Sunday, December 22, 2013

’Tis the Season to Be Melancholy – Enduring a Bout of Christmas Depression

Pic: Mike McCune
I have been suffering Christmas depression since I first became an adult. It was a long time coming because if truth be told my parents were as reluctant as I and my four sisters to give up the old rituals – we still put out our Santa sacks even in our late teens, although by that stage they were thankfully left under the tree rather than at the end of our beds. Perhaps it was after the last year of the Santa sacks that the Christmas depression first showed itself?

Here, for the record, are the symptoms: weeping uncontrollably at one’s desk; regretting the entire life course one has taken; and a pall covering everything as if one is living in a fake, Truman-style world that can offer nothing that is authentic or remotely interesting.

And perhaps the most clichéd of all, wishing fervently that Christmas could take place every second year instead of annually. Wouldn’t that be more sensible?

These kinds of seasonal depressions follow their sufferers around like drones. They seem to find us. We do not choose them. Anyone who, like me, suffers anxiety and depression throughout the year is a prime candidate.

Each year the scale of the attack is completely unpredictable. One year, swept up in a pre-Christmas deadline frenzy, the whole shemozzle completely passes me by; another year there might be faint twinges a few days before Christmas, while the following year I will be swamped by dark ruminations as soon as December hits its stride.

More than anything, their weapon of choice is the past. Reels and reels of negatives (the word having two meanings here) of all that is irretrievably lost. By a certain age we have all sustained many losses and regrets, but at Christmas some regrets seem to be more equal than others.

Namely not having a family of one’s own. Reading stories about families is a big no-no for me at this time. In fact you would think Monica Dux’s Things I Didn’t Expect (When I Was Expecting) would be a fine book for a single, child-free woman to read around Christmas, with its tales of collapsing vaginas, stigmatic nipples and psychopathic mothers’ groups. You’d expect someone like me to be sighing with relief and thanking Fortune I’d somehow wiggled my way out of that. And on one level I am. As a feminist, I certainly don’t feel a woman’s worth and identity depend on her status as a mother. It is the whole family orientation of Christmas that sinks the (Santa) boot in. When I found myself envying Dux despite (or perhaps because of) what she’d been through, I knew it was going to be a bad bout this year.

You’d also think getting into the thick of the shopping scrum would help, and it can for short periods. But if you stay too long you’ll be hit by a percolation of hissing irritation that threatens to bubble over into a bad case of mall rage. All these people with lines of children attached to them like charm bracelets, throwing money around like they’ve just had a big win at the races, are not fun or edifying for a single person to witness for long periods.

And if you’ve made a decision not to buy a lot of presents at Christmas, as I have this year, that leaves you without an important compensation for the Christmas frenzy – spending money on other people. Research suggests that no matter how much or how little you spend, it actually feels better to buy for others than to buy for yourself. As someone with ten nephews and nieces I’ve given up trying to pick a present for each one of them at Christmas; and while that saves me time and effort and helps the planet a tiny bit, it also robs me of a chance to leaven my Christmas depression with a dose of therapeutic giving.

Just because other people go through similar torment doesn’t mean you get to join a fellowship of sufferers. This is because there is something deeply personal about how we celebrate (or don’t celebrate) Christmas, demonstrating how individualistic our society has become. At this time, whether or not we are Christian, we are forced to withdraw from the social world and into the bosom of our family networks. And whether those connections are firm, fragile or merely frazzled, we are stuck with them like never before. ‘What are you doing for Christmas?’ we ask each other. We rarely say, for example, ‘Can I catch up with you on Christmas Day?’

This Christmas, I will play my usual role as black sheep in the Christmas nativity of my birth family. And I will be grateful to do so. I know a friend who is spending Christmas Day alone, and another friend who hosts a small gathering of fellow Christmas ‘orphans’ each year. I have decided not to extend an invitation to these friends, simply because I don’t want to impose the tricky-at-best family dynamics on them.

This reluctance to meddle with tradition also suggests that my own Christmas depression has become for me an inextricable part of the annual ritual, along with feeling left out because I can’t join my champagne-quaffing sisters on Christmas morning (dietary reasons), eating a kilo of roasted cashews before lunch to compensate, goading my father into political  arguments by making extreme left-wing comments while he tries to eat his Christmas pudding, and falling asleep in the spare bedroom at 5 pm precisely.

Despite the above, wishing all my blog readers a safe, peaceful and stress-free festive season.


  1. Oh, Catherine,

    The day might come when I disagree with you. But, for now ...

    In the last week, I have come to refer to xmas as "the $hit monsoon season." I have also struggled with this season since I became an adult. And, I suppose that it doesn't help that each year I dread hearing the first (well-intentioned) xmas wishes directed at me. For me these words herald my usual long, dark, seasonal depression leading up to xmas, and often into early new year. This year has been no exception.

    Yesterday morning when I was making my first cup of tea, I checked the expiry date on my milk. It read 30 Dec, and my first thought then was, "xmas will be over by then." That I was searching for hope via the expiry date on a carton of milk actually amused me and brought a little ray of sunshine into the season for me.

    Perhaps, the thing I struggle with most at xmas is the almost palpable, societal pressure to feel a certain way ie happy that it is xmas. It is so imposing, and I have never been one to appreciate having feelings and rituals imposed on me. A friend of mine sent me a text this morn suggesting how useful evacuation centres would be at this time of the year for those not wanting to exposed to such pressures. Her words were another little ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak xmas terrain.

    Anyway, my folks are dropping by in 2 hrs for an xmas ritual. So, I'd best away and cover up all signs of the psychological, and accompanying domestic, mess I have gradually descended into since that first person wished me a happy xmas this year ...

    All the best :)


  2. Hi Kate,

    It's a pain in the behind, is it not? And the reminders are everywhere, there's no getting away from it. Hope you got through it okay - I managed to generate a mild back strain, which was probably a way of distracting myself from the emotional aspects - now that Boxing Day is done and dusted, my back is much better :)

    It's funny too how the depression in the lead-up is a separate thing from the depression of the day itself. And yes, we then have to turn around and deal with new years eve.

    I love your friend's idea of the evacuation centres - in the middle of shopping malls would be ideal - evacuation helicopters rescuing people from particularly difficult family gatherings on Christmas Day would also be useful!

    Here's to the relief of getting back to 'normal' life - whatever that means!


  3. Hi Catherine,

    I hope that your back is completely mended by the time you read this.

    Yes - xmas is a pain in the behind (I appreciate the euphemistic analogy). Every year as the weight of xmas descends, I tell myself that I will send myself off for a sabbatical of some kind NEXT xmas. And, the following year, I find myself telling myself the same thing. Stupidity is doing the same thing and passively expecting/hoping for a different result? Yes, indeed! But, xmas 2014 WILL be different cos it WILL be a sabbatical ...

    Just waiting to find out if I am the only one in the family that doesn't come down with a vomiting wog in the aftermath of xmas ... :)


  4. Hi Kate,

    Fantastic that you are going on a sabbatical next year - great idea.

    Back is almost completely better, thanks - hope you managed to avoid the dreaded post-xmas wog - Christmas and ill-health seem to go together :)


  5. Hey Catherine,

    Yes, thanks - I avoided the dreaded xmas wog. Glad to hear your back made major progress post xmas.

    I'm back to work tomorrow after the xmas/NY break, and I must say that I look forward to the dose of relative normalcy. But, I must not become complacent ... time will slip by quickly and, before I know it, it will be xmas again. The art of planning ...

    I called a friend on Jan 1 this year and sang the following (to the tune of happy bday to you):

    "New year to you
    New year to you
    New year to you
    New year to you"

    I sing the same to you Catherine. Insert whatever adjective resonates with you most :)

    All the best,

  6. And to you! The new year's return to normalcy is incredibly welcome - but the weird life-warp of next Christmas awaits - and I too need to be better prepared next year -- this year was, as we say in the Antipodes, a 'doozy' :)