Christmas comes but once a year and for some of us it’s one time too many. We do a lot of complaining about Christmas. The consumerism, the obligations, family conflict and lack of meaning. But why do we have so much trouble letting it go? How come so many of us complain but so few of us ever really transform or give up on Christmas?
I have not had one positive conversation about Christmas in these hectic weeks leading up to the day when some of us supposedly celebrate the birth of Jesus. When so many of us have given away or reinvented family traditions, why does Christmas remain such a bugbear?
Most of us will face Christmas either by giving in to tradition or by ducking and weaving in an attempt to avoid what’s painful or unsatisfying. Very few of us will consciously try to build something new for ourselves at this time. If we hate Christmas, what stops us from breaking with tradition?
It astonishes me how so many of us, even those of us who pride ourselves on our ability to drop out of consumerist madness, allow Christmas to be an ongoing source of resentment and frustration. A friend of mine said he thought that maybe this was because it only comes around once a year, that if it was every month he’d be more inclined to deal with his intense dislike of Christmas. Instead he lets it slide each time and the holiday season comes back around like a yearly punch in the head.
The expectation that Christmas should be joyful makes it a time when our losses are felt more strongly than ever, when all that we can see is what’s missing in our world.
There are the newly fractured Christmases like mine this year, where one of us will be left on what is ostensibly a celebration of family without the people who matter to us the most. The pain of separation in stark relief.
There are the drunken Christmases of excess and disappointment, with too many presents, too much alcohol and too little care. The violent Christmases where the pain of years explodes with the disappointment of love that never was and that can’t be magically called up with the gift of an Xbox and some roast meat eaten next to a plastic tree.
Then there are the lonesome Christmases spent separated from the people we love, or spent with the people we are meant to love and without the ones we truly do. The Christmases where we sit dutifully with those who have betrayed and hurt us, with those we dislike or who bore us or simply those people who are only connected to us by virtue of biology. These are the empty hearted Christmases and they take their toll.
This year, global warming permitting, I’ll be in the northern hemisphere snow with my daughter for Christmas. We do Christmas pretty well in my original family. We’re good at ritual, good at food and adept at presents. Some of us are believers and those of us who aren’t are left in peace. There’s not much drunkenness, and in fact some of us are more pleasant to be with after a glass or two. Some of us even genuinely like each other. There’s some love, a smelly tree and a Christmas story about moles.
But even if our personal Christmas passes muster, Christmas in general has become a kind of all consuming monster, particularly in the last 20 years. Displays go up in September, personal debt related to Christmas has increased exponentially, and services dealing with family separation, violence and substance abuse are under more pressure than ever at this time of year. There are so many reasons to object to Christmas as we have come to know it and yet so few of us manage to disentangle ourselves from this loaded celebration. We give in, we avoid and we sulk.
If we step aside from the obvious and justified critiques of the consumerism of Christmas and our political and philosophical objections to this holiday, the search for our own Christmas stuckness leads us to a personal list of unresolved hurts and losses.
Christmas is a magnifier of all that is festering for us with friends and family. Old pain and current resentments are under a high beam when we’re asked to give to the people close to us and to celebrate our connections. Everything sad becomes twice as sad at Christmas.
Some of us will be unhappily alone at Christmas. Some of us will unwillingly spend the day with friends and family, caught up in the belief that somehow obligation is a gift, and that suffering through a holiday we hate is necessary for our children or our parents or our friends and our lovers.
But sufferance is not a generous offering, it’s a burnt one, and nobody loves a martyr except a sadist.
Figuring out how to survive Christmas is difficult because the day is a tiny microcosm of everything that’s fraught when it comes to living our lives with other people. It’s about choosing to love and to care generously for those who matter to us. It’s about taking a stand and making choices about what we believe and what celebrations deserve our attention and standing by those decisions in the face of enormous pressure.
And it’s about facing our hurts and taking the steps to resolve them, or walking away from those relationships we believe to be beyond salvation. None of these tasks are easy, but all are a necessary part of surviving Christmas.
To enjoy Christmas or to truly leave it behind, we need to know who we are, what we want, who we love and what we believe. We need to decide who we want to spend time with, who we would like to make peace with and who we will never tolerate or forgive.
This is no small task. If Christmas is feeling like a millstone, know that this is not just the ugliness of the capitalist megalopolis hanging around your neck; it’s also the heavy work of living your own life that’s hard to bear.
So summon the courage to face the seriousness of the silly season with open-eyed love, with or without your gay apparel. Allow yourself to dream of a right Christmas, and may there be some joy in your world.
ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.
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