• This Christmas, like this year, will likely challenge us, as we continue to navigate our individual concerns and social restrictions

  • Therapist Sandra Hilton encourages time to reflect and the importance of making choices that feel nourishing to your wellbeing

  • Our therapists and counsellors are available to work with you if you need support at this time – find yours here

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” sings Bing Crosby over the radio. And it is. Just not as we know it. This time of year is evocative in the western world. Even if the Christian story is not yours, you can’t fail to know that it’s Christmas. The social rhythm hots up. Shops entice with promises of huge savings as we max out our credit cards. Adverts paint a picture of an idealised Christmas world. Festooned lights dazzle us. Nativity displays welcome us to church. Carol singers serenade us. Mulled wine, mince pies and all manner of clove, cinnamon and ginger-spiced delicacies seduce us.

This year, on the surface, it all looks pretty much the same. The semblance of a time that we all know and are familiar with. Yet events of the past year and the enforced tiers of restrictions across the UK, where I’m writing this now, mean that Christmas may feel very different for you. We’ve been assimilating a different way of life all year of course, but there’s something about this season, so loaded with memories, rituals and patterns of behaviour, that brings home the discombobulation of the year and is a stark reminder of all that we can’t do and those that we can’t see.

The Office of National Statistics reports that, as a result of the pandemic, 8% of the UK population now “often” or “always” feel lonely, compared with 5% at the beginning of the year, and over half of these people are young, in the 16-24 year old age group. Those who would usually be exploring and expanding into life with vigour, find themselves holed up, severed, in enforced retreat and looking into a potentially bleak future. 

As we well know, loneliness is a key factor for our wellbeing and mental health and many more people will find themselves alone this holiday. Severed from family and friends by the Covid safety restrictions, compounding a year of little contact with those closest to them. People will be forced to choose who to be with, excluding others and risking hurt. Continuing the theme of the year, many parties will be on Zoom, celebrating solo with a video link to others doing the same. The longed-for hugs and touch still on pause. 

Some of us will be remembering those close to us that we have lost and not yet mourned. Staring into the gaping hole of an unfinished ending – where we have not been able to say goodbye, or to celebrate their lives collectively with others who loved them. We will come face-to-face with so many losses this Christmas as we pause for reflection. Loss of love. Contact. Friendship. Opportunity. Freedom of movement. For some, loss of jobs, a livelihood, a future, a marriage. The uncertainty of our lives will come into sharp focus as we slow down and turn inwards.

So Christmas may feel fragmented, frustrating, full of loss, sadness and loneliness. Some would say that this is a familiar experience of Christmas. Looking longingly into crowded bars and restaurants where it seems everyone is joyous, as you head home to an empty flat. But for others, the stark contrast will land hard.

Over the weekend, I met for a walk in the woods with my brother, his wife and my nephews and niece. He sent me a message beforehand to reinforce that we will be 2m apart and no kissing and cuddling. My sister-in-law’s mum is vulnerable and will be spending Christmas Day with them so they are being vigilant. Even though I recognise the need to take care, I still felt really hurt that he had said it, and noticed the “ouch”. I could feel a part of me harden and go cool. I’d been so looking forward to seeing everyone but here I was, feeling quite young and petulant.

When we did meet, the coolness thawed. We found connection by jumping in puddles and getting muddy together. My three year old niece sang all the Christmas songs she’s mastered on repeat, to the joy of all the wanderers in the woods. Hot chocolate and marshmallows at the end of the wet walk, sealed the love and warmth of the afternoon. No hugs. No hand holding. No cuddles. But a lot of love and welcome face-to-face contact.

So what of my original hurt? Was it an over-reaction?

This is what many of us may experience in these days of separation. Old wounds touched, scraped and sometimes ripped open, as we each try to navigate our way through this time. People choosing when they see us. If they see us. How that will be. More layers of control, enforcing the state levels of control in the family and community. This pain is real today and, often, it is also old hurt let loose in a time when we are less resourceful than we might usually be. It is not an over-reaction. But it is a reaction worth investigating. I knew that in the moment, I felt very young.

Jungian psychoanalyst, Marion Woodman writes in her book Coming Home to Myself:

“When we identify with our childish side,
we say,
I was always a victim
and it’s all my parents’ fault,
then walk around with a hangdog face
the rest of our lives.

When we gather our child into our arms,
we say,
My parents were victims of a culture,
As were their parents and their parents.
 I shall not be a victim.
I shall take responsibility for my own life.
I shall live creatively.
I shall live now.”

These are the times to get close to ourselves and to “gather our child into our arms”; to recognise that we need some care and kindness from the one closest to home – from ourselves. 

More than ever, this is a time for redefining what Christmas means to you personally and discovering how you might realise that, even without the ones you’re usually with, without the gifts you might usually buy or receive, or the celebrations you might ordinarily enjoy. You may be someone who is looking forward to a time where the usual obligations have fallen away. You may make a choice to spend it alone. You may bubble up with neighbours this year.  Whatever you choose, make it a choice that feels nourishing for you, loving and kind. Not one of fear, or obligation or self-control. There is enough of that in the world right now, without us adding our own personal layer. If you don’t know what that is, then find someone to talk to. A therapist. A friend. Someone you can be yourself with, to discover what you need beneath the layers of conditioning.

Christmas can be the most wonderful time of the year. It can also be the most awful. I wish you a season of reflection; of restoration; of love and kindness and hope for a world where we can be together once again.

Sandra Hilton is a verified welldoing.org therapist in London and online

Further reading

Dealing with feelings of loss at Christmas

The value of befriending sadness

Coronavirus and lockdown: a psychoanalytic perspective

Self-care for the Christmas period

The psychological impact of coronavirus