A Very Stressful Christmas

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Jack Frost nipping at your nose. Yuletide carols being sung by a choir and people popping Valium by the handful. Yep, it's Christmas, everybody! And in case you haven't noticed, this is a very stressful time of year. Christmas? Stressful? I hear you ask. How can that be? This is the happiest time of the year. Maybe, maybe not. Ask the woman who's got seven relatives--three of her own, four of her husband's--coming to spend 10 days with her. Ask the store manager whose shipment of Christmas merchandise had been held up due to a snowstorm. Ask the college student anxiously cramming for pre-holiday finals and subsisting on a diet of caffeine and fingernails. Ask the air traffic controller who is dealing with some pretty bigtime runway gridlock. They will tell you--the Yule is a most anxiety-provoking time indeed.What makes it so? Why can't Christmas be the way we all remember it from childhood? That is, why can't it be a happy, joyous time, full of wonder and hope for the future? Well, for one thing, most of us have grown up. To understate things a bit, we are not the people we were as children. To a child, Christmas is a time of promise, a time when that magical date of December 25 means that there might be a new bicycle under the tree or perhaps a pony in the backyard (though, to be fair, it must be realized that there are many children--far too many--to whom Christmas is never a time of hope or wonder, children who know all too well the deprivation of poverty and hunger). To an adult, Christmas is a time of trying to balance finances to make it through a very expensive time of year, of planning family get-togethers which can be excessively painful if Uncle Izzy and Cousin Morty are coming in from Cleveland to spend a few days and it's well-known that neither can stand the other. The adult disillusionment with Christmas sets in gradually, usually sometime around mid-childhood. For many it begins with the realization that there is no Santa Claus. This is often too difficult a discovery, as a child of five can quickly deduce why Daddy and Santa Claus are never in the same room together (my own father used to try to explain his absences during Santa's visits by claiming he was busy holding the Jolly Old Elf's reindeer). Other disappointments set in: times when money is scarce (known euphemistically to adults as an "economic downturn''), times when family peace is sorely sundered (such as parental divorce or separation)--times when it becomes all too apparent to that child that that pony or bicycle just ain't gonna happen. That's when realization of Christmas limitations sets in. A child soon learns that with the joy of Christmas comes responsibilities: in addition to being feted with goodies on December 25, he or she is also going to be expected to perform in the school Christmas pageant or--horror upon horrors--be nice to their younger brothers and sisters, giving them gifts as well. As the child grows older, the limitations of Christmas become even greater. In high school Christmas vacation often means having to take a job to raise the scratch needed to buy gifts for others. In college Christmas vacation usually comes at the end of a truly trying period of final exams and term papers. The veneer of Christmas begins to lose its luster as a person comes of age. The stresses of Christmas come into play when one realizes exactly how much is being demanded of oneself during the holiday period. The greatest Yuletide role change probably takes place when a person stumbles into the Parent Trap: suddenly the onus of giving and putting Christmas together devolves from one's parents onto oneself. The individual who until just a few years ago was used to being the grateful recipient at Christmas suddenly finds himself the one staying up 'til 3 o'clock Christmas morning desperately trying to assemble a toy whose instructions require a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering to understand. Or he finds himself being the one driving all over town on December 24 in desperate search for the trendy plastic replicas of shelled reptiles patterned in a Japanese warrior mode. With adulthood come some very different expectations for the holiday season.Holiday mid-life crisis For many adults Christmas can be a difficult time not only because of the crush of relatives coming or the expense of buying presents, especially in a time of prolonged recession. It can be difficult also because it is symbolically the end of a cycle of time--one calendar year. The coming of December means that yet another chapter of our lives is closed. The expectations of the previous New Year may have been far from met and considerable disappointments and losses of opportunity or fortune may have occurred in the intervening twelve months. For many of us this can cause considerable stress and anxiety. For when we were children, the holiday season often meant a time when everything seemed possible, the season seemed rich with promise not only of what presents might be waiting beneath the tree, but also of what the New Year might hold. After all, when you're a child, the New Year does have one particular promise for you: namely that you will be getting bigger and become that much closer to being grown up. To an adult, though, that automatic promise is no longer there. Once you have passed the age of majority, you have ceased growing up, you are growing older. And to a great many adults, this can be disconcerting. The years seem to melt into each other, one indistinguishable from the other. There is also an element of future shock at work here: the New Year seems to be upon us as early as September. Go into any card shop or bookstore and you will be bombarded with 1992 calendars and datebooks. The 1992 model cars have been out since September. Fiscally it's been 1992 since July 1. They just don't seem to be making years as long as they used to. If you're an adult who keeps track of his or her life's passages, this can definitely cause a holiday angst.Solitary celebrations So far I've mentioned the stresses that can occur if you are (or more importantly you feel that you are) suffering a surfeit of family. But a substantial cause of anxiety and stress at this time of year often results from the converse: the lack of family--a particularly relevant for long-distance families. Even among families that stuck close geographically, many have been cleaved by death or divorce, leaving many people feeling stranded and alone in the Yuletide. Believe me, there are few things more depressing than staring at a foot-high Christmas tree in your apartment on Christmas Eve, singing "Silent Night'' to yourself. For the elderly, this can be a particularly disheartening prospect. Loneliness is a problem that plagues many, many people for much of the year, but it grows more intense and painful at Christmas, being as it is a time to be with family and friends. For many, the dilemma at the holiday season is how to connect with someone else. Problems with Christmas stress are nothing new; they probably go back as long as the holiday has been celebrated. But woes at the Yuletide are particularly intense in our era, characterized as it is by both rapid communication and personal individualization. If, for example, you have come here from somewhere else, seeking your own "space'' or personal identity, you may find yourself in the quandary of being on your own for 310 days out of the year and then expecting (or needing) to feel connected and part of a group for the remaining 55. Those living in the "frost belt'' also have the more gritty facts of Christmas life to deal with: in a word, ice and snow. In addition, they may suffer from Seasonal Adjustive Disorder (whose acronym is, appropriately enough S.A.D.). As the light of day wanes in the autumntime, so do the spirits of its sufferers (it is particularly severe in places of long, heavy-duty winters, such as Scandinavia and Alaska). For these people, the stress of preparing for Christmas is doubly intensified. (As a matter of fact, the current Yule season we observe began as the Saturnalia in ancient Rome--a time of celebration in conjunction with the sun's "returning'' from its long autumn decline.) And yet for all these stresses and woes caused by Christmas and New Year's, to take liberties with Yogi Berra's famous quote, once it's over, it's over. Wham! January 2 arrives and the carols immediately stop, the Christmas bunting and tinsel is taken down and the bleak midwinter is upon us unadorned by any further holiday color. The next holiday in sight is President's Day and leave us face it, this one is weeks away and is no real compensation for the Christmas-New Year's holidays. After those Rose Parade grandstands are torn down, nothing of comparable importance comes down the road for several months. In those parts of the United States where the winter is truly cold and dark, the abrupt end of the holidays can leave many people with a feeling of desperate emptiness and depression. What can you do if you find yourself caught in the Christmas crunch and at the end of your rope? Well, what you need to do depends on what the source of your stress is. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the presence of relatives, you might suggest to other family members elsewhere in the United States that they might want to share some of the host burden this Christmas season (of course, if other family members are in Buffalo and you're in California, it may be hard to convince them that the former is all that happening a place). If driving out to the airport gives you the willies (and believe me, in mid-December, the airport traffic crunch is only a little less challenging than the course at Le Mans), you can always suggest that your guests take a shuttle or taxi into town. If you are feeling disconnected and cut off from your family or friends, there are groups--many, but not all, connected to churches--that specialize in making the lonely a little less so. And if you are feeling truly alone and blue, an excellent solution might be to volunteer your time to do something for those who are the true unfortunates at Christmas: the hungry and the homeless. Your options are many. Be advised though: it is a long time between Macy's Thanksgiving Parade and the final float in the Rose Parade. Make the most of your holiday season, carefully plan things and pace yourself. Remember, as stressful as Christmas may seem, it is still a wonderful time of year--a time of giving and sharing, not only of gifts, but also of yourself. Try to re-kindle the child within and make Christmas seem a time of wonder and promise again. Here's hoping that yours is a merry one.

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