It’s an evening in mid-November and the new John Lewis Christmas advert has been released. Queue an emotive opening: the camera leads us into an idyllic Christmas living room scene and a trio of pensive, minor chords on the piano turn into Your Song, played by Elton John himself. We’re already crying. Next you’re treated to a run through of the rise and rise of CGI Elton before being taken right back to his childhood where he received a piano for Christmas— and voilà! The moral of this story: Christmas is a magical, perfect time where all dreams come true and maybe one day you, too, could become Elton John.
Christmas has a real Expectation vs. Reality problem. Each year, we consume the eagerly awaited adverts from retail giants, feeding us visions of perfect Christmases. Perfect lives. Happy families all smiles and festivities; a beautiful Christmas tree surrounded by perfectly wrapped gifts; dreams becoming realities. But this isn’t always the case, is it? We build this single day up so high in our minds that reality has very little chance of keeping up. Granted, this is a year-round problem thanks to the way in which social media pervades the modern world, but the chasm between the highlight reel and most people’s reality is at its greatest during the festive period.
Over a quarter of people feel the pressure to have the ‘perfect Christmas’ (28%), increasing to half of those with a mental health problem (48%).Mind.org.uk
In 2016, Mind released a set of statistics about mental health at Christmas. According to their findings, 28% of people feel pressure to reach the aforementioned Christmas ideals and this figure rises to 48% amongst people with an existing mental health problem. Furthermore, 17% of people report feeling lonelier at Christmas than they do at any other point in the year and I don’t think that this is too surprising. Loneliness is a growing epidemic, affecting many of us; whether it is the elderly man who has not spoken to another human being in a week, or the adult woman who sits alone evening after evening and has significant difficulty forming meaningful relationships. Christmas amplifies this; you feel as though you should be surrounded by people, cocooned by the festivities and for some of us there is a heightened sense of disappointment, sadness and failure when you realise that you aren’t.
For others, the difficulty can stem from elsewhere. This time of year can become a financial burden, or worsen existing ones, when you are trying to meet your own expectations and that of others. Family matters, too, can be a source of stress and poor mental health during the holiday period. You may be reminded of loved ones who are no longer with you, whether that is the result of innocent branching off into new family units, feuds, or death. Even the music that’s piped through shopping centres and our own homes during this period is an ode to the melancholy that some people experience at Christmas. I can barely stand to listen to the powerful, tremulous tones of Judy Garland singing about the olden days or Bing Crosby being home for Christmas, ‘if only in [his] dreams’.
Unlike children, we have the burden of responsibility and many more years to accumulate loss and other difficult experiences that this period can remind us of.
Of course, internal pressures like the battle for perfection or the desire to recreate the more carefree Christmases you believe you had as a child, can also play a significant role. Those of us fortunate enough to be able to look back with fondness, might be tempted to remember our childhood Christmases as perfect; however, I’m inclined to believe that we do so through rose-tinted glasses. I vividly remember the excitement of waking up far too early on Christmas morning, playing Luigi’s Mansion with my brother and receiving a magnificent 6-tiered hamster cage from my auntie. Hidden deep beneath the murky waters of these memories, however, is me sitting on the stairs crying because I have just realised that something is very wrong with my grandad. My mom remembers finding me there and recalls that he had recently been diagnosed with cancer for the first time. I have no memory of how I ended up on those stairs with that knowledge or what happened before or after that moment, but I can recall the colours and layout of the hamster cage I was given as if it were right here beside me as I type. And there it is: my brain conveniently tidied away one of the great tragedies of my life in an attempt to archive unsullied, childhood memories of Christmas.
When we consciously try to do this as adults— to curate idyllic Christmas scenes and experiences that replicate what we’re taught is right— we are not always able to. Unlike many children, we have the burden of responsibility and many more years to accumulate loss and other difficult experiences that this period can remind us of. Only my adult mother remembers me, her small child, sat on those stairs crying and that is illustrative of the difference between the Christmases we want to experience and the ones that we sometimes actually do.