Creative Counselling: Ghosts of Christmas Past
by Marie Bruce
It seems we were only just into November when the Christmas bomb officially exploded, and now it’s all tinsel and twinkle as far as the eye can see. YouTubers have been decking the halls since Halloween and it can feel like you can’t even pop to the shop for a loaf of bread without Slade screaming out a reminder that “…It’s Christmas!“
It’s all so pretty and twinkly and festive, and it’s meant to make you remember how happy, blessed and loved you are. But what if you’re not all that happy? What if you’re feeling a bit alone and lost? What if you’re separated from your family because you’re working away, or are ill, or bereaved? What if Christmas is just a big reminder of everything you don’t have?
Of all the seasons in the year, none carry such a heavy emotional hangover as the festive season. It is a month or more of reminiscing of remembering the people who used to be in your life but who are no longer around for whatever reason; of thinking back to where to you were and what you were doing this time last year and of wondering where you will be this time next year too. It could be that life has changed completely in the past twelve months. Then again, perhaps it hasn’t changed enough for you.
Don’t despair! Christmas is a tough time for a lot of people – not everyone can muster up Tiny Tim’s optimism. For some people, the holidays are just one more trauma to face and fight their way through. As a counsellor I do what I can to support broken hearts and broken lives, knowing that ultimately there is only so much I can do. Christmas makes my job much harder, which is why I stopped wishing some people a Merry Christmas, and started wishing them a Merry Shitmas instead! This can always bring a smile to someone’s face, no matter what they might be going through. It gives them permission to poke a bit of fun at what can ultimately be a very triggering time of year, because we are all surrounded by our own ghosts of Christmas past.
Into everyone’s lifetime, a sprinkling of Shitmasses will have to be endured. It can’t be merry and bright every single year, because life isn’t always like that. Our expectations of Christmas need to be moderated in during the run up to December. Some Shitmasses are to be expected – if you’ve had a death in the family, been made redundant, or have just experienced the end of a relationship, you will already be aware that Christmas might be tough on you this year. However, some Shitmasses take you completely by surprise, blowing up in your face over the festive period and knocking you for six. There is something about this magical time of year that means the truth, no matter how painful it is, tends to come out. This is why applications for divorce soar in January – the Yuletide gods demand celebration, not sham.
Of course, most magazines won’t tell you this. I have lost count of the number of times I have tried to explore this darker side of Christmas in my work, and then had a call from an editor saying “Could you maybe write something a bit more uplifting?”. Uplifting is the name of the game, but I want to write things that are also relevant and helpful to my readers, and I know that not all of you will be looking forward to the festive season every single year. Sometimes, shit just happens – and it really doesn’t care that it’s Christmas. For some people Christmas stinks. Ignoring that fact and expecting us to still ‘make merry’ is unfair, emotionally damaging and can ultimately do more harm than good.
I sincerely wish every one of my readers a very happy Yuletide, but if you do happen to be faced with a Shitmas to endure this year, here are some survival tips to help you get through it with as much grace as possible:
Be honest about how you feel. I’m not saying that you should complain to anyone and everyone, but gently explain that you’re not in the festive spirit and just want to get through it quietly. Real friends should understand. Also, the world will continue to enjoy itself and will still wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year: it’s not meant to be a personal insult to you, so don’t take it as one!
Allow Extra Time
Christmas holds everything up, so if you are in the unfortunate position of having to deal with funeral arrangements or divorce proceedings, accept that nothing much can be done until the world returns to work in January. Funeral directors do still work over Christmas, but it takes a bit longer to arrange and might even cost more. Divorce, doctor and hospital appointments will usually have to wait until January. There’s no point fighting against the tide; you will only exhaust yourself further. Take this extra time as a moment to try and recharge your batteries instead.
Give yourself permission to opt out of anything you think will be too much for you. Turn down party invites, get the groceries delivered online, use up any time owing to have extra days off work, refuse dinner invitations, decide not to send Christmas cards, and so on. Make the adjustments you need. Again, real friends will understand your need to navigate the season in your own way this year. Only participate in the things you genuinely want to do. Don’t feel pressured.
Look after yourself. Have pampering spa nights, eat good food, light scented candles, treat yourself to new pyjamas and slippers, take vitamin supplements to ward off colds and flu, write your thoughts and feelings down in a journal to help process them. This is not just survival for women either: men can also get new products or care items to pamper with, and might find journaling easier than talking to someone about their troubles in person. It’s about taking care of yourself, acknowledging that you’ve been hurt and that you are going through a tough time, and need a little extra TLC. Be tender to yourself, and treat you right!
It’s Your Christmas!
Remember that it is your Christmas, too. No matter how wrong it may feel like it’s gone, it’s still your Christmas and you can do as much or as little of it as you want. Put the tree up, or don’t. Bake mince pies if you want to, or buy them in if you just want to eat them and can’t be bothered to cook. Keep the kids happy, but say ‘no thank you’ to everyone else. Ditch the boring office party in favour of PJs and a glass of wine in front of the telly. Make a turkey dinner, or make beans on toast. It’s your choice. It’s your Christmas – you can do what you like.
Never underestimate the power of opting out of the big day and enjoying yourself quietly at home while the rest of the world has a meltdown. On Christmas Day, have a lovely hot bath, put your PJs on, plate up some festive snacks and go back to bed with a DVD box-set – that’s what I did the year my Nan died on December 21st, and it turned out to be a rather enjoyable day after all.
And remember, it’s just one year: next year your life will have moved on and you might just have the best Christmas yet. Whatever kind of Christmas you have this year, may you be sprinkled with lots of Yuletide blessings! Until next month,
Marie Bruce x
PS. I hope you won’t need the below links but here they are just in case you, or anyone you know, might benefit from them:
For bereavement: www.cruse.org.uk
For general help: www.samaritans.org.uk
For homelessness/evictions: www.crisis.org.uk
For domestic abuse: www.refuge.org.uk
For financial hardship/debt: www.stepchange.org.uk
Find out more:
Marie Bruce Dip. T.C. MBACP is a qualified psychotherapist, Cruse Bereavement Counsellor and best-selling self-help author. She specialises in grief and loss counselling, PTSD and military counselling, and life coaching.
In this monthly column, Marie offers simple tools used by therapists to help clients and readers improve their mental well-being.
Marie’s books and Moon Chants CD are all available on Amazon UK.