Coping this Christmas

I wrote this in November 2020 and I hate that it’s still relevant, but it is so it might help someone.

Christmas 2020 was never going to be normal, was it? But I suspect I am not alone in feeling a little sad that we’re approaching the end of the year and all that ‘it’ll be over by summer!’ optimism now feels like a far-away fever dream. Many people are facing a stressful, complicated Christmas – uncertain Government messaging aside (don’t get me started on that!), there are a ton of personal, financial and ethical decisions to be made this year. Do / can you travel? Can / should you see family? What is allowed – and how does that measure up against what your own common sense or concerns tell you to do? And what happens when your beliefs clash with those of your loved ones? It can be hard if you are being super cautious when your family thinks Covid is fake news.

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I have spent a lot of shitty Christmases alone – either for work reasons, or in the aftermath of bereavement – so I’m sharing some tips I hope might be useful either to help you cope, or in suggesting ways you can help others.

Let yourself be sad if you need to be

How many conversations have you had this year along the lines of ‘I’m really sad about X – but obviously, I know I am lucky in the scheme of things!’ Because in a year when people are struggling more than ever, have lost jobs, loved ones and security, if you still have an income, a roof over your head and all your family members, it can feel like the height of indulgence to admit you feel scared and lonely, and wish that things were different. It also doesn’t help than online discourse has become so fraught that people feel policed at every turn: the ‘it’s alright for you!’ brigade are out in full force.

Obviously, I’m not saying be oblivious to your privilege. Yes, plenty of people are a lot worse off than you and other religions have been given much shorter shrift (Eid celebrations were banned at the last minute) and you need to acknowledge that just to be a human being in the world. But you are also allowed to be sad about the things that make you sad, whether that’s the fact the panto got cancelled or you won’t get to see your granny. True, you might need to select your audience to vent to – if need be, you might even need to seek out professional help, or speak to someone like the Samaritans – but pretending you are fine because you feel you don’t have the right to complain is not a healthy coping strategy.

Celebrate – or don’t

You might feel pressure to make this The Best Christmas Ever to make up for a shitty year. But, while obviously families with kids are unlikely to be able to cancel Christmas, for the rest of us, it’s worth considering how much you want to commit to it.

When I lost my mum and was facing my first Christmas feeling very much alone, I read loads of articles about how important it was to celebrate even if I was on my own. Buy nice food, wear decent clothes, make it feel like a proper celebration. Which was a bloody terrible idea – I spent a fortune on food I didn’t even want, and was completely miserable the whole time comparing what seemed like my sham, hollow ‘celebrations’ with what I would be doing if I was at my mum’s house, with my best friend and her kids in tow being rowdy and joyful and opening presents. Since then I’ve done a variety of things, from solo non-Christmases, to low-key ‘orphan’ celebrations with friends who couldn’t get home, to (since I moved back North) full on family blow outs. I won’t be able to see my family this year, so suspect my day will be little more than trashy TV and Baileys. Which sucks, but I can’t really be bothered planning a solo celebration, so might as well have a lazy duvet day instead.

Spend some time figuring out what you think the best plan is for you, and do that to the extent you are able / allowed. Don’t be rigid about it, though, as what you think you want a week before Christmas might not be what you want on the day – if you buy a load of fancy food but wake up on Christmas morning and just want to go back to bed and eat cheese toasties, that’s fine.

Put the tree up now (if you want)

And let other people do what they want to do. If having the decs up early makes you feel better, go for it. Don’t judge other people because you think it’s too early to put up a tree. We need to stop policing other people’s harmless coping measures, whether that’s being obsessed with pumpkin spice or having the Christmas tree up in November. Let people live, for god’s sake.

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Reach out to your friends – even (especially) those who seem to be coping well

I generally have very little time for the whole ‘introverts vs extroverts’ concept, which is overly simplistic and too often framed as ‘poor little introverts struggling in an extrovert world’. But I think the pandemic has made it too easy to think both sides are coping better than they are, for different reasons. You might assume your introvert pal is in hog heaven, indoors all the time and not having to mingle, while they feel chronically isolated and not sure how to reach out to people to connect. Your outgoing friend or the fixer / carer of the group – the one who is always organising the Zoom calls or checking in on people – is likely drained, exhausted and resentful by now, since all their usual recharging strategies (ie being physically around other people) have been denied them.

When you’re lonely or depressed, it can be so hard to reach out to people that you pull away from any contact at all, making the situation worse. Conversely, it can take ridiculously little to make someone feel cared about or noticed – you don’t have to go enormously out of your way to make a friend feel better – a card, a text, messaging a dumb meme you think they’ll like (‘look, here’s a cartoon about Star Wars and I remembered you like Star Wars’ [subtext: because I like you and care about you and remember what sort of things you like – see, you are not invisible and worthless and you do matter to people, even if they are often too busy to remind you of that!])

Bottom line: most people are coping less well than they seem to be, so be as kind as you can.

Don’t Grinch others’ happiness

Because yes, globally, 2020 has been a terrible year, but good things have happened. Among my own small circle, there have been new loves, new jobs, new babies, plenty of career and personal highs. It can feel like an affront to celebrate anything in the face of such relenting gloom, but it’s the most human of needs. Celebrate your own good news and join in celebrating others’. We’ve never needed it more.

Keep an eye on the cash

It can be tempting to go all out on the festivities at the end of a year like this, but you won’t do yourself any favours going into 2021 with a shitload of debt. And so many people have been struggling this year – or are scared for their financial prospects next year – that one of the kindest things we can do is de-escalate the spend. I’ve already agreed with several friends we’re not doing gifts this year, but will save the money for cocktails when we can eventually meet up. Be open with people and set budgets and boundaries – most will probably be grateful. In my experience, often the best present you can give someone is saying, ‘hey, shall we not do gifts this year?’ since it’s pretty much guaranteed that even if the people you know have the money for presents, they are struggling to find the time to buy them (especially in a year when the shops are closed.) Give the gift of not giving, people. It’ll set you free!

If that feels too Scrooge-like, set a reasonable price limit (enough that you can buy something useful, though, not tat: if you are skint there’s nothing more depressing than getting useless gifts that go straight in the bin, as you can’t help yourself from thinking, “I could have done with the money”).

Don’t feel obliged to send everyone you know a Christmas card (the price of stamps! the hassle of writing them! the pile of unsent cards you find on your desk every year – OK, that last one might just be me.) And don’t be offended if you don’t get a lot of cards. Remember that buying and sending them is both a financial and organisational stress that many people might not be able to face this year.

Look where you can give back

While I don’t think it’s productive to say to someone who is lonely or depressed ‘hey, cheer up, there are others worse off than you are’, it can be a welcome distraction to focus on helping other people. There are plenty of charities which need extra assistance in the run up to the festive season: food banks and homeless shelters, in particular, will face extra demand. Many will have limits on in-person activities, but can you chuck a few extra tins in the food bank collection? Donate to a charity?

If you want to do it on a more ad hoc basis, just look around your neighbourhood. Is there an old person whose shopping you could do? Many will feel too vulnerable to go to the shops in person and may not be able to shop online. Can you babysit for a friend so they can do their Christmas shopping (safety measures allowing, obvs)? Feed someone’s pet while they are away? Sometimes, getting out of your own head is the best thing you can do.

You can also incorporate giving back into your normal Christmas activities – buying cards or gifts from indie sellers or local shops, for instance, can make a huge difference to them.

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Ask for help

Most people are genuinely kind – but they are also often so wrapped up in their own lives, especially at such a busy and stressful time in this shitshow of a year, they forget to check in on yours. It can be hard asking for help, especially if you are feeling fragile, when you can be as easily broken by kindness as you can by indifference or cruelty (at my lowest ebb, the thing that most often reduced me to tears was people being nice to me – it felt overwhelming to be able to let my guard down, even temporarily).

Don’t feel you have to go into more detail than you are comfortable with: it can be easier to say ‘hey, I’m at a loose end over the holidays – would you be free for a Zoom or a walk outdoors?’ than to say ‘I’m so lonely I want to weep and I’m scared I might not speak to another human being over Christmas, please help me!’ If you need professional help, there’s no shame in asking. Services like the Samaritans won’t ever judge you for calling.

(It’s worth noting that comedian Sarah Millican is again doing her Twitter campaign #joinin, which she has being doing each Christmas. Basically, people who are lonely at Christmas can tweet using the hashtag and other people will chat to them, or even just send comments of support. It’s a lovely, friendly and supportive thing and can be really useful if you feel like you are the only person without a Hallmark Christmas, so worth checking out if you’re on Twitter.)

Any other ideas? Feel free to add ‘em in the comments!

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