I do wish Christmas wasn’t so awful. I also wish I could drink a bottle of wine and not have a hangover the next day; I wish I could eat brownies for every meal and not get diabetes; I wish I could get a novel published without actually sitting down to write it. Sorry to break it to you, but Christmas – no matter what Hallmark movies and John Lewis ads have led us to believe – is a deeply cruel, elitist, problematic institution that needs to end.
Don’t get me wrong, I like twinkly fairy lights, mince pies and gaudy jumpers just as much as the next person, but the reality of Christmas is that it’s reserved for the most privileged in our society. So are many things of course, such as trips to the Caribbean and buying property and truffle ravioli, but the difference is that we acknowledge the reality of the latter. When it comes to Christmas, we become collectively blind to the fact that the vast majority of people aren’t able to celebrate it in the way we’ve been told we should, and that creates a painful sense of loss, inadequacy and failure.
Christmas is first and foremost about spending money. The average British person will spend £54,000 on Christmas over the course of a lifetime, and last year one in three of us relied on credit cards to pay for it. The pressure to spend is unparalleled: gifts, decorations, food, events, travel… these aren’t considered luxuries at this time of year. Families are shamed and guilt-tripped into it, with hundreds of thousands of people falling into debt in order to create the “perfect Christmas” society has indoctrinated us into believing we need to achieve.
Almost more terrifying than the rampant consumerism is the forced narrative towards family togetherness. You’d be hard-pressed to find a positive depiction of Christmas that doesn’t portray a happy nuclear family sitting around a dinner table. This must create a lovely sense of smug conformity for those who can achieve it, but it’s to the detriment of the mental health of everyone who doesn’t have this privilege.
It’s not a small minority that will face a Christmas Day so vastly different to what we’ve been taught to expect. The two million single parents, almost half of whom live in poverty, the people working in the service industry who have to work on Christmas Day, when there is no transportation available for them to travel home, people whose families are Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist and do not celebrate a holiday rooted in organised Christianity, the 3.5 million people who are homeless, including the 24 per cent of young homeless people who identify as LGBTQ.
Homeless Christmas shelters stop recruiting volunteers in July because there’s such high demand from people displaced at this time of year, hoping to do something meaningful in the face of the inevitable disappointment at spending 25 December alone.
I have spent Christmas alone, I’ve spent it volunteering at homeless shelters and I’ve spent it working. I spent a Christmas eating baked Camembert on the floor of my best friend’s shared house in Cape Town, grateful to have each other but still bittersweet in the knowledge that there were no gifts under a tree or roast turkey with extended family. I’ve been taken in by another friend’s parents, whose kindness knew no bounds, and who treated me like a member of their family. Last year I spent Christmas in my dad’s flat, the two of us getting drunk and watching a three-part documentary about the death of JonBenét Ramsey.
When I was a child I spent Christmases with my mum – a reluctant host, to say the least – and stepfather. Despite their kindest intentions, my recollections of these times are a blur of complicated family dynamics involving three different languages and clashing traditions that no one really cared about but couldn’t bring themselves to let go of attempting.
Despite my incredible privilege of having family and friends to spend it with, I have never gone to bed at the end of a Christmas day feeling anything but exhaustion, anxiety and a deep sense of emptiness, mixed with the frustration of knowing that social conditioning has pushed me into a pit of negativity that could so easily have been avoided.
Christmas may have become a secular institution, more a celebration of consumerism than spirituality, but we can’t fully rip it from its roots. As someone who abhors organised religions and everything they stand for – judgement, suppression of critical thought, promotion of reactionary and arbitrary “values” – I cannot bring myself to buy into one of the last bastions of church indoctrination that we still blindly indulge.
I am not suggesting we don’t allow people to celebrate the holiday if they so wish, but as a society we need to reframe our attitude towards Christmas. No other day of the year is steeped in such high and mostly unattainable expectations. Most of us are either forced to take the day off work even if we have nothing else to do, or forced to work while feeling guilty about not being with our family. The entire country shuts down and for some reason it’s considered not just acceptable, but obligatory, to express cheer and glee.
Think, for just one moment, what our manic obsession with Christmas does to a person with depression, a person who has been shunned by their family or who has none to speak of. Think of how it must feel to struggle to put food on the table every other day of the year, yet feel pressured into providing a feast in order to be a good parent. Imagine Christmas when you’re homeless or simply far from home, or when you know you’ll receive no gifts or cards or texts, and will be sitting on your bed wondering why you feel so dislodged from the rest of the world.
It is a cruel paradigm we have created, which benefits the wealthiest and pressures us into conformity. It’s one of the biggest frauds of our time – the idea that Christmas is about kindness, when it serves only to further beat down the most disadvantaged among us.
If we really want to embrace the Christmas spirit we’re told about, one focussed on generosity and love, we must do so by treating 25 December like any other day. One where those who have a family they wish to spend it with can do so, and those who do not are not forced to the fringes of society. If we want to be inclusive and honest about the very real injustice and complexity of the world we live in, we must put an end to the cult of Christmas once and for all.