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Reflecting on the Meaning of Holidays

By Lyn French, A Space Director

Our December blog reflects on the holiday season and the emotions that can arise out of the expectation and reality of spending time with family. It looks at some examples of our Emotional Learning Cards  to help illustrate some of these emotions. 

We have a special holiday offer on our cards which you can access here

‘Holiday’ has its origins in the Old English word  hāligdæg ( hālig holy + dæg day).  In some cultures, holidays retain their connection with a specific religious event or a particular ‘holy day’.  The word ‘Christmas’ for example is a shortened version of the ‘mass of Christ’ and a time when the birth of Jesus Christ is celebrated.  Today, in the west, the midwinter break in December continues to reflect past traditions and historical references as well as current ones.  Santa Claus, or St Claus, instantly recognisable as Father Christmas, can be traced back to a Dutch figure, St Nicolas whose reputation was rooted in his generosity and gift giving to the poor.

Over the years, supporting the less advantaged has been somewhat eclipsed by the now widespread tradition of exchanging presents amongst family and friends and many of us probably participate in seasonal festivities without a clear understanding of their origins. Instead we aspire to organise the ‘perfect’ Christmas day.  In fact, far from being a cosy, candlelit celebration, Christmas can be a time of stress, disappointment, hurt and conflict for many, even for those who live in the West but do not acknowledge the day or follow a different religion.  We know that advertising makes much of buying specially chosen gifts regardless of cost or circumstance which can feed into a kind of social anxiety amongst friends, relatives and even family members. Christmas has become a fixed image in people’s minds representing an idealised family get together which is entirely unrealistic but which many yearn for even when repeated experience offers a different reality. In anticipation of the day, we can all project our fantasies onto it. Some of us want to recreate a special Christmas from childhood while others aim to have the Christmas they never had when young, often leading to disappointment or to an emptiness inside if it doesn’t all add up to a fulfilling experience. As well, there are those who find that a low mood, depression or anger sets in when the December break approaches as they have convinced themselves that ‘everyone else’ will have the kind of Christmas they so want, leaving them feeling as if they are on the outside looking in. Even families who don’t acknowledge Christmas can find it a difficult time of year as their children can feel left out if they don’t receive the latest presents, especially if their peers do.

We instinctively know that fulfilment is rooted in emotional giving and receiving, not in the exchange of material goods. However, many of us still project onto Christmas or other special holidays our conscious and unconscious wish for the perfect experience where each gets what they most desire, no one is overlooked, harmony and peace abound, good food is shared and there is plenty to go around. In this scenario, gifts can be over-invested and wanting the best or the most presents can dominate.  Ironically, repeated experiences of the novelty of presents quickly wearing out and disappointment of yet another Christmas not living up to expectations often fuels an even deeper longing for the picture book Yuletide rather than an acceptance that most experiences in life are mixed and may not match our anticipations.  This tendency to yearn for what we don’t have is usually a result of our untested belief that others are getting what we aren’t. We might forget that all families have their ups and downs and no one’s Christmas will be perfect especially if satisfaction is measured in material instead of emotional terms.

All families are complex.  Even a home with just one adult and a single child such as the kind represented by Yara El-Sherbini’s Mother and Child:

laylah medium

will not be without complicated feelings especially around holiday periods. Such a mother and child may feel moments of loneliness if there are only two of them around the Christmas table, imagining bigger, noisier, more exciting families, forgetting that larger families can also bring very complicated dynamics and cause hurt, upsets and conflicts even on Christmas day.

Putting a scarf around a bowling pin to suggest a human figure calls to mind how many of us have to deal not only with the realities of our family composition but also with conflicting cultures. Yara El-Sherbini’s sculpture reminds us that ‘the old world’ or our culture of origin as represented by the shawl-like cloth may not sit comfortably with the new, symbolised by the bowling pins.   Perhaps Christmas is a very awkward and uncomfortable time for our family if we don’t celebrate it. Maybe we feel acutely left out even if we have different ‘holy days’ or special events that our own culture acknowledges. Or we might feel our difference is suddenly thrust into the foreground, making us stand out and seemingly as out of place or as ‘alien’ as the figures in Yinka Shonibare’s Dysfunctional Family:

Yinka Shonibare medium

Emotions may also be stirred up by conscious or unconscious thoughts about an absent or even unknown birth parent or about people who were in our life but are no longer.



NS Harsha’s photograph Ambitions and Dreams:

Ns harsha medium seems to depict long white shadows trailing after each figure, perhaps representing the ‘ghosts’ from the past which may follow us, colouring times like Christmas, entering our dreams and making us long for a different kind of life or for the company of relatives who are far away in a distant country, unable to be with us. Or we may have a heightened awareness of those who might be estranged from us due to family conflicts or misunderstandings. And of course, the dead are often more present in our minds and memories at Christmas than at other times of the year.

Whatever our circumstances, the Christmas holiday is likely to be a complex time of the year.  We can all benefit from re-kindling the spirit of ‘holy days’ which were originally introduced so whole communities could come together with others in meaningful ways and, in the process, to re-commit to shared life values.

We’ve developed exercises and a worksheet to give you ideas about how to use the emotional learning cards for personal reflection on the theme of Christmas. You can use these exercises as they are or adapt them. Or you can simply read them to inform or refresh your own thinking about family experiences and how to open up conversation on this theme.

Different themes will be added to this website so check it at regular intervals. Let us know if there are particular subjects that you’d find helpful for us to feature.

Written by Paddy Chatterton