KT Long Read: Beating the ‘Blue  Christmas’ blues

For the second year running, the Yuletide spirit has been dampened across the globe by more curbs and concerns. But many are trying to find hope and cheer in other ways

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Thu 23 Dec 2021, 9:38 PM

Last updated: Thu 23 Dec 2021, 9:39 PM

If you grew up in a multicultural society, chances are you would celebrate or join festivals of various religions, whether you are of a religious bent or not. Just as Diwali is no longer confined to Asians in Britain, but increasingly draws in people from various cultures, Christmas has long appealed to many, across faiths, in various countries. Some time ago, the thought struck me and friends almost at the same time: we were in England for some years, but had not once visited the iconic churches on December 24 for the Midnight Mass. We drew up a schedule, and first joined the congregation in the Bristol Cathedral; next year, we travelled to the Canterbury Cathedral, and other churches later. It didn’t matter that some of us were less aware of the significance of the event, but the cosy ambience of the cold winter night, with the warmth of smiles, goodwill and bonhomie all around, carol singing, and sermons by witty priests remarking on wider issues of the day — all make it an annual life-sustaining experience.

But that was all in an era now perhaps best referred to as ‘BC’ — not the letters used for historical epochs as ‘Before Christ’, but for ‘Before Covid’. None of those visits to cathedrals and churches over the years are possible today. It is not the Dickensian spirit but the spectre of the virus that haunts: the ambience of the night has been sucked out, with millions hunkered down in homes, making an effort to celebrate, missing the spirit and missing family members lost to the virus, or fearful of inviting elderly, vulnerable members home. In Britain, Europe and much across the globe, this is the second Christmas held hostage to the virus, the festive season imbued with a gloomy sense of déjà vu. Several countries have issued new rules to curb the celebrations as the Omicron variant sweeps across swathes of populations, while individuals continue to ruminate about life, careers, possessions, and relationships.


A Different Christmas

In the UK, for the second year, Queen Elizabeth, 95, will remain at Windsor Castle — her first Christmas since the death of the Duke of Edinburgh in April — marking another break with the tradition of spending festivities in Sandringham in Norfolk. Members of the royal family usually gather and walk to the St Mary Magdalene Church in Sandringham, greeting members of the public outside, but no such public visit is scheduled on December 25 this year.

Chloë Bodmer, a writer based in Wales, says: “Next year, we said, next year, it’ll be better. We’ll all be back together again, won’t we? Who else said something like that last Christmas? I know I did, or at least something to that effect. And we believed it, didn’t we? Because we were living in unprecedented times and no one ever thought that a year on, we might be better off not inviting Granny around for Christmas lunch, in case we accidentally kill her with our good intentions. And if Christmas films have told us nothing, an accidental death at Christmas is the last thing anyone needs. So here we sit, Lateral Flow Tests developing in front of an open fire, our Out Of Office messages on — which is hugely ironic considering WFH now means we are never really out of the office — and we wait. There was a time when we would sit and wait for the arrival of Father Christmas and his eight reindeers; now we await our political leader’s latest tweets to see if and when we will be allowed out next. Last year, a Covid Christmas turned into a bit of a novelty but now it appears to be turning into a pattern akin to one of the ugly knitted sweaters we’ve all been given at one time or another. How much longer? We all ask…Who really knows? Maybe next year…”

The anxiety and despair over Christmas taking another hit is widespread across the globe. In Jaipur, India, Sunny Sebastian, former vice-chancellor of Harideo Joshi University of Journalism and Mass Communication, says: “For the past 30 years, Christmas was the day my friends used to look forward to. As I was the only Christian friend many of them — Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Jains — had, they were all a bit possessive about Christmas at our place. My wife Maria and daughter Priyam used to enjoy the December 25 night as friends and families would troop in for hours of pleasant chatter and merry-making that often lasted beyond midnight. All this changed in 2020. The friends phoned to greet and excused themselves from joining. We too were apprehensive about hosting even a small gathering; only a few turned up. Christmas is going to be a low-key affair this year too… there is a general lack of enthusiasm. But things are definitely better than in 2020, though the weariness of the lockdowns lingers on.”

A Turn Towards Minimalism

Christmas is a time of giving and charity. There are no precise figures yet, but there is much anecdotal evidence of the pandemic prompting several friends and family donating more, as they re-assess the worth of their belongings, de-clutter households, and review the compulsions of need and greed. The impulse towards minimalism in wealthy Western countries may be growing. One British friend considering it surprised me the other day by remarking that the ultimate minimalist is none other than Gandhi, who left behind an incredible legacy of living a frugal life, of a few worldly possessions, a simple dress code, basic food and of speaking less. The pandemic may have exacerbated inequalities across many levels within and across countries, but minimalism’s idea that ‘less is more’ may well help make some difference at the people-to-people level which, even at a fraction in economic terms, may be a beginning to rebalance resources.

Environment campaigners have used the toned-down Christmas to spread their message. During the festive season, they say, people in Britain and the West generate more waste than any other time. One example: the amount of cardboard packaging produced is approximately 300,000 tonnes, enough to wrap the London Eye 50,000 times. They have also called for steps to remove avoidable plastic from festive preparations, including Christmas cards, wrapping, ribbons, wreaths, crackers, decorations, and gifts. Britons alone are estimated to throw away approximately 1 billion Christmas cards every year. It would take the equivalent of 33 million trees to make that amount of card. The Environment Agency put out a list of 12 ways to make Christmas more sustainable, including ideas for the Christmas tree: “An artificial Christmas tree needs to be used for approximately 10 years for their environmental impact to be lower than a real tree. Better still, have you considered purchasing a potted tree and then you can plant it outside after the festive season? If you don’t have space to plant it, you could keep it in its pot outside on the patio. This enables you to do your bit for the environment and reuse the tree again next year.”

There is already some evidence in surveys that the Covid-19 pandemic has contributed to a turn towards minimalism during Christmas. Author Nell Frizzell writes in The Guardian that her family Christmas got a lot better since they stopped giving presents: “It’s been an agreement for the last few years and, all being well, one that will hold water again this festive season. But it would be unfair to say we don’t actually give each other things. We may not buy things, wrap things, put things under a tree or push anything but a hairy toe into a stocking on Christmas Eve but that’s not to say we don’t give gifts. Instead, we bestow upon each other the treats of time, saving money, the weekends in the run-up to Christmas at home, sanity, and evenings not clogged with sticky tape and phone calls and online checkouts.”

A new survey commissioned by international charity Save the Children shows that recycling clothes and buying second-hand jumpers from charity shops as Christmas gifts is a recent trend. It reveals that the Christmas dinner remains the top tradition over the festive period, but 41 per cent believe the traditions they follow have changed over the years, with 35 per cent having adapted them to be less materialistic and 32 per cent having altered traditions for their children. The survey found that one in five bought a second-hand Christmas jumper before, while one in eight (13 per cent) have made their own. Almost seven in ten agreed that people should make more of an effort to be more sustainable this Christmas, and this year 53 per cent plan to buy second-hand gifts in a bid to be more sustainable than ever before.

Tackling Loneliness

Besides environment and other campaigners, psychologists are also keen to use the new normal to evolve new norms. The traditional iconography of the family coming together for Christmas often runs against the contemporary reality of a large number of single-lonely and single-not-lonely individuals across the globe dreading the holiday season, to whom emotional phrases such as ‘coming home for Christmas’ or ‘going home for Christmas’ don’t mean much.

London-based psychologist Vivian Hill says: “We can evolve our Christmas traditions, just like we always have, so while Christmas 2021 might not be quite what we planned, rather than looking at what we cannot do, and what we are missing, let’s flip it on its head and see how we can make new traditions, new memories and keep all our loved ones safe. Last year, people were incredibly resilient and adapted in all sorts of ways to celebrate Christmas. While we all wish that Covid-19 was not impacting our Christmas again this year, it means we can focus on genuine, authentic interactions with people, and actually have the freedom to celebrate it in the way that works for our families, free of the myths of what Christmas ‘should be’. This could be spreading celebrations out with different groups and generations, rather than all gathering for one big meal, meeting for walks or Christmas picnics. This is not only safer, but it also avoids people being left out or lonely, or feeling like [being] a burden.”

An expert on the scourge of loneliness, she adds: “Feelings of loneliness can be heightened at this time of the year and it is a very personal experience with some people feeling lonely even when they are part of a large gathering. For others, the feeling of being outside the norm of a big family Christmas can be very painful. In the past 18 months, we have learnt more about loneliness and about the importance of reaching out to people, so it’s really important we continue to do this and recognise that loneliness can happen across any generation.”

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