Around the world on Christmas Eve, millions of children will excitedly fall asleep, “…nestled all snug in their beds… while visions of sugar plums dance in their heads” (as the poem by Clement Moore says). Many others will go to bed terrified, or at the very least uneasy about what the next day might bring. Christmas is a “big forever year”. By that I mean we often remember our Christmases in isolation (particularly our childhood Christmases), almost as though they are a separate life in themselves. For some the “forever years” of Christmases past bring back nostalgic memories of fun with family and friends, whilst for others the memories are not so rosy. We all know that Christmas can also bring some major stress and children often end up in the firing line of adult anxiety.
At Christmas time finances can be completely blown out as we try to reach the expectations we feel we must live up to to provide our family with a Christmas meal and presents. Shops are busy and traffic is crazy. In Southern Hemisphere countries Christmas coincides with the end of the academic year: every school and kindergarten has break ups and parties which we are required to attend with a plate of food and “farewell” and “thank you” cards for the kids’ friends and teachers. We queue in the heat at the shops (or in the cold, I imagine in the Northern Hemisphere) to let the kids see Santa and visiting the “old dude in red” can result in children having melt downs (whether from waiting in line or from sheer terror when their turn does actually come and they decide the last thing they want to do is sit on his knee).
On the day itself family rifts can be brought to the fore and family politics can become strained, to say the least, as people organise who is having Christmas with who. In cases where parents are separated or divorced, there may also be heated negoatiations over child access and contact. From a child’s point of view, the normal structure and routine of things is not in place, which can be both exciting, but also unsettling. Many adults drink a bit more than they should: for some this is no problem (like the Uncle who falls asleep on the couch every Christmas Day after lunch), but other people are less pleasant when intoxicated. There is the pressure to accept presents graciously, whether we are pleased with them or not, and children are hyped up, excited and often overloaded on sugar. Potential soars for parents to feel embarrassed by their children over such things as lack of manners when receiving a gift; poor table etiquette around extended family members and excessive expectations surrounding the receiving of gifts, (like asking every friend or relative who arrives, “where’s my present?”).
In fact, the holiday season can be an exceptionally tough emotional period… even for children. Most loving mothers will do whatever is necessary to create a fun and festive holiday environment for their children. However, for children living in a home where violence occurs, very often Christmas represents a prolonged period of trepidation due to the anticipation of violence. (Rachael Dove, journalist).
Studies have shown that in most countries an increase in domestic violence occurs during the Christmas holiday period: this includes child abuse. (See the links below).
The good news is that, while these statistics are disturbing, they are being recognised more and more and measures are being put in place to assist with and prevent violent situations at Christmas time (or any time).
For other children (and adults) Christmas can be a lonely, sad time. Our society has ingrained in us that we should be “happy” and spending time with a large extended family on this day. Children who have been newly taken into foster care or families where there is only one parent and one adult and no other relations can feel the isolation of their situations more keenly during this very family focused festival.
At times, too, we “use” Christmas as a weapon of guilt. A woman I know said she felt bad for years, because she threw a tantrum one Christmas morning when she was a child and was then told by her parents that she had “ruined the whole day” (there we go again with the expectation of everything being perfect).
It is important to have a spirit of giving and compassion at any time of the year, but it is important to realise that there is a different emotional landscape at Christmas time for everyone, whether positive or negative. Helping others with such things as childcare in order to enable Christmas shopping to be done, or by being honest with a friend whom you suspect is in an abuse situation or with someone who may be letting stress negatively effect their behaviour towards children, can go a long way towards alleviating stressful situations.
If you are in a violent situation this Christmas, don’t think, as many do, that it is a time of year when you shouldn’t “rock the boat” or that you must “suffer in silence” so as not to “ruin Christmas”. Many organisations, aware of the strain Christmas can place on families, have resources and help available. Using these is preferable to letting a situation escalate to crisis point or to the point where anyone might be in danger.
It is good to remember the old saying about it “taking a village to raise a child”. Christmas (and other festivals like it) are supposed to be about the kids having fun, feeling special and enjoying themselves. We are all responsible for watching over “our” children and giving them the best memories of the day we can: this doesn’t need to cost a fortune either. “Presence, not presents” at Christmas time is another useful saying. Kids will remember the atmosphere and any tensions on Christmas Day years after they’ve forgotten which toys came from Santa.
A Merry Christmas to everyone this year.
Also see “Christmas for the Broken Hearted” latteslacedwithgrace.com