fun. The Amazon advert: family and community. The Coca-Cola advert: family and devotion.

So, what happens to those who are spending Christmas alone? How can someone be expected to enjoy Christmas when they have always been told that true festive spirit is only achieved through family time, reminiscence and shared traditions?

Feelings of social isolation often increase during the Christmas period, with people feeling more alone and aware of their alone-ness than at any other time of the year. And perhaps even more so in the current climate, with quarantine and COVID-19 restrictions removing many people’s ability to connect with loved ones and spend the holiday with family.

Half a million older people report spending Christmas alone, and 10% of 23-34 year olds report having no one to celebrate with. In 2019, the Samaritans had more than 10,000 calls on just on Christmas day. The issue of isolation does not exclusively affect older generations – it is a ubiquitous phenomenon.

Further to this is the topic of bereavement, which is a cause of suffering for many during Christmas, but even more so with Coronavirus having claimed so many lives. People often see Christmas as highlighting their loss – it becomes very apparent who is not at the Christmas table, and who will not be there to see the grandchildren.

Add to this the added pressures of finances, logistics and the need to be perfect and it is no surprise that Christmas takes such a significant toll on mental health.

Two weeks before Christmas has the highest rate of relationship breakdown. And the relationships that do limp on through the festive period often fail soon after; the so-called ‘Divorce Day’ usually falls on the first Monday of January.

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The psychological impact of Christmas is felt strongly by those who already have pre-existing mental health problems, with the intensity and chaos of the holidays augmenting their feelings of stress and depression.

The European Social Survey suggest that people have decreased emotional well-being at Christmas. One psychologist suggests that “the expression Happy Holidays! can […] be perceived by someone with depression as a demand or an expectation they cannot meet.”

One study also argues that the increase in consumerism and expenditure at Christmas can lead to lower mood as people feel pressured to buy gifts and splash out to achieve the perfect celebration. Routine is also thrown out the window, with the structure and schedule that many rely on being jeopardised by visitors, alcohol consumption and busy calendars.

So, the festival that is supposed to be joyful takes on a bitter tinge for many, whether they be grieving, lonely, or trapped.

But is it all doom and gloom?

Of course not. Despite these strains and pressures, Christmas doesn’t have to be a stressful period. It does not have to be about material excess or dramatic displays of affection. Christmas can be a time of reflection and recuperation, where people take stock of the year before it progresses into the new one.

The fact that many people report lower sense of wellbeing during this time may be significantly related to the intense pressure that society puts on the festive season. Instructing everyone to be unendingly joyful sets unreasonably high expectations, which often leads to disillusionment.

If society was to promote a quieter and more contemplative Christmas, these issues might decrease. The hyper-focus on money and community is harmful for many, but a focus on rest and gratitude could actually be healing.

It could also be a time for people who are isolated to create a new social network. With better structures in place, we could bring isolated individuals together and use this season as a means of engineering new relationships. Even if it is on Zoom…

If all else fails, it is important to remember that it really is only one day. That’s twenty-four hours where we could simply embrace staying at home, wearing pyjamas and watching cheesy movies with a box of Quality Street.

A new year is on the horizon. This year, we could use Christmas to take stock of 2020, and set a new, more hopeful tone, for 2021.

MACKAYAN: The saddest time of the year?

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