Christmas, Adulthood, and Festive Transitions

Christmas, Adulthood, and Festive Transitions

Christmas as a young adult is weird.

As is the fact that this gingerbread man has a button but no shirt. What’s with that?

It starts getting weird in your mid teenage years, I think, although maybe this depends slightly on your family traditions, and whether or not you have siblings (plus, whether they’re older or younger). I’m the youngest of three, so my siblings outgrew many of our childhood traditions some time before I did, although given that we were never a family who believed in Father Christmas, this wasn’t as big a deal as it might otherwise have been.

It creeps up on you, until you realise that Christmas has become more stressful than enjoyable, and you don’t know where that came from but you want it to go back to how it was. You try to recapture some sense of feeling Christmassy, but the festive spirit remains elusive, sometimes turning up in the last few days before Christmas itself, sometimes not turning up at all.

It shows itself in the renegotiation of family relationships and the shifting nature of Christmas traditions themselves. Christmas for me used to be just my immediate family. Then, after my grandparents died, my uncle started to visit on Christmas Day itself instead of on Boxing Day, when he’d previously come. Three years ago, my brother’s girlfriend joined us for Christmas for the first time. Last year was the first Christmas where my brother was completely absent, having moved to Canada. This year, he’s back to visit, with his fiancee (as of last week); my sister’s boyfriend won’t be joining us, but a lot of their presents will be joint or at least related to each other.

Oh, and we’re having more of the extended family to visit, too, which will make it the first Christmas where we’re worried about not fitting everyone around the table. Our family shifts and changes and grows; in a few years perhaps there will be more married couples sitting around the table, and maybe even children at some point, although I can’t envisage that as being particularly soon. Old traditions have to be adapted to make way for new ones that don’t make sense anymore.

My parents decorating our tree in 2015.

I can’t speak for everyone, and obviously there are many young adults who don’t celebrate Christmas for religious or other reasons, but I feel like  my changing relationship with Christmas is in many ways symbolic of the transition to adulthood. As a child, it occupied a fairly fixed position in the year, and our way of celebrating it has always remained essentially the same. Each year we unearth the same artificial tree and put it together. Each year we decide which homemade ornaments are still smart enough to go on the tree and which ones should be left in the box. Each year we dig out the Christmas cards and inevitably fail to get them posted on time. And yet things keep changing.

It doesn’t help that I’ve got a few negative associations with Christmas — in 2011, for example, I had a horrendous double ear infection for the entire two weeks of school holiday; I was also going through some tough emotional stuff with friends, and that winter my grandma fell ill before passing away in mid January. So that wasn’t a good year. Nor was 2013, when my anxiety focused itself on Christmas for various reasons to the point where I was having panic attacks at the thought of it. I actually had my most severe anxiety attack because of a carol service that year, one that was sudden and baffling and involved sobbing so hard I couldn’t breathe, for no apparent reason. It was kind of terrifying. I hadn’t been explicitly diagnosed with anxiety at that point, I don’t think, so it was all new and unpleasant.

Christmas since then has been a slow process of trying to adapt to the changes (something I’m not very good at) and recapture some of the festive cheer. 2014’s main selling point was that it was better than 2013. Last year felt slightly more successful. This year, I’ve managed to buy and wrap almost all of my presents already (one hasn’t arrived and one has been difficult to get hold of), which is considerably more organised than I’ve been for a while. I made a Christmas playlist, even if it’s mostly Tchaikovsky and isn’t very long. I hung baubles around my room at uni to make it more festive.

The ones in tartan/plaid-style wrapping paper are from me.

Moreover, I feel like when it comes to gifts I’ve reached a more adult stage. As a child, I was primarily a receiver, as I think we all are. We may give gifts, but they’re usually homemade or otherwise inexpensive, and their value is primarily sentimental. Though I still don’t have a job or an independent income and have to limit how much I can spend, I’ve gradually progressed to giving more substantial gifts, and expecting fewer.

Oh, and of course, there’s than depressing moment when somebody asks what you’d like for Christmas and you’re stuck for ideas, except perhaps a sense of purpose or maybe a good night’s sleep. You know you’re an adult when socks are no longer a disappointing present because they mean you can go a few more days without doing laundry.

I feel like this transitional period is one we don’t really recognise, but which a lot of us feel. The number of friends who’ve expressed to me that they’re struggling to feel Christmassy, or that they’re stressed about the holidays, or that they don’t know where all their excitement has gone, suggests that a lot of us struggle with the shift in our feelings towards this over-emphasised, horrendously commercialised period that so often comes with a sense of enforced cheerfulness (particularly difficult for those who struggle from depression or similar issues).

Nobody says, “Hey, Christmas will represent all the instability and change of going from childhood to adulthood, but without the acknowledgement that you get at birthdays and so on.” You have to figure that bit out yourself, or just wait it out and hope the feeling passes.

For me, I think it has a bit. I’m adapting to this new approach to Christmas. My anxiety isn’t gone — particularly given the very full house we’ll have on Christmas Day, and the inevitable difficulties that will arise — but it’s not focused on the same things. It’s okay that we’re letting go of some of our traditions. It’s okay that our Christmas now involves more people. It’s okay that things are changing.

What’s not okay is the amount of uni work I have to do this holiday. Somebody save me.

I had to bring a whole crate of library books home with me and I am filled with despair.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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