December 25, 2016

Always Winter but Never Christmas.

Dad got mad when we weren’t cooperating for our family Xmas photo

“I’m driving home for Christmas, yeah,
Get my feet on holy ground,
So I sing for you,
Though you can’t hear me,
When I get through
And feel you near me
Driving in my car
Driving home for Christmas
Driving home for Christmas
With a thousand memories”

~ Chris Rea, “Driving Home for Christmas”


I wonder what happened at the end of this chap’s long drive.

Was he reunited with his beautiful partner? Did they spend a magical two weeks in festive bliss? Or was she fed up that he’d been away for the last month while she had take care of the kids, shopping, cooking and Christmas preparations?

Did his home remain “holy ground” for the duration of his holiday, or did he over indulge in Baileys, Sour Cream Pringles and Quality Street and get cabin fever?

Love or hate the Chris Rea song, you’ve got to admit that for most of us Christmas is a highly emotive time filled with memories and expectations which are generally impossible to live up to.

What I want to communicate is the importance of letting go of the stories we tell ourselves about what Christmas “should” be like.

I look into where our stories and expectations for Christmas come from and why these can cause us disappointment and pain. I share how I’ve learned to let go of these expectations and how this has changed my experience of the season radically.

Happy Christmas Memories

As a child, my parent’s religious beliefs meant that our Christmas celebration was actually on New Year’s Day. We didn’t have a Christmas tree or decorations and I don’t remember this bothering me, beyond the slight embarrassment of having to explain it to friends.

We’d put Dad’s socks up by the mantelpiece on New Year’s Eve. New Year’s morning was the most exciting morning of the year. My even more excited sister Jo was always up first; she’d run back into our shared bedroom and update us on the contents of our stockings!

Presents were exchanged and much feasting was to be had on New Years day. We’d have a three course meal at my granny’s in her old farm house up the road. My granny, aunt and mum pretty much invented the bake off with their attempts to “out pudding” each other. Lots of my older cousins were there and we loved playing chase and hide and seek, running up one set of stairs and down the other.

I don’t remember having massive expectations of the Christmas season but I’ve lots of happy memories.

New Expectations and Disappointments

Then at some point, I lost my childish naivety and started having expectations about what Christmas “should” be like. Or more specifically what I wanted it to feel like.

I wanted to feel special, magical, to know I loved and was loved. I wanted us as a family to communicate well and I didn’t want to have large moments of boredom. Our family Christmas’ couldn’t live up to these expectations as much as everyone tried.

If I was in a relationship, I’d have high expectations of my partner—I’d want things to be perfect between us. Yet a special day was never going to fix a compatibility issue.

If I was single, I’d pine for a partner and a family of my own. I’d feel inadequate and wonder what was wrong with me. I’d look at all my friends on Facebook sharing pictures of their happy family, or “baby’s first Christmas.” All of a sudden my life seemed pretty sad, lonely and well…pretty rubbish.

Christmas came with high expectations—expectations that were met with equally high levels of disappointment.

Why did I have such high expectations?


My expectations pre-date Facebook but seeing as I’ve mentioned it I might as well start here.

Facebook is such a mixed blessing for me—it’s amazing for my business and for keeping up with friends who don’t live near me. It’s a nightmare in terms of comparing myself to others. Especially when others only share the show reel of their life highlights.

Christmas time can be especially bad for this:

“Look at us looking radiant as we eat our perfect meal”

“Look at the little darlings opening their presents”

What we don’t know is that it took about 15 selfies to get that perfect picture and that the kids are probably driving their parents to distraction.

When I have icky feelings from Facebook, I try and limit my time on it. I consciously remind myself that “comparison is the death of all joy” and “don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.”

The Season and Our Cultural Psyche

Christmas expectations are drip-fed to us through adverts, TV, radio, music and our work places. Even a trip to the shops! There’s an expectation that something special is about to happen. Something we should all be looking forward to.

Me in in the supermarket last Friday:

Cashier: Have you finished your Christmas shopping yet?
Me: No. I haven’t started but I’ll do it online tonight.
Cashier: What? You can’t, it won’t come in time. (Look of genuine horror!)

My close friend, who’s a single mum, shared how she feels guilty because she can’t cook a Christmas dinner with a huge turkey roast as the centre piece of the table like they show on the adverts. She lives in a small flat and there’s no room for the basics, let alone a 15-pound turkey in the middle of the table.

Hollywood Christmas happily Ever Afters Don’t Help

When it comes to our modern day expectations of romantic love, dear old Hollywood has a lot to answer for—and even more so when it comes to the idea of Christmas and love.

Maybe I should go on holiday and hope that Jack Black will come and visit me? Or pay more attention to the single father or hot widower living down the street who looks just like Jude Law?

Maybe I should stand outside the door of my unrequited love’s house and play him a tape of children singing Christmas carols. Hold up signs with a “romantic” speech written on them. Don’t say an actual word and hope that Kiera Knightley doesn’t make an appearance!

Geek fact: “Happy-endingification” began in the 1930s in response to a time of grinding poverty and uncertainty about the future. Those funding film on both sides of the Atlantic decided that audiences wanted a good dose of escapist fun.

Eighty-six years later, many of us still want a good dose of escapist fun and the film industry know this is a recipe that sells—especially at Christmas. There’s nothing wrong with this, as long as we know it’s just that. Real life will always seem a huge let down if we compare it to the big screen!

At some level, as ashamed as I am to admit it, I know that the Hollywood happy endings were part of a false narrative that I was telling myself about Christmas.

Why Humans Suffer

In my life coaching studies, I’ve become fascinated with human suffering. I know this sounds dark and weird but bear with me!

I passionately believe that much of our suffering comes not from circumstances or events, but from the stories we tell ourselves about what these mean. This was the theme of my TED Talk a few months ago.

We are the only creature to commit suicide. Why is this?

Because we are the only creature that can create abstract stories about a past or a future that doesn’t exist. Story and language are hugely influential in shaping our thoughts and world view. Suicide is an effort to avoid future suffering.

One of the approaches I study, ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), is based on the assumption that suffering is a normal and unavoidable part of human experience. Furthermore, it assumes that it is actually people’s attempts to control or avoid their own painful experiences that leads to much long-term suffering.

I am working on myself, and in the future I hope to help others to learn ways to let go of the struggle with pain, to be more mindful, to get clarity on what really matters, and to commit to living a full, vibrant life.

It’s not about eliminating certain parts of one’s experience of life, but rather it’s about learning how to experience life more fully, without as much struggle, and with vitality and commitment.

Practicing this for me means that I accept that my life and my Christmas isn’t going to be perfect. It means at times I may struggle with being single and not being a parent—and in the future I will lose family and friends who I love very much. It also means I realise how much I already have, who I have and how precious this gift of life is.

It’s a Wrap

I entitled this post “Always winter but never Christmas” which you may recognise from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. I feel that for some years, this title reflected my experience of Christmas due to the stories I was telling myself about what Christmas “should” be like.

At the moment, my 25th of December 2016 looks like it will involve:

>> A run or the gym with my younger sister.
>> Serving food and washing dishes at homeless people’s Christmas lunch.
>> Dinner with my older sister and her partner’s family.
>> Hiding away in bed with a new novel I’ve been saving!

This might not be your idea of a good Christmas but that’s okay because it’s just my story and it sounds kind of perfect to me!

What will a Christmas that’s perfect for you look like? Your story will be different but, like me, you may face some struggle this Christmas. The struggle may be about someone’s absence or presence. Let’s invite our grief as well as our fun selves. Many of us will feel the absence of a loved one as strongly as we felt their presence in years past. It hurts. It’s hard. It’s real. There’s something important and beautiful about acknowledging and embracing both the joy and the struggle that this season brings.

If we can lose the cultural expectations of Christmas, it is easier to find joy in the little things. Christmas can offer us rare moments of stillness, slowed down-ness in our overly busy and overly structured lives.

Let’s let go of the stories we tell ourselves about what Christmas “should” be like.

Somehow in the act of letting go, something more precious emerges.

 “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” ~ Charles Dickens


Author: Shona Macpherson

Image: via Imgur

Editor: Catherine Monkman

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