George Michael is giving his heart to someone special while Mariah trills at the top of her voice from every shop you pass. Apparently ‘it’s the most wonderful time of the year’ and we’re all ‘walking in a winter wonderland’.
But what if the way you feel about Christmas doesn’t fit with the romanticized image the Christmas songs conjure up? What if the prospect of parties, having to be super-sociable and wear a constant smile, feeling obliged to drink more than usual (Bailey’s anyone?) and stuff yourself with mince pies fills you with dread rather than joy? If every day is a struggle to make ends meet, how do you handle the pressure to buy gifts for family and friends – let alone to make your kids’ Christmas feel like the picture-perfect ones they see on TV? And what if the images everywhere of happy families only reminds you of the ways your own family is far from perfect?
What if the way you feel about Christmas doesn't fit with the romanticized image the Christmas songs conjure up?
Let's face it, the festive season can be complicated
For many of the women who come to Working Chance, the festive season is complicated and throws up a range of emotions and memories. We work with women who have been involved with the justice system, and while it’s unhelpful to generalise about people who receive a conviction, there is overwhelming evidence that most of these women have experienced trauma way before the events that led them into the justice system. Emotional abuse, neglect and violence have been a feature of the childhoods of many of our clients. Over half of women in prison have experienced childhood sexual abuse and then later, domestic abuse from a partner. Struggles with mental health and addiction are likely (and perhaps unsurprisingly) to have featured in their life. The shame and social stigma that comes with a conviction can compound existing trauma, and for women who serve a prison sentence, being deprived of liberty and isolated from people you love takes a heavy emotional toll – as well as the risk of losing your children (to the care system), your home and your job.
It's hardly surprising then that for those who have experienced trauma over the years, both before and as a result of receiving a conviction, intrusive thoughts and anxiety may be prevalent at this time of year. For those living with PTSD, as many of the women we work with are, it can be particularly difficult. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression related to shorter days and less daylight (which it’s believed may trigger a chemical change in the brain), can also contribute to feelings of sadness during the winter months.
Women often have a lot on their plate... and we're not talking mince pies
For people who have experienced addiction problems, or for anyone who chooses not to drink alcohol for whatever reason, the pressure and temptation over the holidays can be hard to manage. It’s vital that we are all sensitive to this and respect other’s choices, without prying as to the reasons.
Some people will be separated from their families or loved ones during the holiday season. This can be particularly difficult for individuals who live far away from their families, or who are estranged. It can be a difficult time for the LGBTQ+ community in particular because it can be a brutal reminder for those who are not accepted by members of their family, bringing up painful memories of Christmases past.
For people who have lost loved ones, the holiday season – with its emphasis on happy families - is likely to serve as a painful reminder of their absence. Grieving during a time that most people associate with parties and pleasure can make the holidays especially challenging.
And of course plenty of people don’t celebrate Christmas because it’s not part of their religion or culture, which means that the inescapable fuss about Christmas (and the all too common assumption that everyone shares the same traditions) can make them feel left out and isolated.
Lonely this Christmas? You're not alone
When other people are surrounded by friends and family and have busy social schedules, for people who are alone or who feel lonely, a sense of isolation can be particularly heightened. If you’re going to be alone over the festive period, it can help to plan activities and your days ahead of time. You could use the time to do something you enjoy by yourself, whether it’s being out in nature, starting new hobbies or connecting with others with similar interests online.
You could use the time to do something you enjoy by yourself, whether it’s being out in nature, starting new hobbies or connecting with others with similar interests online.
Alternatively, there are plenty of charities that depend on volunteers at Christmas time and would love to hear from you. If you’re going to be alone (or want an excuse to get away from your family) and would like to do something meaningful and rewarding, volunteering can be a great option. Research has found that volunteering reduces stress and increases positive, relaxed feelings by releasing dopamine, a neuro-transmitter in the brain that makes us feel happy. Through helping others, volunteers gain a sense of meaning and appreciation, with the added benefit that reduced stress lowers the risk of some physical and mental health problems. What’s more, volunteering gets you out and about and provides a change of scenery that can lift your spirits. It’s a great way to make new friends and to build a support system based on shared interests with others.
The most important thing to remember though is that if you’re experiencing loneliness or depression, be kind to yourself, take one day at a time, and hold on to the knowledge that this feeling is temporary.
Be kind to yourself, take one day at a time, and hold on to the knowledge that this feeling is temporary.
There is every chance that things will change and that better times lie ahead. Plus there’s plenty of help out there (there's loads of links below) and lots of support groups where you can connect with people with similar experiences.
Money worries at Christmas time
If financial worries loom large for you over the holidays, it’s a good idea to create a budget for buying presents, decorations, food (and for going out if you can afford it) and then track your spending. You could agree with friends and family to limit the cost or numbers of gifts, or do a Secret Santa with a set limit. With the cost of living hitting hard, recent research found that half of UK adults are reducing their spending this year by an average of £280 each, so you’re not alone. There’s no shame in buying secondhand gifts, for example from charity shops – plus it’s more sustainable and goes to a good cause.
Lastly, some people who work in essential services like healthcare, social care or emergency services may be required to work during the holiday season, so theirs will be a very different experience. We should all be sensitive to those who don’t have the opportunity like many of us to switch off and wind down at this time of year.
No such thing as the ‘perfect Christmas’
Ultimately, the message is that we all need to be mindful of the diverse experiences people have during the holidays and to approach the season with empathy, kindness and understanding. If we hold in mind that not everyone shares the same positive associations with Christmas, and indeed that it may not be a festival they celebrate, we can help to make it a better time for everyone.
Happy holidays to all our clients past and present, to all our supporters and to everyone who believes that your past does not have to dictate your future.