How to survive Christmas when you hate it - according to a psychologist
Two years ago, I came into work on 1 December to find a bag on my desk labelled 'Karen’s Christmas Intervention'. It contained many Christmas themed gifts and challenges – such as watching a Christmas DVD and going to a carol service.
These were all designed to help me find something to like about Christmas. I tried everything – after all, someone had made a big effort. But while I enjoyed completing each challenge, it didn’t change my values. I remain a Grinch.
In many parts of the world, we are expected to love Christmas and embrace all things about it. Anyone who doesn’t is quickly labelled a Grinch and advised to keep their views to themselves so that they don’t ruin a magical time for others. But how reasonable is this? And if you are a Grinch, how can you survive the yuletide season?
Quite simply, a Grinch is a person who dislikes Christmas. Some definitions suggest that Grinches try to spoil Christmas for others. However, in my experience, it is not the Grinches who proselytise – people who love Christmas work very hard to try to change the Grinch’s standpoint.
If you are considering calling someone a Grinch, think first about how well you know them. If you are unsure of their circumstances then take care, not because being 'grinchist' is against the law (Grinch is not a protected characteristic), but because there are many reasons why a person may not like Christmas. These may range from anti-consumerist political views to loneliness, financial worries, family difficulties or traumatic childhood experiences.
However, if you are a fellow Grinch, here are five suggestions, informed by science, that may help you to navigate Christmas. Remember that different strategies work in different contexts and for different individuals, so try to find a strategy that fits you.
Countless studies show that people who live with long term health conditions hugely benefit from finding other people who understand what they are experiencing. Someone who lives with persistent pain may worry that they are a burden on their loved ones and so be reluctant to say how they really feel.
Finding other people who have similar experiences provides them with an instant recognition and level of understanding. They can say what they really think, and be who they really are, without fear of upsetting their nearest and dearest. So one solution is to find other grinchy people – perhaps with the help of social media – among whom you can stay true to yourself.
Can’t face the thought of Christmas dinner in a restaurant with colleagues but don’t want to explain why? Why not conjure up another commitment which means you can only come to the pre-dinner drinks? After all, there are always lots of invitations this time of year, so nobody will be suspicious. This means that you show your face and show you are willing to participate. And you get home at a reasonable hour before the mask covering your grinchiness slips.
The Grinch is a Dr Seuss character who despised Christmas
To carry this suggestion off, you need to practice your communication skills. Don’t fall into the trap of feeling that you need to over-explain your other commitment – this is what people do when they lie! Also, remember that you don’t have to say yes to everything. Be strategic. Work out which event will gain you the maximum brownie points and politely decline all others.
Fake it 'til you make it
If you want to completely conceal your inner Grinch, you may want familiarise yourself with a 1979 experiment by psychologist Ellen Langer from Harvard University. She invited a group of men in their 70s to attend a week of reminiscence at a retreat outside Boston.
During the week, they were instructed to act as if they were 20 years younger and were banned from talking about anything that had happened post 1959 (the retreat was also styled using objects from the '50s to give context). At the end of the week, they demonstrated marked improvements in dexterity, mobility, memory, blood pressure, eyesight and hearing. Acting as if they were younger had rejuvenated them.
So if you are a Grinch wanting to hide your grinchiness or even want to see if you can learn to like Christmas, think about how a Christmas-lover might behave and put it into practice.
Even if you aren’t able to convince yourself, you are likely to hoodwink others, hide your grinchiness and so keep at bay the endless questions about why you don’t like Christmas.
Stand up for yourself
Some people are proud of being Grinches and want to be open about it. If so, encouraging others to respect your viewpoint will require you to ensure your communication skills are in tip top condition – assertive but not aggressive, calm but not not exercised, and open but not judgemental.
Also, remember that respect goes both ways – just as you wish your views to be respected, the choices of those who enjoy and love Christmas also deserve respect.
Practising calm and assertive communication with an openness to compromise is most likely to lead to the best outcome. There is nothing wrong with liking or disliking Christmas. But there is no need to spoil it for those who take the opposite position to you.
Be kind to yourself
Whatever approach you adopt, Christmas can be a particularly draining time. It is therefore very important to be kind to yourself. Make sure you schedule things that are meaningful and restorative to you. Remember that the Christmas season, like everything, will pass.
If you can build in time in your schedule for activities and behaviours that reduce your stress and help you reconnect with what is important to you, you will find that you are better able to cope with the Christmas demands.
And, if all else fails, do what I have done - I once booked time off work the week before Christmas. I told people I was going away and that, as a consequence, I wouldn’t be able to attend any of the upcoming Christmas functions. In reality, I was at home having an undisturbed, blissful and as grinchy-as-I-liked staycation.