How the Past can Make or Break our Christmas Celebrations
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Celia Cooper
8th December, 2012
Christmas can be a time when powerful memories of childhood are evoked, intensifying feelings that can either make or break the festivities.
Whilst acknowledging that there are many people who love
Christmas, and for whom it is a very happy occasion, there are also those for whom Christmas can be a sad and lonely time. Those reading this article who come from other traditions, and do not celebrate Christmas, may recognise parallels in their own experience that, nevertheless, make this article relevant.
Christmas is a time of nostalgia. For those who have been fortunate, the Christmases of childhood are remembered as a time of joy, which was looked forward to with anticipation and excitement. There was the magic of the tree, the tinsel and fairy lights, the gifts, and the big family meal, complete with paper hats and crackers. They remember hanging up their stocking on Christmas Eve, leaving a glass of sherry for Santa and a carrot for the reindeer, and waking next day in great excitement, to a bulging stocking. The smell of pine needles and tangerines, candle-wax, warm mince pies and mulled wine can readily awaken these memories, as can the sound of carols, Christmas songs and bells. Memories, for them, are filled with happy people, love and laughter.
There are also those whose early memories of Christmas are not filled with magic and delight. They may remember terrifying parental rows, or the loneliness of not being with parents at all. It may have been a time of helplessness, when it was better to hide, or stay in their room. These early memories may cloud what could now be much happier times. For them, there is a huge hope and longing for things to be different, but often the past rears its head and spoils things. Their fantasy is that now they can somehow make up for all the disappointments and sadness of those early years, and that Christmas will be wonderful. The potential for problems to arise is ever present. Partners may be unjustly blamed for not making up for the past, or for not caring enough. 'They just don't understand'. The day is no longer the perfect one of their dreams, but becomes yet one more occasion for anger, disappointment and disillusionment. The day is ruined.
How will Christmas be this year? Are we looking for an idealised version of the past that we remember, or the one we longed for but never had? The reality may be very different, unless we become aware. The higher our hopes, the more easily they may be dashed. It can be a lonely day for those who are separated or divorced, perhaps with children visiting the ex. Instead of a day of celebration and togetherness it may be a day when, above all others, they feel left out and abandoned. For those who are bereaved it may be a day of sadness and a keen sense of loss. Bitterness and anger may also spoil the day. Family arguments and rows may sabotage the festivities, which were supposed to be so perfect. One tactless remark, and all the hard work, effort and planning feels pointless. Fury and recriminations replace peace and good will.
Can we remain grounded in reality, as well as having dreams and hopes? Can we (paraphrasing Winnicott), have a 'good enough' Christmas, without expecting too much of ourselves or demanding too much of others, in order to make the festivities enjoyable? If we are unable to answer 'yes', it might help to speak to someone outside the family, who is not involved, wont take sides and who can help us to explore the causes of so much distress. This would take place in a safe, confidential environment, where things could be thought about and understood in a new way. Talking to a counsellor could be a first step to making future Christmases the happy occasions they have the potential to be.
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