There is an urban legend that there is a spike in suicides and depression at Christmas time. Preliminary research, (me googling for five minutes) seems to indicate that this may not be statistically true. But welfare agencies will tell you that Christmas causes genuine distress for large sections of the population, particularly the lonely. I am not lonely or disadvantaged, but I do seem to suffer from Christougenniatikophobia, fear of Christmas. Here is my analysis of where it may have come from, and a few tips that I follow to get through what is known generally as the festive season, but for me is a time when I would like to go to a luxury resort and drink strong liquor until it’s over.
My earliest Christmas memories are of putting the tree up, not with my parents, but with Kevin. My oldest cousin was always the first to put the tree up. Among the siblings and cousins who shared our housing commission house in the early 70’s, I was the youngest, so he found it easy to rope me in. Even when he didn’t’ live with us anymore, he would visit regularly enough to insist the tree went up early and well.
I remember the smell of tinsel, painted wooden decorations and smooth dusty cotton-covered baubles. Most of all I remember the infectious joy of Kevin’s enthusiasm for the glittery rituals of the season. His anticipation of the day, the shopping, the wrapping, the boozy Christmas eve party. And year after year the big event that our parents managed to cock up in ways that I can barely stand to recall. Not just because of the drinking, the screaming, the reliable scenes of horror, but the painful ongoing collision of reality with the hopeful Christmas mythology.
Yet every year Kevin would drag that horrid tree down from its place above my parents’ wardrobe, excitedly placing the lights, the tinsel and the old decorations up, while regaling me with scenarios of the joyous event. I can’t talk about the morning we got the call to say that Kevin had died, not as I sit here looking at the Christmas tree. All I will say is that it was two days after my seventeenth birthday and four days after his 25th birthday. We never had another family Christmas. We tried some years, there were scatterings of us gathered in back yards, mum sometimes made a rice salad. As the years passed, I have recovered from most of my childhood hang-ups, but whenever December 1st rolls around, I experience the same involuntary symptoms of panic, sorrow, and dread. Although they are not as bad as they were.
When I had my own family, I made every effort to make Christmas the magical time it should be. As a Christian, I injected the event with the meaning of new life, the “thrill of hope”. I wanted so desperately to feel it for my daughters. I bought expensive presents and much more tasteful decorations than those of my childhood. But every year, I still put the tree up with wilful determination, rather than joyful anticipation.
Bizarrely, my brother David seemed to have drawn a different set of Christmas lessons from our childhood. The fact that two siblings can be produced in the same factory and recall from different sets of memory banks, is one of the enduring mysteries of life. Every year he decorates his house, inside and out with what normal people would consider, excessive enthusiasm, especially for a six-foot-five bogan mechanic.
One year I went to visit Dave’s house before Christmas and remarked on the gay apparel with a barely concealed scowl. Looking at his tree with pride he said, “remember how much Kevin loved Christmas?”. As if, by chance I may have forgotten. “Dave, don’t you remember that every Christmas of our entire childhood was a disaster?” He let out a hearty laugh and said, “remember that year when Aunty Carol was living in Victoria? We drove all the way there for Christmas, and mum and Aunty Carol had a fight, and Aunty Carol threw us all out on Christmas eve?”.
I recalled a rushed retreat, piling up the station wagon with cases and presents, a hurried tearful goodbye, a dingy motel, and a very long hot drive 1500 km back to Queensland. All I didn’t want for Christmas was the feeling of cracked vinyl under my sweaty legs, while sitting between my chain-smoking parents on the front bench seat of a Kingswood. Our mother was furious and called her sister every “f” and “c” along the hot tense drive. The car broke down. Mum said she was going to “fucking walk all the way back to Brisbane”. Then, in a dramatic performance, she placed her thumb out beside the freeway as if she was going to hitch-hike. “Yes David, I remember”, I answered. Him laughing, me shaking my head and looking at him sideways. “Ahh they tried”, he said with affable forgiveness.
Dave wasn’t faking it, He had the same joy that Kevin did, right here in his heart. I had no idea why he had it and I didn’t. I faked it convincing enough for the kids, but I resented every bit of cheap sparkle. The only part I loved, and still love are the carols. It’s not like I didn’t try to “get over it”, as my husband has so often encouraged me.
One day, a few years ago, I was walking through David Jones in late October, I turned the corner to where Men’s accessories should be, and it was wall-to-wall Christmas carnage. I was furious. and let out an involuntary “OHH IT’S BLOODY OCTOBER PEOPLE!”. As I walked through the despised tinsel and mass-produced chattels, I caught the imposter as it implanted itself in my heart. It was so familiar that I am surprised I hadn’t recognised it before. It wasn’t trauma, it wasn’t anger, it wasn’t resentment, it was just grief. Plain old ordinary boring grief. A grief that I didn’t have time to suffer as a young person, was making its annual pilgrimage to me, with the presence of baubles, stars, angels and bells of holly. I don’t know why my brother had found it appropriate to take on the joy and I had taken on the grief.
I’m afraid I cannot testify that I am healed from my grinchy Christmas recoil. I have come to accept that some psychological phenomena are all but impossible to cure. I am lucky really, to have reached middle age without more serious issues. Maybe, like the thorn in St Pauls side, God has allowed this problem to stay with me for some greater purpose.
I figured I wasn’t the only person who had an unwanted guest that comes every December, so I’ve learned to live with it. Here is a list of things I do to get through the festive season.
- I do what I’m told – My husband was brought up in a Muslim family, but apparently, he is the worlds leading expert on what needs to be done at Christmas time. So, I put the tree up and place the decorations carefully when I am instructed to do so. I was trained in tree trimming by a gay man, so I can’t bear to see it done badly. The children tell me what to buy for them, so I do that, and I cook and perform the tasks necessary as part of the ritual.
- I travel – I have spent Christmas in many of the great cities, at camping sights, with friends. I don’t run away every year, but every three or four years I usually plan a trip.
- I make fun of myself – this year, my husband made me pick out a Santa hat, so I chose a black one with “Bah Humbug” on it. I am known as the Grinch among my friends, I wear the identity with pride.
- I enjoy the parts I like – I go to carols, I play carols, I sing carols. Also, there is drinking involved with Christmas, so I do that, and of course, I cook, and I eat.
- I take the tree down as soon as I can. Boxing day is named such for a reason, bring the boxes out and pack it up kids.
- I say a prayer (and make a donation) for the kids whose little hearts are crushed, to those whose parents are not able to live up to expectations, and of course for those who don’t know what Christmas is (like the song says).
Merry Christmas. xxx