I’m no Grinch; I love Christmas with all its tinselly cheer. Despite hearing Wham or Walking In The Air playing at the supermarket for the nineteenth time I still find myself humming along while I load family-sized tubs of Roses into my trolley telling myself they’re ‘not really all for me’. From tree decorating, to baking (and usually burning) festive cakes and biscuits, I savour it all.
Candle-lit carol services are one of my favourite aspects of the season. Most years I attempt to pack as many of them into my December schedule as is humanly possible, as if Challenge Anneka were attempting an ecclesiastical month-long marathon.
But this year is different. I’m finding it harder to feel the Christmas spirit as I process the news my doctor gave me a few months ago.
Usually a busy and enthusiastic person, my pace has slowed drastically since I was diagnosed with ME, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. This comes on the back of a previous auto-immune condition that I’ve struggled with for several years. So, rather than attending carol services, my December is focused on clinic visits, collecting medical advice, and discussing treatment options.
As I come to terms with this, my heart goes out to anyone dealing with chronic illness. Of course I’m deeply aware that many face conditions far more severe and life-threatening than mine; I know I have much to be grateful for. But depression, my specialists tell me, often comes hand in hand with this kind of illness. So we’re closely watching both my physical and mental health.
Yes, this Christmas I’ll still eat turkey, pull some crackers, and spend the holiday with loved ones. But it’ll be more from a place of contemplation than celebration. Much as I’m trying, it’s hard to shake the deflating feeling of struggling with impaired health and having to dramatically alter hopes and expectations for life and work in 2016.
I share all this not to moan, or navel-gaze, but to shine a light on the under-belly of Christmas; the darker side we often shy away from discussing. To reassure you that if your Merry Christmas is feeling less than merry, you are far from alone.
The mental health charity Mind just released new statistics about Christmas stress and struggles. They are distressing figures - and yet also perhaps some comfort to anyone feeling low this season; a reminder that behind closed doors many others are facing a similar situation.
Mind surveyed 1,100 people, 866 of whom identified as having mental health problems. Eight-one per cent said that they found Christmas an especially difficult time of year.
More than one third of people (36 per cent) had previously self-harmed at Christmas and over half (52 per cent) had considered doing so. Forty-five per cent said they had felt suicidal and had contemplated ending their life during the holiday. Almost 60 per cent had suffered from panic attacks at Christmas and three quarters (76 per cent) found it very difficult to sleep.
We are fed a media diet of 'Hollywood Christmas perfection' through TV ads and billboards; photoshopped families laughing around tables laden with professional-grade food and expensive gifts. There is, perhaps, no other time of year where such a yawning chasm exists between what we are told we should experience, and most people’s actual reality.
During the festive season it’s easy to fall into the trap of slapping on a plastic grin. And thanks to social media, the pressure goes beyond convincing those in the room that you’re having a jolly old time. Now, showing the world snaps of your perfect turkey dinner and idyllic day are a must on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
The Mind survey is a healthy wake-up call that Christmas needs to become a time of increased honesty. A time when it’s OK to speak up about the struggles, isolation, depression, or ill health that many of us face. To openly confess that the last thing you feel like doing is Rocking Around The Christmas Tree. Hopefully, the more voices that speak up, the more the taboo will be broken.
As a Christian, I’m encouraged that the Christmas story has more than enough room for fear, pain and darkness. Rather than feeling shut out from the warmth of the stable-scene, I like to remember the entire Nativity is about God stepping into darkness and brokenness.
Much of this seems lost in the fairy-tale-style telling of the story in Nativity plays or Christmas songs. The grit, tears and terror of the narrative are important and must be reclaimed.
Paintings of the manger scene usually portray a perfectly groomed Mary and Joseph, surrounded by placid animals and a spotless, shiny baby Jesus. What Hallmark or Clintons seem to have forgotten is that Mary and Joseph were unlikely to have been clean, tidy, or well rested. Rather, they were refugees. (That’s right - refugees. A politically uncomfortable reality for many to focus on in today’s climate).
On the run to escape persecution, they were further degraded by finding themselves homeless on the night Mary went into labour. Giving birth in something akin to a garage, the scene would have been one of survival, struggle and grit. Literally blood, sweat and tears.
Yes, I’m sure they would have felt joy at the sight of their newborn, but that night took place in an overarching context of deeply challenging circumstances. They were far from home, fearful about their safety, and staring into an unknown future.
This assures me that there is room in the Christmas story for sadness, grief, confusion and doubts. As the well-known carol puts it: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight”. Hope is part of the festive season, but there is room for fear and darkness also. They are simply different notes in the same chord; triumphant and yet melancholy simultaneously.
So while it may be wise, and downright savvy, to pretend that you absolutely adore the itchy wool jumper from your distant Aunt, or to convincingly declare that your Mother-in-law’s cremated turkey was “truly delicious”, there's a form of pretence we need to drop at Christmas-time.https://kaleistyleguide.com/women/life/its-ok-to-feel-sadness-at-christmas---an-alternative-festive-mes
For our own sake, and the sake of those who may be struggling around us, I believe we need to talk about how we’re really doing. And make it a renewed priority to reach out to those in our community who might need a friendly visit or a phone call over the break. It is, after all, the season of ‘comfort and joy’; so if you’re someone with joy to spare, find someone in need of comfort, and let’s make it a priority to look after one another this Christmas.
Vicky Beeching is a theologian, writer and broadcaster. Her academic research focuses on the intersection between religion and LGBT rights. She co-presents BBC1’s Sunday Morning Live and regularly appears as a religious commentator on BBC News, Sky News and Radio 4. Vicky is currently working on a book for Harper Collins.