Last Sunday, neighbours with a view into the Parkdale Prana Room, a “bodymind” studio in an emerging but still gritty section of west end Toronto, had the chance to witness a curious procession: about half a dozen men and women circling through the second-floor space wearing masks they’d made themselves using things like multi-coloured construction paper, string, glitter, crayon and clothespins. Participants in the masquerade—part of a 3½-hour workshop designed for people who find Christmas emotionally challenging—had been instructed to recreate the mask they wear to cope with the holidays. Some were wild affairs—slathered in sequins, feathers and trailing loopy tentacles—while others bore glued-on tree bark or were eerily happy-faced. Attendees jabbered in make-believe languages, approximating the chit-chat of Christmas get-togethers, closely inspected the masks that intrigued them, or listened to the sound of breathing against paper.
An odd way to spend a Sunday in the hectic weeks before Christmas. But probably no stranger than a typical encounter over the holidays for many of us, what with all that forced bonhomie, performed within the pressure cooker of a turkey dinner or boozy office party. “I personally have a window of about three hours in which I’m able to be joyous with others,” says Pilates teacher and Gestalt therapist Suzy Lebec, who along with Luisa de Amaral facilitated and wrote the curriculum for the “Christmas! . . . My Way” workshop. “Then I have to take a break. There is a lot of people-pleasing that goes on that’s so stressful.” She says of her own holidays, spent with a Croatian grandmother: “We take bets on whether she’ll make a scene.”
Hence this workshop, which an advert promises will help whether “you’re haunted by ghosts of Christmas past, feel like Scrooge or fear the social awkwardness of Rudolph” (Lebec and de Amaral, both recent graduates of the Gestalt Institute of Toronto, plan more Christmas intensives in the coming weeks). “Psychotherapists get a lot busier at this time of year because people feel more stress—especially people who are experiencing loss or loneliness or who don’t really have much to celebrate.” Working with Gestalt techniques, the pair guide participants through “experiments”—role-playing, art therapy, group discussion—aimed at evoking emotional responses they can mine for psychological gold. Participants—and I was one (though this was purely professional curiosity: I cherish Christmas and the time it allows me to spend with my unendingly fascinating relatives)—began by sitting in a circle, turning to our neighbours and outlining what troubled us about the holidays. “I can’t stand speaking to my colleagues at the office Christmas party,” I told the man to my left. Our guides then asked us to tell the group what our partner had left “unsaid” in that initial discussion (“I feel the doors are all closed and I’m not sure there’s anything behind them,” my partner said of me).
Later, we all took turns marching to the front of the room in our masks, which the group described in short bursts of dialogue (“I feel judged,” one man said of mine). The exercise suggested the idea that masks can telegraph as much as hide our emotional innards. “It’s a way of connecting to the world and revealing as much as you want,” says Leanna, an HR professional in her thirties who signed up for the Christmas session because she is grieving the death this year of her 22-year-old brother. In another experiment, each of us was asked to tell the group why they should consider coming on our holidays—a sort of Christmas pitch—and Leanna, speaking in a soft voice, her lips quivering, spoke of her boyfriend’s family home in the country: peaceful, surrounded by trees, wrapped in a luxurious deck. The picture, painted with such care, led more than one of us to say we’d choose Christmas with her. “I realized I had something when I thought I didn’t have anything,” says Leanna, who’ll hang an ornament from her brother’s service on the Christmas tree at that country home—a way to include him. “Had I not done the exercises, I wouldn’t have known I have that special place to go.”