Tuesday 21 January 2020

The Stefanie Preissner column: Revisiting disappointment

Stefanie Preissner
Stefanie Preissner

Stefanie Preissner

Is it just me or do you other people find the run-up to Christmas much more enjoyable and gratifying than Christmas Day itself? In this case, I already know the answer, because I asked on Instagram last week, and it seems the majority of you prefer the build-up too, and actually find Christmas Day quite stressful, upsetting or anti-climactic.

Every year, Christmas gets increasingly more commercial, glittery and dazzling. It's every place you turn and it's all-consuming. Everything has a Christmas version of itself. From Christmas cups and plates, to Christmas clothing for your dog, to festive accessories for your car, so you can pretend it's a reindeer - there isn't a corner of your world that can avoid being draped in tinsel.

There's a sort of 'Christmas sprawl' happening, where Christmas seems to start at midnight on Halloween night now. The extra build-up increases excitement, sales and festivities, but the downside is that by December 25th, our expectations have also increased beyond any ability to be met. We're tarnished by our anticipation of the perfect holiday.

But it's not our fault. For two months we have been filled with ads, pictures and impressions of sexy models with happy families giving preposterously extravagant presents while drinking expensive wine under deluxe Christmas trees in palatial homes. Our subconscious grows to equate those images with what Christmas 'should' be. But then we wake up on a damp, cold December morning in Mallow or Monaghan, and the reality hits us: the day we expected was an Apple Watch but what we've woken up to is an apple core strapped to a broken Casio.

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The run-up to Christmas is a joy; we make lists in front of fires, see old friends, and swan about buying presents for other people. It's been proven that people are happier when they are 'other'-focused. Have you ever returned a lost phone or wallet to the person who owns it and been delighted with yourself for the rest of the evening because you just feel so damned virtuous? This is part of why the run-up to Christmas feels so great. We are at our most thoughtful and generous as we take other people's wishes into account - self-seeking slips away. We also make plans and ask people what they're doing for the holidays. This usually puts me in great form, because I talk people through my traditions and rituals and bask in the warmth of my nostalgia for all the Christmases gone by. The truth is, however, that what I am recounting is actually just a sense memory. If I had a full, video-quality recall of all the Yules of yore, I would recollect tears, disappointment, boredom, and a pronounced habit of being too full, yet somehow unfulfilled.

Why do the merry but tranquil Christmases that I remember seem so disappointing nowadays? Is it because my presents are no longer as surprising as they were? Is it that I find extended periods of time around people vaguely exhausting? Is it that by constantly repeating the same traditions, the day itself has become predictable? Is it that Christmas Day is simply a day for children and once we've grown up, the world is just a little bit more glum? It's probably a mix of all of the above, with a slight weight in favour of the last.

Whenever we think about Christmas, or talk about it, we are really talking about our childhoods, aren't we? Our experiences of previous ones are inevitably bound up with how our parents did the whole thing. We had adults going out of their way to make a magical day for us, or else we didn't, but either way, that's what we're basing our expectations on. Christmas is actually a time of revisiting disappointment - life as it is versus life as we remember it versus life as Hallmark would have it be.

This will be my first Christmas not spent with my Nana. Every year for the last 31, I have woken up and tiptoed up to my presents, opening only one or two before exercising mammoth control and waiting for Nana to wake to open the rest.

This year, I am expecting a particularly grim Christmas Day. I would give anything to throw a strop about what movie to watch, or sulk because Nana wants her dinner at four and I want it at three. But I won't get to do that, and so my expectations for joy are low. Just you wait... I bet my gloomy outlook and my concerted effort to create new traditions and rituals around Christmas will mean I have a very merry one.

In any situation the secret to happiness is a formula: happiness is equal to reality minus expectations. As we approach C-Day, keep it in mind. If you want me I'll be over on Instagram with my low expectations. Join me @stefaniepreissner.

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