The images associated with Christmas, in popular culture and advertising but also increasingly on personal social media accounts, are invariably happy ones of people surrounded by family and friends.
Richmond Uniting Church minister Rev Dr Sally Douglas said she believed that the notion of having a perfect Christmas created a lot of pressure, and sometimes heartbreak, for those who for various reasons would be excluded from such an ideal.
“I think it is exceptionally common and I think because of the special pressure to pretend that you are having a good time a lot of people aren’t able to say ‘actually it’s not great,’” Dr Douglas said.
“Whether people are gathering with family or aren’t able to or don’t have someone to gather with, it can be a very difficult time.”
“It can be for really significant reasons like the death of a loved one or a family break up but it could be for reasons that are maybe less dramatic, for example a relationship that has always been fraught, old conflicts that haven’t been attended to or resolved.
“Also there can be the financial stress with people thinking that they have to give some enormous gifts to one another or an enormous food offering.”
Dr Douglas suggested these notions of what Christmas is weren’t biblical.
“That’s a kind of folk Christianity anyway, the notion that Christianity is about getting together with your perfect family is in contrast to what the Christmas story is actually about,” she said.
Dr Douglas said that, according to the theories of some scholars, in the biblical account of Joseph and Mary returning to Bethlehem it is possible they had nowhere to stay because the couple had already been ostracised by Joseph’s relatives as they were having a baby out of wedlock.
“The theme in the various birth narratives in the Bible is that it’s not about the nice people getting nice stuff, it’s about the excluded people who get to hear the Good News,” Dr Douglas said.
“The whole Christmas message is about the excluded being included and people making new family with people who aren’t their natural family.”
Dr Douglas said on Christmas Day Richmond Uniting Church traditionally partnered with Anglican and Catholic congregations to host a lunch where people volunteer their time away from family celebrations, joyful or otherwise, and join with both those serving or being served who otherwise would be alone.
“There is this beautiful sense of it being a sort of messy taste of the Kingdom where everyone is welcome and there is enough and you’re valued and cared for,” Dr Douglas said.
“The way of Jesus is not about everything being awesome all the time or rejoicing all time. God can hold us in our joy but God can hold us in our tears.”
Dr Douglas offered this advice to those who wanted to help someone through a difficult Christmas.
“Sometimes it can be really powerful in the case of a particular loss someone is going through – whether it is a divorce or break-up or a death – to actually name and say ‘I am thinking of you at the moment. This is your first year since so-and-so, you might not want to talk about it but just to let you know I am thinking about it’,” Dr Douglas said.
“People can be so afraid to name the lost person in case they make someone sad. People can end up being so lonely because they never hear the name of their loved ones. To name it but say ‘I totally understand if you want to talk about cricket instead’.”
Dr Douglas warned against presuming you could fix things or cheer people up because even getting a tissue could be construed as a sign that someone should stop crying.
“So you’re giving the person the choice and power but you’re saying ‘I see you’ and I am prepared to sit with you through this grief,” she said.
“Just sit with them and be comfortable with the tears.”
Are we too obsessed with the idea of a perfect Christmas?