Sunday 20 April 2014

Planning can make for a more peaceful time, writes Patricia Casey

The aroma of cinnamon, the gentleness of flickering candles and the warmth of cosy fires are intoxicating to our senses.

Place this in the context of the story of a baby born in a stable, arriving into poverty, yet totally loved by those who encountered him, and the mix is a heady, intoxicating fusion.

The image on Christmas cards and in our churches of an infant watched by adoring parents and visitors make us want to be part of a similarly happy family.

And Christmas Day is the one day of the year that we try to achieve this idealised closeness.

Family and Christmas fit in the public psyche like hand and glove.

If people stray outside the immediate family circle on Christmas day, it is to visit extended family and that, in itself, is most uncommon.

It is rare to hear of parties on Christmas night for friends and neighbours, so immersed are families in themselves.

But the cosiness can turn into familial claustrophobia if we have to spend too much time in the company of others, and personal space is at a premium.

The family may become a tinderbox of emotion and tension if old disputes or disagreements between members are still festering.

Those who work at breakneck pace all year take advantage of the long Christmas holiday to regroup physically for the year ahead.

This is one of its rewards as it affords an opportunity to take stock of life itself, to examine our own perspective and to consider our good fortune.

We will have time to contrast it with the plight of those who are destitute, bereaved or ill.

Unfortunately our ability to be still and be meditative or reflective has been so undermined by constant activity and stimulation that many find the lure of the sales overpowering and take to the high streets on another spending spree.

So our dream of relaxing over a good book or over our favourite TV series (being shown yet again) is shattered. Exhaustion, not recuperation, becomes the order of the day.

The effect of feeling let down by Christmas has been demonstrated in a number of ways.

There is scientific evidence that deliberate self-harm, most common among women, decreases in the lead up to and during the Christmas period, only to increase again in the immediate aftermath.

The explanation for this phenomenon rests with the central part that women play in the preparation for Christmas, a role that is marked by concern for others and by a personal feeling of being valued.

Once Christmas is over, the sense of purpose diminishes and life becomes more challenging again.

Marital breakdown also increases in the post-Christmas period as the tension of being in the constant company of one who is no longer loved erupts into bickering, and sometimes even violence.

This is especially true in recent years, since financial problems are often ignored in the lead-up to Christmas.

Borrowed money may achieve that "perfect" Christmas, but when the reality of debt dawns, the result can be devastating.

Alcohol also contributes to post-Christmas blues and anger and violence may be the result.

But Christmas does not need to be a trial, at least for most people. A little forward-planning can reduce the tribulations of losing personal space and can transform the festive season into a time for reflection and renewal.

Figures from Britain for the past few years show church attendance is on the rise, at least at times such as Christmas and Easter, since the 9/11 bombings, as people use the transformative power of tragic events to take stock of their lives and turn to higher powers for an explanation.

Simple activities such as a country walk or visiting friends for a few days can ease the tensions that follow being cooped up in an intense environment, even if we are with those we love.

Instead of binge eating and drinking, saying "yes" to moderation will prevent post-Christmas guilt, and we can stretch our imagination by sitting down with a good book.

If we feel we simply cannot deal with our family for too long, then we must curtail our stay.

We must be realistic about Christmas and take care of ourselves, mentally, physically and spiritually.

Irish Independent

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