Christmas comes with high expectations of perfection – happy, smiling families exchanging expertly wrapped gifts before tucking in to delicious and beautifully presented food.
Truth is, most of us will never quite manage to hit the heights of perfection, immortalised in those old Burl Ives American TV specials. And it couldn’t matter less. Time spent with loved ones doesn’t have to be perfect to be special.
Having time off work, giving and receiving gifts, eating and drinking as much as you like, spending time with family and friends. These are things we crave all year.
However, for many other people, Christmas will bring the opposite. Feelings of isolation, financial pressures or increased family conflict that can make this a very stressful time of year. They have goods reasons to not like Christmas, or Christmas time.
They may have experienced a relationship ending or a loss of a family member. Some may have experienced trauma during the festive period and constant unpleasant memories are flooding back. So why is Christmas so stressful for many?
All the pleasant aspects of Christmas don’t just happen or pop out of nowhere. There is a great effort for some to put it all together. Traditionally it’s mum, or the family matriarch, but whoever ends up bearing the brunt of it is bound to be at risk of greater stress.
Workload and stress are clearly linked. The regular demands of maintaining a household do not go away. If anything, because of work and school holidays and more regular visitors, those demands increase.
There are many other extra duties like decorating the house, big food shops, making and baking and gift buying. Many of which are pretty pricey at a time when money is increasingly tight. All of this would undeniably combine to create a situation where stress is far more common, not less.
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, this is more likely in movies as life is just too complex and messy to ever guarantee the mainstream portrayal of a perfect Christmas. And yet, we still expect it. There is a human tendency to expect the best and we repeatedly underestimate how much time and effort tasks will take. All increasing the risk of a stressful Christmas.
For some people, Christmas can mean worry, stress and loneliness
Spending more time with extended family over the next few weeks can put us into drama. For some there may be a dreading the prospect of being cooped up with people you struggle to get on with.
Even if there’s no obvious source of disagreement or even conflict, a prolonged period in close quarters with a lot of your family can still be stressful. There’s the relative lack of privacy that comes from having your house full of people, a known cause of stress. There’s also the loss of control as everyone is chipping in or in your face, even if it’s with 100% good intentions.
Eat, drink and be worried
Most people say that they eat too much over the festive period. While this is quite normal, for some they resort to stress-reducing acts, namely eating rich food and drinking alcohol. It’s true that high-calorie foods reduce feelings of stress, as does alcohol.
But in both cases, it’s a very short-term fix. Our bodies seem to actually store more fat when we’re stressed, and alcohol consumption can quickly cross the line from pleasant to unpleasant, leaving us bloated, hung-over, miserable and with a worse state of overall health than when we started. All things that add up to more stress.
This isn’t to say that Christmas is, by default, a hard and stressful time. It can be brilliant, providing all the good things we expect and more. But it’s important to recognise that this isn’t a given, or automatic. It all requires time, effort and investment. Ignoring this will just make it more stressful in the long run.
We need to put less pressure on Christmas. It doesn’t have to be perfect. We shouldn’t have to spend all our money and try to force ourselves to feel Christmassy. We need to be more honest about how difficult Christmas can actually be and take care of ourselves over this period.
If we can, we need to look out for those who find the festive period the hardest time of year. We need to be more open and honest about its difficulties and hopefully try to make this time of year more inclusive for everyone.