The darkest time of the year


A teacher is someone who helps others to look at things in a new way, especially the very things that it would never occur to them to see differently.  A teacher is one who follows the example of Socrates and questions and challenges everything.  So on that note, let me tell you a secret: I have never liked Christmas, and I suspect I am not alone.  Although it is an urban myth that the suicide rate increases during the winter holidays, it is nonetheless true that Christmas is a wretched time for many people for various reasons, including loneliness, financial pressure, family stress, and the never-ending pressure to have a “perfect” holiday.   Articles offering advice in dealing with Christmas depression are ubiquitous this time of year, which should, in and of itself, tell us that Christmas is far from “the most wonderful time of the year”, with all due respect to Andy Williams.

Let me share a few possible theories on why people who don’t enjoy the Christmas season feel the way they do:

1. Seasonal Affective Disorder
15% of Canadians suffer from SAD, a pathological mood disorder in which diminished sunlight during the winter months leads to bouts of crippling depression.  It is not known what causes SAD, but it is believed its origins may lie with a deficiency in the pineal gland, which produces a hormone called melatonin which is associated with the sleep/waking cycle and is more active in the winter months.  The gradual decrease in daylight hours culminates in the winter solstice (when, in my part of the world, the sun sets at a wretchedly early 4:15 pm); by that time, SAD sufferers may well have accumulated a great deal of depressive suffering, making Christmas a miserable experience.

2. Unrealistic expectations
I suspect that many people, under the constant barrage of vapid nonsense about what a wonderful, happy time of the year Christmas is, develop in their minds the idea that they too must be ecstatically happy and have no problems during the holiday season.  When life’s problems refuse to go away, they may be doubly discouraged.  Holidays, by their very nature, seem to encourage a kind of “picture perfect” thinking, in that we want to experience a series of timeless moments which will live in our memory for years or decades to come.  Since real life is rarely equivalent to Christmas marketing propaganda, disappointment, for many, is inevitable.


3. Financial pressure
Christmas is essentially a money-making machine.  People may feel under tremendous financial pressure to spend extravagantly on gifts, often putting themselves into serious debt.  Financial pressure can be one of the most debilitating and crippling sources of stress. The insidious nature of Christmas debt is that it is accumulated for ostensibly selfless reasons; yet its effect on the individual is as devastating as if it was the result of a frivolous trip to Las Vegas. This excellent article from the British newspaper The Independent calls it the “Christmas trap” and rightly

4. Too much introspection
A little introspection can be a good thing, but it is possible to spend far too much time examining one’s own mind.  The days after Christmas leading up to New Year are often a time when people look back on their lives and consider their various virtues and flaws; not surprisingly they weigh and measure themselves and come up wanting.  Too much of this rumination can lead to powerful feelings of inadequacy and diminished self-worth.cbintro

5. Loneliness
Although many people are surrounded with loving family and friends at Christmas, many are not.  For lonely people, Christmas is possibly the worst time of the year (although New Year’s Eve is probably a close second). 
Christmas loneliness

Yet in spite of my ambivalence towards Christmas, there is a day that looms large in my mind at this time of year.  It is not December 25, but December 21–the winter solstice.  As everyone knows, winter solstice is the darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, and has been the focus of hundreds of festivals throughout human history, of which Christmas is but one.  There is a tremendous symbolism to this date, embodying as it does a strange paradox, both the day of greatest darkness and the beginning of the end of that darkness.  For people who find Christmas to be a time of great darkness, perhaps the answer is to start thinking of it in terms of its original intent (along with the original intent of the hundreds of other winter solstice festivals that span both cultures and centuries): a time of renewal from a deep fatigue, a time of awakening from a long slumber, a time of moving from darkness to light.

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