Stressed Out – You and the Rest of Us

Published The Times

January 5th 2004

YOU think that was the season of goodwill? Wrong. Christmas is in fact a longrunning experiment in human stress psychology.

Already knackered from work, we do domestic overtime. Toiling with decorations, stalking the perfect gift, foraging for exotic foodstuffs, we then, without any training as chefs, turn our tiny living spaces into restaurants to which we invite a bunch of potential food critics. Many of us do no cooking at any other time of the year and yet suddenly we attempt to roast a perfect piece of poultry. Who’s the poltroon? Christmas is held at the wrong time of year. We are too sluggish from winter and dismayed by the lack of daylight in December. The South resents the North for their sadistic insistence on putting back the clocks, thereby consigning the Home Counties to gloom from half past three in the afternoon.

There is far more depression and depressed thinking at this time of the year than in the summer. Sensible folk believe that Christmas should be held in August when we’ve got the energy.

Christmas also demands that we “go home to our family” when in contemporary Britain there exists a whole alphabet of families. Nearly all of us grew up in Family A. Many of us now belong to Family B. This we have made with a third person who themselves grew up in Family C. There may even be additional families D and E which we forged with ex-partners. It is impossible to be in more than one place at the same time. Christmas is therefore a season of contradictions when we endeavour to nestle in the family bosom that makes us feel the least uncomfortable. If you are gay, there may be no room in the inn at all — Christmas is often a heterosexual event.

Going home can also mean re-entering a time warp of conflict. Look, here’s your old bedroom — reassigned to you as if you had never left it. Here’s Dad still insisting that you get up for Reveille at 7am. There’s Little Sis still managing to drive an envious wedge between you and your mum. Before your very eyes, the old family portrait is repainted and the old family stereotypes reconstituted. You used to be the black sheep? Welcome back to the flock.

Christmas helps to re-infantilise thousands of adult citizens each year, regularly as clockwork. The feast is ostensibly about trying to recapture some of the magical joys of childhood — we say “it’s a time for children” — but the most childish behaviour we indulge in is our own financial extravagance, for which we know we will have to pay with high levels of stress and credit card interest in the dank months of January and February. We still seem to believe that money can buy us magic when the truth is that it never could buy us love. Money is versatile, but it ain’t that versatile.

Food apart, Christmas is also badly planned. In fact, for many family members there is absolutely nothing to do except overeat in front of images of a state assassin pretending to be God’s gift to women and licensed to kill every bad pun in the English language. Contrary to the blissful myth, Christmas is sometimes indescribably boring. Many have had their fill of the event long before a twangy guitar announces the opening credits of the Bond movie or the afternoon fruitcake begins to unsettle a gastric nerve.

Christmas may have harmed your health. You have been warned.

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