Challenges of Christmas time and ways of managing these
by Fiona Magill
Last updated Oct 24, 2023
The days are short, the trees are bare, and there’s a chill in the air. We are well into Winter, and before we know it, Christmas will be just around the corner.
When you think about Christmas time, what thoughts and images come into your mind? For some people, Christmas is a magical time, full of lights, and family time and festivities. For others though, Christmas can be a really difficult time of year.
If you have experienced a bereavement over the last while, Christmas time can bring into sharp focus the empty chair at our table. There is such an emphasis in the media and social media about having quality time with our loved ones at this time of year, and if we have lost a loved one, this can be very painful.
Acknowledge your feelings of loss: If you feel sadness come over you, which is a normal part of grief, don’t push it away. Acknowledge it and sit with it for a while. Cry if the tears come. The interesting thing about feelings is that they just want to be acknowledged. Once we sit with the feeling, and really let ourselves feel it for a short while, it will be able to pass. Often when we push away our difficult feelings, they just pop up stronger.
Find ways to remember your loved one(s) who have passed away: You could light a candle, or go on one of their favourite walks. Talk about them around the Christmas table and all that they meant to you. Reminisce on the good times, or things they did that made you laugh.
Start a new tradition: when someone dies, there is no going “back to normal”. It’s about finding a “new normal”. Part of this can be starting a new Christmas tradition and mixing things up a little.
Many of us have been affected by the cost-of-living crisis and our finances have been squeezed more than ever this year. The pressure of financing the cost of presents for lots of people, an enormous food shop for the big day, and attending Christmas parties, can be overwhelming. If we can’t manage to pay for all the usual Christmas trimmings this year, and have to cut back, we may begin to feel inadequate and like we have failed.
Try to take the pressure off yourself. Don’t feel like you have to spend a lot of money on presents if you don’t have it: Secret Santa can be really useful here. Most of us don’t need presents, we have so much already. Agree on a modest budget for present buying and stick to it.
If you are hosting the Christmas dinner, ask others coming to bring a dish or contribute to paying for the grocery shop. It can create more of a feeling of community when everyone contributes. And you might end up eating something new you have never tried before!
Think about having a Christmas party at home, or go out for a light lunch rather than a 4 course dinner and drinks. Christmas celebrations don’t have to be extravagant. If you are feeling low or anxious, consider cutting back on the amount of alcohol you are consuming. Alcohol can impact our mood and thought patterns in a negative way.
Another aspect of Christmas that can be challenging is the idea that is portrayed in the media of happy families, all in festive harmony with one another. Our reality might be that relationships in our family are quite strained. There may have been arguments, or events that have happened, that have caused friction. We may perhaps be estranged from certain family members. Thinking that other families are having a jolly time altogether, can just highlight to us how fractured our own family is.
If needed, acknowledge to yourself the sadness or anger you may be feeling about not having a functional family structure. Normalise the feelings: it is tough and it’s okay to feel upset about it all.
We all know the phrase, “friends are the family we choose for ourselves,” and it’s very true, especially when we are estranged from some or all of our birth family. Take time to connect with your pals over the Christmas period.
Plan something fun or relaxing to do with friends, colleagues or neighbours; it doesn’t have to be expensive. It could be a walk in nature, followed by a cuppa in a cosy café. Or a Christmas movie night with all your favourite snacks.
Remember that what people share on social media is rarely the full story of how things really are. If you see lots of festive smiling faces, know that there will probably be tensions present too that are not shown on Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat.
If we are already living busy lives, with lots of different responsibilities, the added load of organising Christmas can be quite stressful. Sometimes, when we have been too busy for too long, we can experience symptoms of burnout, which can affect us emotionally and physically. Do you ever find when you take some time off work, you get sick? This can be our body’s way of forcing us to rest, if we haven’t been listening to it.
If you find yourself feeling burnt out, try to take some time to rest and recharge over the holiday season. A friend of mine told me many years ago, “Fiona, you’re a human being, not a human doing.” Take time to just “be” this Christmas.
Your worth does not depend on how productive you are in a day. You have inherent worth, just because you are worthy, with all your unique qualities. It’s okay, good even, to ask for help. Delegate some of the Christmas organising tasks if you can.
Make sure you are taking breaks from work and chores during the day. Try not to eat lunch at your desk. Get up, have a walk around, do some stretching and eat something tasty and nutritious.
Consider beginning to plan some self-care time into your weekly schedule going forward. Self-care is all about taking time to do things just for us, something we enjoy or that helps us relax.
Another really difficult aspect of this time of year, can be the feelings of loneliness that some of us can experience. Perhaps we live alone, or perhaps our children have moved out of home, and this is our first Christmas without them there. Maybe post Covid we have lost touch with some of our family and friends. Or perhaps we experience social anxiety which makes it difficult for us to mix with others, leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Try reaching out to friends and family and suggesting a meet up. Sometimes we can feel that people aren’t interested in spending time with us, but that isn’t true. There will be folk in your life who value you and enjoy socialising with you.
If meeting up with people face to face seems too overwhelming, you can talk with people online. This could be through social media or gaming channels.
Check out initiatives in your area to get involved in at Christmas time. Get in touch with your local community centre or council and see what they have planned.
I hope some of these ideas are helpful for you. This Christmas time, try to let go of the expectations you may feel being put on you, and do Christmas your way. Allow yourself to give yourself the Christmas you need, whether that’s a loud celebration with a host of family and friends, or just you and your pet having a relaxed, peaceful day.
Fiona Magill is an Integrative Counsellor based in lovely Derry, Northern Ireland. Fiona began her private counselling practice in January 2019, following 5 years spent training to become a professionally qualified counsellor. She is also an accredited member of BACP. Fiona focuses on incorporating different counselling styles based on individual needs, including Person Centred, Psychodynamic, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, and Mindfulness.