Confession: I’m a bit of a Scrooge. Every time I turn on the radio only to hear Christmas carols in early November or see holiday decorations spring up before Thanksgiving, I hear an inner Dickensian voice exclaiming: Bah! Humbug!
My resistance to Christmas merriment can be traced back to my first few holiday experiences when, more often than not, my parents couldn’t afford to get me anything for Christmas.
On the very first Christmas I can recall, I remember walking with my mother down a frosty alley to meet our extended family for dinner. The streets were littered with vendors trying to sell off their last bits of holiday merchandise, and a man with a particularly kindly face beckoned us towards his stand.
He was selling gorgeous ballet slippers in festive colors. The red ones were especially beautiful—perfect for Christmas—and I looked up at my mother, pleading silently.
She kneeled down beside me and took my hand, spinning me around to face the street just in time for me to see a bus passing by.
“My love,” she said, hugging me tightly against her. “Do you see that bus?”
“Yes mama,” I said, wondering where this was going.
“In order to make your every Christmas wish come true, mama would need a bus-full of money, just like that one passing by there,” she said. She thanked the vendor, and we walked away in silence.
From then on, Christmas stopped being about the excitement of unwrapping presents. Instead, I looked forward to the way our small apartment smelled when my grandmother made cookies. I couldn’t wait to decorate the tree with my dad by using pieces of cotton to create a snowy effect. The holidays were about the cousins, uncles, and aunts who slowly trickled into our home, their excited voices filling what had once been a quiet room.
Christmas gifts, when they did come, were supremely utilitarian: an illustrated encyclopedia, a sepia globe, and on one particularly memorable occasion, a computer chair that my parents tried to sneak by me while I sat on the couch.
“So that you can study hard,” they explained.
These days, my family is perfectly happy to forego exchanging gifts—it’s certainly easier on our bank accounts. But while I’m content with standing apart from the Yuletide spirit, I’ve started to wonder whether anyone genuinely feels like an insider during what’s supposed to be the merriest time of the year.
I was struck by this thought on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving this year, as I sat on my parents’ couch to watch a movie. In spite of our contractual immunity from Christmas shopping obligations, I couldn’t help but be annoyed at the continuous calls to “shop’ and “save” that punctuated our attempts at relaxation.
I tried to distract myself from the commercials by scanning my phone. My social media accounts were overwhelmed with memes about overeating, overspending, and the stress of visiting family—all of which suggested a general discontent with the holiday season.
This seems to point to a holiday paradox. We’re overwhelmed by crass commercial messages insisting that people spend themselves into feelings of joy and peace on one hand, even as our communications on social media betray our true feelings of spiritual exhaustion and holiday burnout.
It’s clear that the holidays remain a time of year when Americans feel pressure to spend. This year, shoppers spent around $16 billion in online and retail sales on Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday, followed by upwards of $3 billion on Cyber Monday. To put that into perspective, the total retail spending for these three shopping days was more than the yearly budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in fiscal year 2015.
Moreover, the National Retail Federation reported that for the first time, online shoppers outnumbered those who shopped in stores. Insert meme of a family sitting serenely around the Thanksgiving table, faces illuminated by the light of their cell phones as they click “check out.”
The pressure to spend, coupled with the unprecedented ease of buying online, has led to rising financial stress among many Americans. A Gallup poll conducted in early November showed that American shoppers plan to spend an average of $830 on Christmas gifts. A different study showed that 72% of Americans report feeling stressed out about money, with more than half reporting that they have “just enough” or not enough money to make ends meet at the end of the month.
With mounting financial demands during the holiday season, many of us succumb to using our credit cards in order to meet those needs—and then face lingering bills and rising interest rates with the start of the new year. The inextricable link between spending and the holidays leaves many of us struggling to keep up, and the rest of us simply wondering how others do it.
Meanwhile, the pressure to project an image of happiness and fulfillment during the holiday season adds a whole new level of stress. From the smiling faces of television stars under the mistletoe to filtered photos of our online friends, it seems that a feeling of merriment (or the illusion thereof) is almost as in-demand as the iPad. Yet this sets an unrealistic standard for us to live up to. It seems that the more we have, the more we feel the need to have more and better things, and the more we are likely to believe that it’s unfair that someone’s grass is, ultimately—inevitably—greener.
So it’s understandable that the holidays tend to trigger feelings of anxiety and depression. If we’ve suffered the death of a loved one in the past year, this time of togetherness is an opportunity to feel the loss afresh. If past holidays are associated with unhappy memories, we’re likely to project that feeling onto the celebrations at hand. And if we happen to lack a strong support network, this time of year can be particularly alienating.
This is something that I’ve had a unique opportunity to witness firsthand. Over a year ago now, I posted an ad on Craigslist and asked people to anonymously share with me their personal stories of hardship. My aim was to create a safe space where people from all walks of life could share their experiences without fear of stigma or judgment.
I received a big uptick in responses in the months leading up to the New Year in 2014, as more people felt the need for support and belonging during the holidays. It seems that in spite of many articles instructing us on how to “beat the holiday blues,” many of us still privately struggle with feelings of loneliness during a time of year that’s supposed to be about togetherness.
While loneliness may seem personal and unique to oneself, the feeling seems to be troublingly common. A 2014 study by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that one in five Americans report not having someone to rely on for emotional support. The same study has found that nearly half of those with no support reported feeling depressed within the past month.
For me, the last year has been an opportunity to offer that support to the hundreds of people that I’ve met through Craigslist. Their stories get overlooked when, as a society, we become obsessed with the zeitgeist of happiness that is Christmas. Our resistance to acknowledging sad realities during the holiday season has caused me to question many of the easy, feel-good narratives that seem to be so popular during the so-called happiest time of the year.
A few months ago, I spoke to a man who had recently lost his mother to cancer. She died in pain, and he told me that he struggled with the image of her suffering during the last days of her life. Above all, he was angry that he had to remember her that way. She had always been his rock. Without her, he felt alone and afraid of the emptiness he would feel this Christmas now that she was gone.
In the last year, I’ve also met with women and men who struggle with body image disorders and are particularly prone to stressing out about overeating during the holidays. I’ve heard the story of a veteran who had both of his legs amputated and had to re-learn how to walk. Those of us who are healthy often overlook the constant battles that others have to fight in order to reclaim and maintain their health.
I continuously hear from people with substance abuse and addiction issues. They tell me of the countless times that they’ve tried to quit and get clean, and of the countless times they’ve failed. And they all tell the similar narrative of their addiction being the “pink elephant in the room” during holiday gatherings—everyone sees it, but nobody wants to talk about it.
This project has also showed me that the perfect image of the nuclear family portrayed in movies and commercials does not exist for many of us. I’ve heard from children who have been molested by family members. I’ve heard from families torn apart by divorce, and from children forced to spend their holidays in limbo between mom and dad. And I’ve heard from abused spouses who sit around the table every day with the indescribable fear that this may be the last time.
When I first started this project, I was approached by a man who had lost all of his money—including his home and business—during the Great Recession. His family faced homelessness, and he slowly started crumbling under the pressure of mounting bills and responsibilities. At the culmination of a hard few months, he decided to commit suicide.
He told me that he hoped his family would receive the insurance settlement and forgive him his perceived failure as a father and husband. When I asked him what had saved his life, he told me that his daughter had called at the crucial moment—just as he was getting ready to leave his car with a stool and rope in hand.
From all of these people, I’ve learned to think differently about love, family, and well-being. But the stories I’ve heard in the last year have also made me question beliefs that I’d once taken for granted. Before I began listening to stories about people’s darkest secrets, I believed that people were generally good; that it was human instinct to help others in need; that the world was basically a fair place.
My conversations with strangers have shown me that the world is full of suffering, and that it afflicts people indiscriminately. There’s no Santa rewarding good people with presents and punishing bad ones with coal. I’ve met good people who have gone through far more anguish than could be considered fair. I’ve also met people who have caused others a great deal of pain without facing retribution. Fairness, in short, has nothing to do with it.
So Scrooge’s famous exclamation Bah! Humbug! wasn’t just grouchy nonsense. He was actually calling out the pretense of the entire holiday season—a time to willfully ignore real problems while we attempt to shop ourselves into feelings of happiness and joy. The word humbug refers to “something designed to deceive and mislead.” As an unhappy loner, Scrooge thought that anyone filled with joy when Christmas rolled around was a fool.
In an increasingly commercial season that many find stressful, painful and alienating for any number of reasons, a lot of us can probably relate. For Christmas outsiders, the holidays are not a reminder of how much we have to be grateful for, but of all that’s missing from our lives.
Perhaps that’s what bothers me most about the consumerism and noise of the holidays—not the Christmas carols and shopping madness itself, but what it so often covers up. As I walked home today, I saw droves of people pass a homeless man who was shivering in the cold rain. Few of them made eye contact. During the holidays especially, it seems we often go out of our way to ignore the people in distress who are right in front of us.
That’s why I agree with Scrooge’s objection to the false cheer and humbuggery of the holiday season. I think that was also the lesson my mother meant to impart when she and I walked away from the red ballet slippers. She taught me to not take the sparkle and cheer too seriously for it would fade with the new year. What remains is a reality that we have to contend with year-round.