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Christmas and False Expectations

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Oh, is this ever a hard time of year. Christmas, the holiday season, Chanukah — whatever name you want to use, this is the time when suicide watches increase, where shrinks keep longer office hours and people sink into dark morasses of depression. Stress levels go through the roof and tempers flare at the slightest provocation.

What’s supposed to be a joyous occasion filled with laughter and delight can so easily become a season of misery. No amount of bright lights, heavenly choirs, eggnog, or dreidels can cure the heartache and upset felt by so many people. What was once a simple mid-year ritual welcoming the return of the sun (sun with a “u”; the “o” came later) has evolved into a mass orgy of consumer-driven madness and sentimental claptrap.

Worst of all is even knowing all of this; knowing there is little or nothing in common with reality about anything we see on television or the movies about this season, we can’t help ourselves with feeling disappointment when it’s not realized.

I’m not talking about the material side of things either, although that can cause problems too. Not the ones you’d think, either. Most of the people I know who suffer disappointment around material items at Christmas do so because they can’t afford to do the things they think they are supposed to do for the people they love.

There’s an image I carry around in my head, that I’ve never been able to shake, from when I was around twenty. It was an early evening in mid-December and I was walking down a main street in Toronto past the display window of a very upscale toy store. I don’t even know if I have the words to describe this well so it may not scan the way it does in my head.

Anyway, as I walked by the window, a little boy ran past me. I got a brief glimpse of his face — eyes wide in excitement, glowing in eagerness. Coming up behind him was a tired man dressed in the uniform of the poor labourer the world over. Cheap dress shoes on his feet and clothes that couldn’t be keeping him warm. He had no more chance of buying his kid anything in that store than I have of being elected Pope.

I almost cried on the damned spot. My mind is too active, and I can’t get that kid’s face out of my head and his father’s sadness out of my heart. It still hurts that we could do that to a person – make them feel inadequate because they can’t buy a fucking toy for their kid. I can’t see anything celebratory about that.

But that’s not the even the worst of it; that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the false expectations of the season. Everywhere you look there’s happy smiling families; Grandma and Grandpa, mom and dad, and kids. Everyone sitting in some Norman Rockwell painting: the myth of the family holiday.

How do you think that makes people who, for whatever the reason, have no family? Or how about those whose family holidays always descend into drunken arguments, tears and recriminations; how’s that image of idealized happiness going to make them feel? Of course then there are the people who have been abused by one parent or another; I’m sure they feel all warm and fuzzy inside when being told how this is a time for families.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are plenty of people who actually get to experience the pleasure of being in the bosom of their family at this time of year, but that’s not going be any different for them from any other time of year. Holidays are not some magical formula that will cause dysfunction or loneliness to disappear. Some of you may be celebrating a miracle at this time of year, but it’s sure not that one.

No matter how hard you try and prepare yourself, no matter how much you convince yourself that’s it’s just another day of the year, spending Christmas day alone must end up being an incredibly lonely experience. After two months of being inundated with images of people full of supposed love and warmth for each other, somewhere inside a person must feel like there is something wrong with them because they are alone.

Somewhere in the last century we turned religious holidays into a mountain of expectations that nothing can hope to fulfill. Every year the same movies play depicting the joys of family Christmas, and bigger and more expensive gifts appear on the market. No one or anything can hope to live up to what is depicted as being some sort of ideal.

Disappointment is the inevitable result for too many people. Alone that would be bad enough, but there is also the fact that these times of year throw whatever problems a person may be experiencing into sharp relief. Nothing like a continual barrage of happy smiling faces to make your own difficulties seem that much worse.

I’m not trying to spoil anybody’s holiday for them by pointing this stuff out; in fact I’m hoping it may help somebody. The best solution to the Christmas blues is to live within your own expectations. I don’t mean expect the worst so you can be pleasantly surprised if something nice happens; just be aware of your situation and limit your expectations to those boundaries.

Commercialism and the cheap manipulative sentiment of Hollywood have generated almost unrealizable expectations around the winter holiday season. For the millions of people across North America that won’t have the warmth of a family hearth, or the wherewithal to participate in the gift giving free for all, these next few weeks can be hell. There’s certainly nothing very festive about the season for them.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Howard

    The solution to your perceived problems of joy at Christmas is to recall what we celebrate. We have allowed the day to be contaminated by those who have no interest in Jesus. No one can find disappointment and blues in the birth of a Savior. Even if you don’t believe in Him, you can revel in the happiness of others who do believe. Ignore the commercialism. Give no gifts other than smiles and huggs and kisses and heart felt “I love you’s.”

  • http://www.volkskrant.com/weblog/pub/blogs/blog.php?uid=1507 Grozdan Popov

    Howard, we who are not so devoted celebrate much more an idea than the actual birth of the Savior. And if you allow me to substitute the words – I buy everything else you say. It is not only encouraging, it is so very true: love, warmth, smile. Your post miraculously transforms the bleakness so truly depicted by our dear Gypsyman. Merry Christmas to you both and to all the crowd of seemingly absent critics.

  • Iloz Zoc

    Hmmm…tough call here. But I’d say that the season is accessible on three levels: one is the belief in the birth of Jesus (whether you believe him to be the son of God or just a person), who taught lots of cool ideas which were ahead of their more barbaric times. Even today, unfortunately.

    Then there is Santa. A non-religious symbol of giving. Just because commercialism has taken over, that doesn’t remove the original concept of helping your fellows beyond the workhouses and prisons. What a grand symbol Santa is, too. His image and backstory were added to by lots of people over the years, and that makes him a cultural treasure that goes beyond religion, commercialism, and even reality. He, like the belief in Jesus’ teachings, transcend our petty issues.

    The third level is actualization. The striving of one’s potential born out of desperation, exasperation, or disenchantment. While this time of year can be quite alarming and depressing for lots of people, it can also be a turning point, a realization that it’s the struggle to achieve your dream, your hope — your goal that appears beyond your reach, or stretches the boundaries of your reality — that really counts.

    While reality is not something you can always “make,” you can always work to shape it to a more acceptable level. I’m not saying you’ll be successful, but it’s the struggle, the will to make it happen that matters most.

    And that’s what the season is all about; whether fanciful, unattainable, or maybe a little reachable, you must believe in something and, at the least, work on making it happen.

    It’s time to put the “WE” back in Christmas and the holiday season. We make things happen or not. Not Jesus or Santa. They just guide us. But we’ve got to do the rest. The season only shows us our own strengths and weaknesses, and reminds us that there’s more to be done, more to strive for, and more to believe in. But it’s up to us: it is always up to us.

    Thanks for reminding me of that.

  • Ronnie

    For me the hardest part about the holidays is balancing expectations and trying to make reasonable accomodations to my family without going crazy. Sounds selfish…