With Christmas nearly upon us, Sarah Lang isn’t feeling as festive as normal – and she’s not the only one. She takes a look at the many factors affecting our Christmas spirit this December, and gets expert advice on how to find joy – and feel helpful – where we can.
I don’t know about you, but with just a week left until Christmas, I’m finding it hard to get into the festive spirit. Usually by this point I’d be singing along to Christmas songs (apart from Mariah Carey’s – my sister playing her songs on repeat one Christmas put me off them forever).
I usually put my tree up on December 1, more excited about it than my nine-year-old is, and spend an hour making sure the decorations are spaced perfectly. I put up an advent calendar and open one of its little doors every morning. I make fruit-mince pies and give them away in little packets wrapped up in cellophane. But you know what? I don’t particularly feel like doing any of that this year.
In fact, I almost feel like skipping Christmas altogether, which is very unusual for me as I’m usually that person at Christmas who is so into it. I love a big family celebration (I have three siblings so there’s at least 12 of us including my nieces and nephews). I’m obsessed with doing all the Christmas things, and in the correct order on the day! Watching the kids opening their stockings. Having pancakes Christmas morning. Opening general presents. Helping make a big Christmas lunch. Yanking on some Christmas crackers. But thinking about all that isn’t making me feel as joyous as usual.
‘What right do I have to celebrate such an occasion when others are experiencing such suffering?’
So why am I finding it so hard to get into the Christmas spirit this year? I don’t think it’s because getting ready to go away feels tiring in advance, or because my IBS plays up at this time of year (that’s the price us IBS-ers pay at Christmas, amiright?).
I think it’s because I feel kind of guilty about the prospect of enjoying Christmas this year. What right do I have to celebrate such an occasion when others are experiencing such suffering?
The situations in Gaza and Ukraine are horrific, with so many people not just unable to celebrate Christmas Day but having to spend that day trying to stay alive. As a privileged middle-class white New Zealander, I almost feel as if I’m ignoring the suffering of those people when blithely downing Christmas pudding and eggnog.
While international affairs are the most sobering, it’s also been saddening, disappointing and a kick in the guts to witness what’s been going on in New Zealand politics. How can I feel celebratory when the coalition government is reversing progress on the recognition of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, on the use of te reo, on fair-pay agreements, on consent education in schools, and on climate change?
It seems so wrong that such backwards steps are being taken in a democratic country often praised for its social conscience, decency and world-leading political reform, from the suffragettes to, well, the smokefree legislation that’s been dumped. As someone told me when these measures were announced, ‘gah, we’re going to have to go to so many protests’.
Many people I’ve talked to feel they can’t get into the festive spirit for similar reasons to mine. A psychologist I know feels this way. “The world feels pretty ugly at the moment and Christmas feels frivolous or inappropriate or something,” she says. “Lots of my clients are feeling like this too.” One woman says that “even my truck driver father-in-law from rural Australia is outraged at the state of New Zealand politics”.
Hannah Lee May, a retail assistant from Auckland, says the political situation “has affected my rage levels. I’m so mad. But screw them. We will persist. It makes me more determined to give this Christmas. Baking more cookies for our local pātaka than ever. Making sure all the staff at our school know how much I appreciate their mahi.”
When I contacted Dr Denise Quinlan, co-founder and director of the New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing and Resilience, about commenting for this story, she was – jinx – just posting the following on social media. “Finding it hard to get into the festive spirit? Feeling a bit hoha (fed up) because of the state of the world or the mountain of expectations that seems to arise around this time? I’ve found myself feeling uber-grinch lately and colleagues and friends have said they are too.”
‘There’s a lot of suffering in the world right now. Don’t add to it. Appreciate the good in your life and practice savouring it.’
“There’s a lot of suffering in the world right now. Don’t add to it. Appreciate the good in your life and practice savouring it. That can look like basking in the sunlight, hugging someone you love or telling them what you love about it. It can also be the bittersweet appreciation that life isn’t like this everywhere else.”
Practical Advice on How To Handle This Festive Season
Denise shares her tips here:
- Slow down and pay attention to whatever you’re feeling. Sadness, worry, lack of hope, anger, overload? Recognise it, accept it, investigate it, and nurture your self-compassion.
- Knowing what matters to you in general and about the holiday season is helpful. Choose what you want to do and practice saying No to as many of the other [requests] as you possibly can.
- Lower the bar – you don’t have to do everything. And every holiday doesn’t have to be picture perfect. Your family and friends will [likely] thank you for lowering expectations.
- Align your festive celebrations with your values. Donate to charities who need your support. You could choose greeting cards and decorations in te reo Māori to express your support for our bi-cultural country.
- #htgs (#huntthegoodstuff). What do you appreciate about you and your situation right now? Who’s had a positive impact on you this year? How would you like to let them know?
Some suggestions from me (Sarah):
- Even if you’re not in the mood initially, putting up and decorating a Christmas tree, bringing out advent calendars or ornaments, making fruit-mince pies, watching a Christmas movie, or listening to Christmas songs will make you feel more Christmassy.
- You might decide to have a Christmas celebration that is simple, short, pared-back or-low key. There’s no need to make trifle, Christmas pudding or pavlova let alone all three. Maybe an outdoor picnic would suffice?
- Don’t feel pressured to go along with other people’s (such as your parent’s or parent-in-law’s) expectations of how you should celebrate Christmas Day. Just explain how you’re feeling, what you’d like to do, or if this becomes an issue for everyone, perhaps meet halfway.
- Maybe you or your family members could, rather than buying presents for the adults among you, agree to instead make donations to a charity (if you’re lucky enough to have the funds to do so) or donate food, clothes, and presents. Check out the LIFE Community Christmas Box initiative, The Christmas Joy Store, and My Christmas Gift through My Food Bag.
- Remind yourself that Christmas is about love, gratitude, and family, not about making three types of desserts (though that’s fine if that’s what you love!).
- And if you don’t want to celebrate Christmas at all, that’s totally fair and nothing to feel guilty about. Christmas isn’t compulsory. You have agency!
So here’s my plan. I’ll be purchasing a gift through one of my Facebook group’s Secret Santa initiatives (you can give without receiving and vice versa). I’ll make a donation to Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). I’ll bake fruit-mince pies with my son to give to his teachers and our neighbours, braving the inevitable faff of wrapping them in cellophane. And my son and I will sort and give away the toys, books, and games he no longer uses. So maybe, by December 25, I’ll be feeling a little more festive!