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Exploring the meaning of Christmas

Iniva Creative Learning has recently published a new set of cards – A-Z of Emotions (purchase in store now). In this month’s blog, Lyn French (A Space, Director) highlights some of the feeling states featured in this set and looks into some of the unconscious associations which Christmas taps into.

In the West, December is associated with a Christian holy day- the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas, that is, the mass of Christ, is now celebrated on the 25th regardless of whether we are active believers or not. It is widely accepted that a man named Jesus did live, even if he is simply a narrative creation, he marks an important moment in the development of humankind’s consciousness. He is described by some as ‘the first socialist’, always on the side of, and sensitive to, the poor, the disenfranchised, the rejected and the destitute. Jesus knew that humans suffered mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically. He responded, not with patronising attempts to ‘fix’ others or find easy solutions but as one sentient being in touch with the experiences of another and trying to understand.

In more recent centuries, exchanging gifts and enjoying special foods on the 25th has taken centre stage, often squeezing religious ceremonies and rituals to the sidelines. The idea of sharing a meal with others is easily replaced by the wish to host or ‘curate’ the perfect Christmas that meets increasingly commercially defined fantasies of what constitutes bountiful living, family values and aesthetic pleasures. The glowing picture of a family gathered together around a candlelit dining table with a splendidly decorated tree in the background around which are arranged artfully wrapped, ‘ribboned and bowed’ gifts is just that – a fantasy for most, if not all. No matter what setting we create for our special celebrations, family will be ‘family’. Families are complex groups of individuals bound together by history, tradition, dependency and familiarity. Love is in the mix but so is disappointment, hurt, jealousy and rivalry. In other words, families, like individuals, have a complex emotional history and conscious as well as unconscious feelings about themselves and each other.

Children do not understand that the images of families projected by the media and advertising are constructed pictures often with an agenda operating in the background. Anticipation runs high as December rolls on. It’s hard to resist the idea that we can turn the raw ingredients of Christmas – a tree, lights, presents and food – into a mutually enriching experience where everyone’s wishes are fulfilled and no one is left out. This idealisation of what Christmas ‘should be’ needs to be challenged.


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Image illustrating EXCLUDED © 2014 Dia Batal Excluded, Detail of the map of the Gaza Strip, Mixed media, digital composition

Dia Batal’s image illustrating excluded in our new set of cards entitled A-Z of Emotions reflects how politics can lead to a territory such as the Gaza strip being cordoned off from the rest of the country. This geographical reality has a symbolic parallel: those with less cannot enter the land of the privileged and can feel just as trapped in their own ‘zone’, sealed off from the lifestyle and opportunities of those with more. Christmas is a time when the differences between the ‘haves’ and the so-called ‘have-nots’ loom large.

Thinking from a psychoanalytically informed perspective, on a more primal level, as infants, we depend on the ‘all giving’ mother to feed, clothe, comfort and nourish us. As babies, our physical needs are basic, and in good enough circumstances, they are all met. Our emotional needs are just as important. We never fully grow out of our wish for love and acceptance from our parents. ‘Father’ Christmas plays into this fantasy, bestowing on the family everything that they could possibly wish for. Perhaps the myth of Santa Claus has survived because it taps into the infantile desire for the fulfilment of all of our needs by a benign parental figure without even having to express them.

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Image illustrating YOUNG AT HEART © 2014 Chila Burman. Youth Power – The Voice of the Future, Mixed Media

We are hardwired to yearn for this kind of unconditional love. Babies lack the ability to look after themselves in any way. On a more primitive level, the absence of love can signify the loss of care, which in helpless infants threatens their very survival. Chila Burman’s collage illustrating the letter Y captures our deepest wish for close bonding with the words ‘handmade with love’. We all want to be held in the gaze of a loving ‘other’. Christmas tantalises with the suggestion of mutual gratification – we can be both the loved object and the generous ‘lover’. However, it rarely fulfils on this promise. Like the lone figure in Matthew Krishanu’s painting illustrating the letter E, it is easy to experience the 25th as a somewhat empty day, drained of real meaning, no matter how many ‘props’ we’ve bought to set the scene.

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Image illustrating EMPTY © 2014 Matthew Krishanu View (detail), Acrylic on board

Memory plays its part. We cannot recall every ordinary calendar day but the 25th December stands out. Maybe we look back through rose-tinted lenses at Christmases past when we were children, excited by the thought of bulging stockings and brightly wrapped gifts. Or perhaps our thoughts are drawn to those who used to be part of our family but are no longer with us. Absence rings louder at this time of year than any other. In common with the portrait created by Phoebe Boswell, children might feel puzzled by a missing parent and wonder what triggered their departure. Children do not have the capacity to understand the complexity of relationships without some help from adults. If there is no explanation, they may wonder if an absent father or mother means they simply are not ‘loveable’.


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Image illustrating PUZZLED © 2014 Phoebe Boswell Puzzled, Illustration – Pencil on Paper

As individuals we can all take the necessary steps to ‘tone down’ expectations around Christmas and bring the day back into a more reality-based perspective. It is important to put the effort into creating enjoyable and mutually reinforcing celebrations with friends, family and neighbours. We all benefit from meaningful get-togethers which depend not on the investment of money but of time.


Written by Jenny Starr