Kathy Sheridan: Wishing you a satisfactory Christmas
And a note of caution: Don’t let unrealistic expectations ruin this season of goodwill
Christmas: It’s that visceral call to the senses, the light that guides us back, whatever the cost or the stress.
It’s a conundrum. In boom times, the media are accused of “talking down” the economy. In bad times, they are attacked as relentless purveyors of bad news, a clamour of cynical old hacks using misery to sell papers. “Where is the balance?” ask the decent, bewildered people. “Why don’t you report the ‘good’ news?” The old cynics may insert their own comments here. For the season that’s in it, I will boldly delve into some “good news” sites.
The first to pop up is the Huffpost Good News, and the top good-news story features a picture of Santa, with the headline: “Little Boy Asks Santa to pray with him for Beautiful Reason”. Lovely. The next reads, “Mom thanks kind cashier who cheered up her 3-year-old son”. Very nice. This is followed by, “Touching photo honours bride’s 6-year-old daughter who died of cancer”. “Teen bravely battling leukaemia named honorary Navy SEAL”. “Internet floods girl whose family was killed with Christmas cards, presents [sic]”. “Pup is all #nonewfriends sticks with one favourite pal ’til the end”.
That’s probably enough for today. Maybe “good news” depends on whether the reader is a glass-half-full type. To me, that looks like a collection of really terrible news stories. And yet, I have some sympathy with the “good news” seekers.
Christmas is flagged as a familial, financial, emotional, gastro-intestinal disaster and it’s the media’s fault. All the lovely elements of the holiday – feasting, gift-buying, family get-togethers – are given an ominous hue. Warnings about greedy consumerism and bacteria-infested turkeys sit alongside ghastly “advice” features on how to handle your Christmas-wrecking granny.
But is it a fairer reflection of reality ?
Writing about the hidden psychology of the season, Prof William Reville quoted a study conducted just after Christmas 2001 in which people were asked about their experience. Just 10 per cent said they had a very bad holiday. An impressive three-quarters said they had a satisfactory time. Nearly half qualified that by saying despite being satisfying, Christmas had been stressful, which sounds close to the bone. Because – surprise, surprise – the stressed ones were mainly the females.
Males in general were much happier and less stressed. The study’s authors interpreted the less joyous female response in terms of women’s greater willingness to report negative experiences. I’m inclined to believe both versions are right. Observe seasonal behaviour in the office. Women rushing back after lunch, red-faced, chewing on a semithawed sandwich while struggling with a massive pile of shopping bags. Men (just generalising here) strolling back, refreshed after a good, long lunch with a “client”, because someone else is ordering the turkey, swooping on the last Star Wars whatsit for the child, remembering the godchildren the wrapping paper, the candles, and wondering will the tablecloth pass muster.
Still, the main point to take from the survey is a cheerful one: 90 per cent had a Christmas that was good enough, from which we may infer that no one died of food poisoning, matricide, drunken brawls or a terminal overdose of the EastEnders Christmas special.
Reville also pointed out that contrary to popular belief – based on assumptions about the increased stress of loneliness, family dysfunction and depression felt during the dark winter months – suicides do not peak during the Christmas season, In fact, suicide peaks in all the others seasons, depending on the place. So is it possible that all that seasonal goodwill, derided by the cynics, is real and inclusive and reaches into the most grieving hearts, if only for those few weeks?
If we spoil it all, it’s because we build up unrealistic, unrealisable expectations. We can fix that. It’s a matter of will.
We could begin by remembering that grannies (and granddads) around the Christmas table have most likely endured grief, loss and illness in their long lives and see heartbreaking gaps where lost loved ones used to be. If they can put a brave face on it, surely everyone else can?
That’s the good news for today.