The approach of Christmas takes me back to feeling like I am at primary school and we have been told that Folk Dancing is today’s special activity. Oh how I hated Folk Dancing. Folk Dancing came into the category of ‘enforced fun’, you were supposed to be having fun, except you were not remotely having fun, which made it all the worse. Folk Dancing involved the boys choosing girls for partners, a ridiculous pressure to put on children of that age when sex isn’t hormonally in the picture. Not to mention that, in a society where male dominance is no longer assumed (for the most part!) and varied relationships are possible, why should boys and girls have been paired up and why should the boys have been the ones to choose partners?
In the selection process for Folk Dancing, there were two awful possibilities. There was the possibility of being last, or nearly last to be chosen. There was also the possibility of being chosen by a dweeb. The two awful possibilities generally came to pass in tandem, as the pecking order in the boys meant that the less dweeby boys chose partners first. For some odd reason, I was also particularly sensitive to the shoes that people wore. Perhaps this was because shoes were the only parts of school uniforms that one could independently select and therefore were a measure of fashion consciousness. So the hattrick horror was being chosen last, by a dweeb, who wore dumb shoes, and with whom one was then in close proximity for the rest of the miserable afternoon.
Now why should I emotionally equate Folk Dancing and Christmas? If one evinces negative attitudes towards Christmas one tends to be called a Grinch. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be too much room to manoeuvre on the Christmas front – one is either seen as pro-Christmas, or against it. When people express reservations, they are classed into the Grinch camp, generally without investigation as to what lies behind their feelings. For me, Christmas lost its gloss to some degree when my grandfather pretended to have a heart attack on my 16th Christmas, to focus the attention on him and prevent my grandmother enjoying Christmas with the family. Clearly my grandfather was not a well person at the time, however that wasn’t so clear to a teenager and that Christmas became a mental sticking point. What I did enjoy about the day, however, was that I chose to cycle up Dyers Road in Christchurch to the Sign of the Kiwi, overlooking Lyttelton Harbour. That cemented in what remains my favourite Christmas activity to this day, which is going for a bike ride.
Christmas took a further downward step when I became part of a blended family, with the attendant stresses for all Christmas participants. So many expectations, so impossible to fulfil them all. Christmas for blended families can become a competition, both in terms of access to the young people and in terms of the present giving for those young people, which then turns into an obscene celebration of consumerism. For me, Christmas definitely became something to be avoided if possible, rather than celebrated. A multi day cycling trip became my prime choice as an avoidance tactic.
When people express negativity around Christmas, what I now try to ask is something like what it is about Christmas that makes them feel that way. There are so many possibilities – people whose loved ones recently died, people who can’t afford to celebrate Christmas in the way they want to, or their family expects them to, blended families in which some people will be the losers and some children the precious objects to be fought over. Sometimes I wonder whether the Christmas celebrations create more harm than good.
In this Christmas of COVID-year, the stressors have multiplied further. It is no longer a given that one can fly to see family for Christmas, from wherever in the world one happens to be. In many countries, or parts of countries, celebrating with large numbers of people is not allowed. In places where people are free to celebrate, they still may be significantly inhibited by fears of spreading illness within the family – nothing like a family Christmas to spread COVID through the generations! In New Zealand we have the happy freedom to celebrate Christmas with little fear of COVID infection. However, we also have the spectre of further lockdowns suddenly stamping our celebrations out, given the numbers of people who are coming into the country and all the other festive season reasons that managed isolation might not be managed quite as tightly as it should be.
Looked at rationally, one would think that I (or anyone else) should be able to ‘get over’ their negative Christmas emotions and just make the most of the festive season. I should hark back to my enjoyable Christmases as a small child, surrounded by family and excited about presents and Christmas trees. However, there is plenty of evidence that negative stimuli affect us far more than positive stimuli. It is theorised that an overweighted response to negative stimuli is a basic evolutionary trait that results in survival – it is more important to feel concerned about the approaching sabre tooth tiger than to feel happy about the warm fire in front of which one is standing. Another hypothesis is that negative stimuli carry greater informational value than positive stimuli, therefore occupy more of the brain’s processing power, and occupy it for longer. Therefore, it would seem the science says that, feeling negative about Christmas doesn’t make one a Grinch, it just means one is a human, what a relief!