0

How to be merry even though it’s Christmas

June Callwood dives into what psychiatrists called “The Holiday Syndrome” in 1962


 

Welcome to this week’s free story from The Maclean’s Archives.
Learn more or sign up now for your 30-day free trial.

IT'S THE MERRY CHRISTMAS season, a holy time, joy-to-the-world days, happy Chanukah, the heartiest and most beautiful holiday of the year — except that it often doesn't work out that way. And the only way to deal with this paradox is to understand how and why it works.

The truth is, few people get through these gala days without feeling decidedly annoyed by the season. With some, it's only a flinching reaction to the insistent jollity. Others, particularly those suspended in the middle years between taskless childhood and self-indulgent old age, are harassed by shopping, wrapping, mailing, cooking and debts — and the notion that what started out to be a gentle religious festival has been hoked out of shape by the vendors.

Quite a number of people have an old grudge against Christmas: it is a regular reminder of disappointment, suffering or isolation in some less-than-perfect Christmas past. A proportion of these have what amounts to an annual breakdown at Christmas, one that is now being investigated by psychiatrists who call it either the Holiday Syndrome or Christmas Neurosis. Their main symptoms are depression and deep anger, though they may conceal them gallantly under the requisite degree of ho-ho heartiness.

These individuals are gloomy because of the idealized warmth and sweetness of the season, not in spite of it. Since they cannot, for various reasons, experience all the elation that seems to abound, their private desolation is the mark of failure, and a bitter one.

Most people can bask in Christmas as children do, frankly relishing the food and drink treats, the conspiracy of gift hiding, the expectancy of wish-fulfillment, the tumult of parties and gaudy decorations, the simplicity and sentiment of a baby Saviour. It’s a mass regression to untroubled pre-adolescence, and the pleasure seeking can be atoned for neatly by New Year's resolutions.

But there are flickers of doubt. Carol singing can grow tedious, week after week, outdoor decorations are competitive and oath provoking, gift-shopping is exhaustion and frustration in a pure form. The relatives gather, not always a happy sight. A lot of people accordingly plan trips to remove themselves from Christmas, only to find themselves sourly marking the oddity of Christmas lights in a palm tree or the cheeriness of strangers in a ski lodge.

"Not being joyous during the Christmas season is much more common than most of us realize,” observed a report by four psychiatrists at the University of Utah, who recently completed a study of psychological complaints at yuletime.

Dismay, in a mild degree, is universal. Sociologists have been noting that ordinary conversations during the pre-Christmas rush are rarely luminous with goodwill. Women complain of weariness, anxiety while shopping, the greediness of their get; men are uneasy over expenses and drinking too much. “There are few spontaneous exclamations about how wonderful it all is,” comments a noted Canadian psychiatrist, Montreal's Dr. Alastair MacLeod. "There seems to be a great deal of hostility and anger over being impelled into something.”

The tender concepts of the season, in the Christian religion of the Nativity and in Judaism the candlelight memorial to freedom, are hard to confront under the smothering of carnival commercialism. There is a resultant loss of tranquillity felt by everyone.

One of the world’s most distinguished psychoanalysts, Ernest Jones, once wrote that Christmas represents psychologically "the ideal of resolving all family discord in happy reunion." It’s an excruciatingly vulnerable ideal, since distance, divorce and death can shatter it, while old grievances within the family can make success chancy.

There is a sharp rap of despair when the family can't be together, or when it can and the gathering tends to stir up old irritations rather than erase them. The disappointment can be so acute that rage breaks out readily — murders are not uncommon at Christmas, or accidents involving a violent mood and family dissension on a monumental scale. In some countries,o notably Germany, the suicide rate climbs at this season.

Scientists became intrigued some twenty years ago with the special depression that Christmas creates, with glancing attention to the lesser blues that sometimes attend vacations in the summer or even Sunday afternoons. Comparing notes, doctors discovered that many of their psychiatric patients suffered severe setbacks during the Christmas season. Succeeding studies of normal people revealed a vast, subsurface ocean of unrest, a distress that seems so ill-timed that its victims usually hide it under a pseudo-enthusiastic and tiring kind of gaiety.

The United States psychoanalyst J. P. Cattell describes the Holiday Syndrome as extending for more than a month before Christmas to a few days after New Year's Day. It is characterized, he reported in 1954 to the American Psychoanalytic Association, by the "presence of diffuse anxiety, numerous regressive phenomena including marked feelings of helplessness, possessiveness and increased irritability, nostalgic or bitter rumination about holiday experiences of youth, depressive effect and a wish for magical resolution of problems.”

That's a wordy nutshell. Many people bear with year-long humiliations and misery but cannot avoid the futile hope that Christmas morning will cure it all. The season brings forth an inner child, a loitering Peter Pan who wants coddling and gets instead a hatful of bills. The knowledge that Christmas is an expensive cheat, with only a flash or two of lovely lustre, creates a general jangling of nerves that silver bells cannot quite cover.

Some people have a clear idea why they are unhappy at Christmas. One famous Canadian writer, for instance, was deserted by his wife on Christmas Eve and another buried his only daughter shortly after she had helped decorate the Christmas tree. A young mother of three whose critical in-laws visited her for six weeks before every Christmas, bulging the facilities of a small apartment, eventually detested the entire season. A Montreal engineer felt a chill every Christmas until he was nearly forty, a residue of his mother's insistence that he open all his gifts alone in his room. A man who was raised in an orphanage doesn't feel comfortable watching his children receive their presents — they’re never grateful enough.

Some experts feel that the North American accent on gift exchanging is causing a good deal of Christmas blues. To a child’s mind — and many an adult's as well — the quantity and quality of gifts received is tangible evidence of his valuableness in the world. Friends who receive more and better gifts are assumed to be better loved, a brother or sister getting more lavish presents is a catastrophe. For this reason even mature people feel a droop in spirits as the last gift is unwrapped, while children are inclined to protest violently.

The emotional involvement in gift-giving is such that people who are unable to love their families, or who feel inadequate in some way, tend to give luxurious presents, beyond their means, as a conscience calmer.

Christmas, accordingly, can be an economic disaster and many heads are filled at this season with a dance of debts. The financial demands of gifts, decorations, tips and entertainment is a strain that creates panic, making tempers snappish.

Dr. MacLeod, the Montreal psychiatrist, is reminded at this time of the year of the potlatch customs of some British Columbia Indian tribes, who destroy their enemies by loading them with gifts and food. The guests of honor are expected to give an even more sumptuous feast and gifts in return, wrecking their resources if they comply and disgracing themselves if they don’t. Christmas gift-giving can also be persecution: there is a mutually ruinous trend on this continent to give back a slightly better gift than was received.

But worry over debt is only one of the many factors which disturb people at Christmas. Some scientists, notably Ernest Jones, suspect that a primitive identification with the sun affects mankind, so that the waning of the winter sun rekindles a primitive fear in everyone that human powers are weakening as well.

Some of the responsibility for Christmas depression would then lie with the early Christians who somewhat arbitrarily chose December 25 as Christ's birthday, usurping the date of the most widely celebrated of pagan festivals. Ardent sunworshippers believed that the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, was the date on which the old sun died and a new one was born. They celebrated giddily: plentiful food and drink, their best attire, fires lit to support the burgeoning young sun. The Romans ornamented their homes with wreaths and exchanged gifts and visits. The Druids gathered mistletoe and the Saxons holly and ivy.

More than three hundred years after the death of Christ, many of the new church's followers were distressed that the teachings of the forgiving, love-honoring Son were being overshadowed by the harsher tenets of the Father. To elevate the importance of the Son, they decided to establish His birthday as a festival. Since the actual date was debatable (many modern scholars place it in the spring), the symbolism of the pagan feast to the newborn sun made it the most apt choice of several that were tried.

Bawdy beginnings of holy days

It was a technique of the time to smooth the way for conversion by supplanting pagan ceremonies with Christian likenesses. The Feast of the Epiphany, for instance, takes place on the day that Egyptians marked the virgin birth of their god Aeon. The festival of the goddess Diana was replaced with the Assumption of the Virgin and the Celtic Feast of the Dead became All Souls Day.

(Occasionally Christians grow fretful at the bawdy beginnings of some of their holiest days: An act of English parliament in 1644 abolished Christmas as a “heathen festival"; it was reinstated promptly when the Merry Monarch, Charles II, took the throne. )

Similarly, the Jewish ceremonial lighting of candles during Chanukah bears the imprint of pagan sunworshipping. The eight days of Chanukah have some points of resemblance to the Roman Saturnalia, also a festival of goodwill and rejoicing which was observed originally on December 19 and later extended for seven days. Chanukah, the happiest of all Jewish ceremonial days, celebrates the victory of a Jewish tribe, the Maccabees, in history's first war of conscience.

The selection of deep. dark, cold winter for determined merrymaking sets up an inevitable conflict that many experts blame for some of the despondency of the season. Days of brief sunshine produce their own melancholy. And so does the imminence of the year's end — the dying of time, years running out, life running out.

In addition to this, for many North American Jews Chanukah has become a period of painful yielding. Their holiday pales beside the more widely and conspicuously celebrated Christmas, a comparison which causes Jewish children to feel bereft. To offset this, some Jewish parents decorate a Christmas tree — calling it a Chanukah bush — and put presents beneath it. These concessions shame the devout. both those who practise them and those who observe their fellow Jews practising them, and thus contribute to holiday depression.

But the deepest and most serious depressions at this time, bordering on a temporary mental illness, are believed to be a legacy of jealousy in childhood. Some doctors have reported in scientific journals that some adults under psychoanalysis even demonstrate an unconscious and corrosive envy of the Infant who receives so much love and attention at Christmas and cannot be competed against.

Other experts are examining a theory that problems arise at Christmas because reality is suspended by the childish pursuit of pleasure. Dr. Cattell observed that most people are healthy enough to manage the intoxication of tinsel, spruce and incense without losing sight of maturity, but others regress firmly into childhood and find a chamber of horrors awaiting them.

The Christmas-Chanukah observances. however, cannot in themselves create an untypical mood. They only exaggerate feelings which during the rest of the year are simmering but kept repressed by the thumb of conscience. At holiday time the conscience relaxes and releases whatever malice and envy it has been hiding.

Sandor Ferenczi, a brilliant Hungarian psychoanalyst, believed that the loosening of external and internal restrictions, which accompanies a holiday-inspired release from routine, is frightening to some people, causing them to grow alarmed, despondent, restive and ill. Among the side-effects of festive easing of the conscience are an aroused sexual appetite and an interest in aberration.

The period surrounding Chanukah, Christmas and New Year’s Day is not only the most chaotic of the year but the most permissive of exuberant behavior. As a consequence it can exert a most disastrous effect on people who are confident only when they are under the control of a routine-filled life. Dr. Jules Eisenbud, a New York psychoanalyst, observed in a paper, Negative Reactions to Christmas, that this season permits “social sanction to forms of enjoyment which at other times must be held to a judicious minimum.” Another psychoanalyst, Dr. L. Bruce Boyer, added, “It is to be expected that the degree of neurotic response to such an intense holiday release would be frequent and severe.”

Psychiatrists arc collecting an interesting dossier of Holiday Syndrome case histories. One of them describes a woman engineer who was exhibitionistic, aggressive and convinced she was unwanted. At Christmas she always felt especially forlorn. “I used to feel that if I didn't find something wonderful that Christmas, I’d find it another,” she told her doctor. The “something wonderful” was proof that her parents loved her, a gift that was perpetually withheld.

Another woman expressed hatred of her preferred brother only when Christmas approached, a malevolence that always surprised and terrified her. A psychiatrist drew out the underlying cause. As a child, the woman had always felt that her parents favored her brother. This feeling became particularly poignant at Christmas, and in later years, although she had long since forgotten the supposed favoritism, the coming of Christmas revived the hurt.

A department store buyer who also grew up with a much-favored brother became savage in her business relationships with men during the Christmas season and twice was fired because of it. Her doctor discovered she had once asked Santa Claus to change her into a boy so her parents would like her better. The collapse of this confidently expected miracle left her with an annual vendetta against the masculine sex.

A salesman who loathed Christmas traced it to an event when he was nine years old. He discovered a new bicycle hidden behind his house and assumed it was intended for his Christmas gift. When it went instead to his younger, handsomer and more clever brother, he formed a distrust for Christmas that thirty years of living hadn't healed.

A strongly religious woman went to a psychiatrist when she realized she hated Christ every year at Christmas. She was blaming the Baby, it turned out, for her own emotionally barren childhood. A beautiful young girl began to quarrel viciously with her boy friend at Christmas, becoming demanding and petulant. Her father had deserted her mother, an absence the girl felt most acutely at Christmas and which ever after prodded her apprehension that all men eventually desert their wives.

The Utah psychiatrists studied the case of a man who was so wretched in his home town at Christmas time that he fled to a nudist camp. One father, otherwise a responsible citizen, passed bad cheques every Christmas. Another, who delighted his family with his choice of birthday and anniversary gifts, always refused to do any Christmas shopping at all. A divorcee who felt sentimental about Christmas couldn't endure being alone then — she cried and broke out in hives.

“Some of the ordinary unhappiness at Christmas is related to the turbulence in the family,” explains Dr. MacLeod. “Quite a few people are sensitive to the strain of household upheaval and are upset by it. The home becomes unfamiliar, which disturbs and worries everyone. You'll notice that children react by contracting some kind of ailment. We now know there is a definite connection between emotions and the body's ability to defend itself against some of tile causes of illness."

Whatever causes it — lack of sunshine, childhood jealousy, confusion, old wounds or apprehension because the lid is off — the Holiday Syndrome is now drawing considerable medical attention. The chief benefit so far is that those who endure the strange malady of loneliness in the midst of gladness, ire instead of awe, know at least that they are not oddities, but members of a substantial group.

They have some practical solutions to ponder. Some families have stopped sending Christmas cards and others exchange few gifts or none at all, investing the resultant saving in CARE packages or local givings. Some individuals have overcome their aversion to Christmas by rooting out their prized collection of old injustices. There is an evident trend toward quieter, sweeter family celebrations, a tendency to savor that has been accelerated by current portents of doom. With the hustle out, it's astonishing what remains — a sense of holiness, for one, and peace, and even joy.

Enjoy more great stories from The Maclean’s Archives. Start your 30-day free trial today.


 
Filed under:

Comments are closed.