For the past few months I have been running a group therapy meeting with parents of children with emerging mental health issues. It has been a great experience and we started every session using a check-in’ technique which asked how participants understood a word that encapsulated the theme of the session. Previous sessions have used words such as relationships, family, communication etc. So, as a bit of fun and because our final session was a couple of weeks before the festive holidays, we used ‘Christmas’ as our ‘check-in’ word. I was really surprised with the amount of discussion that was generated by the idea of Christmas and thought it was worth producing a blog that shared some of the conversations, as they have applicability to many families.
The whole experience of Christmas does really create a fairly partisan split in people. There is one camp that embraces the spirit and spends hours watching festive films, decorating the home and pretty much devotes a whole month of the year to celebrating one day. The other position was made by people who were not looking forward to Christmas and felt that it was time that they found difficult for a variety of reasons. I addressed the challenging issues of family feuding, expectations and finances in last years blog. Similar themes quickly emerged within the groups I facilitated, and it was interesting to see how people who were not big Christmas enthusiasts as being situated by the festive proponents with jokey remarks such as being ‘Scrooges’ or characterised with the phrase ‘Bah Humbug’. However, when we started to look at more nuanced experiences of Christmas, it became apparent that people on both sides collectively experience an ambivalence that makes sense of the previously simplistic and polarised debate.
Aside from the mixed feelings of guilt, anxiety, excitement and enjoyment that often accompany over indulgence in consuming and spending, most people were also able to resonate with difficult feelings of loss and nostalgia. I have heard many clients speak with sadness that Christmas time really emphasises the gaps left by people who are no longer in their lives, mainly though bereavement, separation or relationship estrangement. This creates a bittersweet atmosphere of reflection and vulnerability for the fragile human condition, as we mourn those no longer here and regret our mistakes in relationships that have concluded badly. It was also noticeable that the majority of people develop a relationship with Christmas based upon their own childhood, with some trying to recreate an almost utopian ideal of feasting and joyous familial love that they remember. Others recall hard times that were tarnished by events of domestic violence, arguments or significant figures such as parents or partners leaving the family home over the festive period, a phenomenon evidenced by a spike in divorce petitions submitted in January (Pett et al., 1992).
One in five married couples are considering separating from their partners after staying together over the festive period, according a poll of 2,000 spouses by legal firm Irwin Mitchell. – (The Independent online January 3rd 2015)
There is an idea in family therapy that we either recreate or correct significant scripts that we have lived through (Byng‐Hall, 1985), a concept that goes some way to explain how people use their childhood version of Christmas as a prototype that they either reconfigure or imitate when they plan their own festive ritual. My observation was that even when people were incredibly excited by Christmas, this was often a veneer that hid an underlying anxiety that they had to create an impossibly magical experience. This is a problematic expectation, mainly because every ‘perfect’ Christmas has to be improved upon. In a similar fashion to capitalism’s infinite growth model, the success of one Christmas inadvertently initiates a challenge that demands that next year’s event is even better, creating incredible stress which is often shouldered by a single member of the family (Fischer and Arnold, 1990). Many people describe how they can feel unsupported at Christmas as other family members just turn up on the day and gorge themselves on food and drink before passing out in front of the television. This is a stark contrast to the experience of the unfortunate person involuntarily appointed at the start of December to provide a month’s worth of unpaid labour as a gift wrapper, stock taker, chef and server. So, do spare a thought of how we can all contribute a little bit and share the work, as many arguments are started when the one person doing all the organising finally protests. Unfortunately, this is typically in a fiery and aggressive expression over a minor transgression in a board game after a few too many alcoholic drinks…
Perhaps the most thought-provoking element of Christmas that was discussed was the concept of Father Christmas and how parents maintain a universally shared deception of epic proportions. The majority of people feel that the myth of Santa Claus is a lie worth telling and that it provides a fun-filled fantasy that keeps us buoyant in a world that is usually full of rationalism, responsibility and challenges. However, lying to our children does seem to come at a cost when we start to consider the wider implications, as most families have either explicit or implicit codes that warn family members that lying is not acceptable and can get you or others into trouble. It also plants the seed that if those they trust the most are not to be believed, what else could they be lying about, and can we trust them in the future?
One interesting point of discussion is what happens following the moment that children discover that Santa is make-believe. I have heard stories of children being both angry and disappointed as they are forced to alter their belief systems and question their reality. They can also direct aggression at the people that they feel have misled them. This can be as a retaliation for their parents both lying and being hypocritical, as ‘lying’ and ‘bad’ is an association endlessly drummed into us by parents, teachers and those in authority. However, it can also mask the shame they feel from allowing themselves to be duped and the sadness that a part of their childhood has been taken away. This is often beautifully illustrated in playgrounds when children get into disputes as distinct groups form of those who are enlightened by the truth, and those who valiantly defend the myth. Most parents dread the day children come home distraught after being told by a classmate that they are stupid and babyish if they believe Santa Claus delivers their presents. At this point some parents confess their deception, whilst others use Machiavellian tactics to quash the rumours by discrediting the source of the claim or cautioning the children that if they do not believe then Christmas may not happen.
This in turn creates a hypocritical dilemma where parents can be disempowered into untenable positions where they tell their children not to lie, yet they have blatantly lied to them over a period of years. Most children eventually forgive their parents and understand that the deception was underpinned with good intentions, with the majority of children choosing to perpetuate the same deception to their own offspring. Nevertheless, this poses a difficult conundrum where people then have to make a fairly subjective judgement call to decide that if a lie is told, if it is done to protect somebody or avoid trouble, then it could be argued as acceptable. Although, when this is contextualised as a partner not disclosing an affair due to fear of fracturing the family, or when a sinister uncle tells his niece to not tell anybody about their special secret, the impact of deception to protect or circumvent conflict starts to feel considerably less beneficent. This creates a paradoxical premise that lies are allowed providing they are the right type of lies and they are told for valid reasons. However, who gets to decide if these conditions are met is debatable and if we view the lie from an alternative perspective, we may transform what was at first considered a harmless ‘white lie’ into catastrophic treachery.
Another issue to think about is around how Father Christmas distributes presents differently and how do our children make sense of this? Many parents feel financially stretched over Christmas and the pressure to make it special often hinges on providing the latest gadget or en-vogue garment. Parents regularly overspend as contemporary present lists typically request gifts that can amount to hundreds of pounds. Some individuals can also feel disenfranchised when their hard-earned cash is spent and the gratitude is directed to a mythical figure who comes down a chimney with a magical sack full of the latest consoles and phones. Although, some canny adults have made a demarcation between the small ‘stocking fillers’ that Santa delivers and the big ‘photo moment’ presents that are definitely marked up as having been provided by the adults.
However, this also can be problematic as children feel envious of friends from more affluent backgrounds who seem to be favoured by Santa by him showering them with more or better quality gifts. The popular discourse of being a good boy or girl is then activated, as it’s a fairly logical inference that if I haven’t received what I asked for, this must be due that I am not good enough, or that Father Christmas likes the other children better. This discourse is also regularly used as a disciplinary device when parents effectively threaten children that if they misbehave, then they could contact Lapland and cancel their order. Children can become highly distressed and even fearful when these type of threats are used, even when they are genuine attempt to manage difficult behaviour. Coercion is always a risky strategy to use with our children, as consequences can be anxiety, activation of the flight or fight reflex and power struggles (Crittenden, 2016). It is also well evidenced that prolonged use of coercive strategies can impact psychological well-being and lead to the attachment between parents and children becoming disrupted and characterised with mistrust and hostility (Morris et al., 2002). So, my advice is to be careful with threats as they can easily be misattributed and can trigger feelings of abandonment, self deformation or lessen emotional safety.
The final big question that is always asked around the myth of father Christmas, is how do we manage when to tell children the truth about the legend? As with most difficult questions like where do babies come from, is there a God and what happens when you die? Having to dampen the Christmas spirit by confessing about Santa’s true manifestation can be heart-rending and can cause incredible anxiety when attempting to convince older children to not tell younger siblings. However, with most difficult conversations, if handled with reassurance, love, a hug and a smile most children will see the legend as one they can still appreciate. It is also incredible to see that even in adulthood, most people find that if they believe hard enough then they can still be children for a couple of days of the year and fully embrace the magic of Christmas.
BYNG‐HALL, J. 1985. The family script: A useful bridge between theory and practice. Journal of Family Therapy, 7(3), 301-305.
CRITTENDEN, P. M. 2016. Raising Parents: Attachment, Representation, and Treatment – 2nd Edition, Abingdon, Oxon, Routledge.
FISCHER, E. & ARNOLD, S. J. 1990. More than a labor of love: Gender roles and Christmas gift shopping. Journal of consumer research, 17(3), 333-345.
MORRIS, A. S., SILK, J. S., STEINBERG, L., SESSA, F. M., AVENEVOLI, S. & ESSEX, M. J. 2002. Temperamental Vulnerability and Negative Parenting as Interacting Predictors of Child Adjustment. 64(2), 461-471.
PETT, M. A., LANG, N. & GANDER, A. J. 1992. Late-life divorce: Its impact on family rituals. Journal of Family Issues, 13(4), 526-552.