For many years, Christmas was a time of ‘settling’.
You had to be on your best behaviour, spend ‘a good amount’ of money on presents, make sure you didn’t share your political opinions at the table (lest you upset grandpa), and socialise with people out of duty, not neccessarily any desire.
It’s all rather performative, isn’t it?
Last Christmas, however, threw all of these mumbles and grumbles right out of the window. There were no work-do’s, no Santa’s grottos, no Christmas markets and bustling high streets.
Families were kept apart, their Christmas-day traditions were broken, and many of us were unable to say our final goodbyes to our loved ones. It was no longer ‘the most wonderful time of the year’ – just a harrowing reminder of all of the pain and torment of 2020.
If Covid has shown us anything, then, it is that time – both by ourselves and with others – is the most valuable of things.
For some of us, the pandemic has been the push we needed to resolve our differences with friends and family, and to truly appreciate those around us. For others, it has been the breaking point that has forced us to move on.
What is undeniable, though, is that Christmas will once more look – and feel – different for a lot of people this year.
But will this be a permanent change? Can Christmas and its traditions ever go back to the way they were?
How has the pandemic influenced our attitudes towards breaking Christmas traditions?
Various lockdowns over the past two years have given us a lot of time to think – and therefore to evaluate how happy we are with our lives.
A big factor in this is the people with which we choose to surround ourselves. The pandemic has made it quite clear that life is too short and unpredictable to be unhappy or hold grudges, and this has definitely factored into our attitudes towards the holidays.
Counsellor Michelle Ruth tells Metro.co.uk: ‘The pandemic has forced us to make decisions about who and where we spend our time and energy, and Christmas brings that into sharp focus.
‘It may be that on the surface we are making decisions based on logistics and Covid risks, but underneath there may be more emotionally-driven decisions.’
Christmas is predominantly hailed as a family-based holiday. From Christmas adverts and films, to matching mummy-and-me pyjamas, there is an unspoken rule that if you’re not spending the day with family, it’s not really Christmas.
Josie, a West Midlands based student, tells us: ‘I don’t believe in the idea that you should put up with your family just because you’re related, but I feel as though there’s a huge amount of pressure on people to spend Christmas with family.’
Covid has given us some space to challenge this pressure.
The pandemic removed the sense of how Christmas ‘has to be’ and allowed people to think about new ways of being.
Michelle Ruth continues: ‘The pandemic has caused some people to redefine their feelings about family. Some people will be more appreciative of time with their family, whereas others may feel quite the opposite, and the pandemic has been the catalyst to take action.’
The concept of ‘family’ is always pre-defined for us as referring to those biologically related to us – largely as a result of the idea of the ‘nuclear family’. However, such an idealised expectation is not the most realistic standard to have in our modern society.
Statistics show that there were 2.4million separated families, including 3.6million children within those families in Great Britain in the latest financial year, suggesting that Christmas time for many families is a matter of on-and-off years for each parent. On top of that, we must consider people estranged from their families, those without a family of their own, and those who would generally rather spend it with their friends.
‘Whatever your take is, it’s important… to plan a Christmas that supports your mental health,’ Ruth concludes. ‘The pandemic has caused many people to rethink their priorities when it comes to who and what is deserving of our time.’
Psychotherapist Somia Zaman reckons this rethinking will extend to other Christmas traditions.
‘Christmas is very much built on traditions and last year, some people realised that they didn’t actually enjoy all of those customs, from extravagant present buying to large family gatherings,’ she explains.
‘The pandemic removed the sense of how Christmas “has to be” and allowed people to think about new ways of being.’
This view certainly resonates with freelance journalist Fiona Li, who says: ‘Christmas is stressful, especially when I don’t know what to buy for people… Due to Christmas being overwhelming, it isn’t as thrilling as it used to be.
‘If I could go back in time, I could tell my younger self that Christmas isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and you’re going to hate it the more life goes on.’
These days, Fiona much prefers Halloween.
Is Christmas a performative holiday?
Christmas is hyped up to be one of the most exciting days of the year.
Everyone comes together, buys each other presents, and a lot of us document the whole thing on social media – what people have brought us, what we’re doing, where we’re going, and so forth.
Due to restrictions, there was a lot less of this online. Was this the break we needed from our overly optimistic online presences? Or did it actually make us realise that we need to spend more time focused on the people around us?
Natalie Bickel, a PR Creative Communications Specialist and Christmas Children’s Book Author says: ‘There were a lot of posts on social media of people standing outside windows, getting to see grandparents, parents, and other beloved seniors after months of no interaction.
‘Social media still played a factor [last Christmas], but it was for much more meaningful reasons than simply to show off a gift.’
For some of us, this time apart was what we needed to appreciate the people around the table, not the presents under the tree.
Somia Zaman echoes this: ‘I think we learned last year that Christmas is about family and loved ones as well as rest and recuperation, rather than outward displays of “getting into the spirit”, such as elaborate table dressings, too many hours spent cooking and attending parties you would rather not be at.’
With nowhere to go, and only your limited bubble to see, Christmas 2020 was not worthy of our instagram feeds. We focused a lot less on how other people would perceive us, instead focusing on the people and things immediately around us.
However, social media is not the only material thing we pander to throughout the festive holiday.
Fiona Li says: ‘Christmas forces me to spend money on people I don’t want to.’
We’ve all been roped into a secret Santa we did not want to participate in, and begrudgingly spent money we didn’t want to spend on someone we’re not overly keen on. It sucks, right?
But the pandemic exacerbated money issues around Christmas dramatically. Suddenly, it was not just a case of not wanting to buy things, but more that doing so might tip us over into a financial burden.
We’re all guilty of scrolling through influencers instagram feeds and sighing with jealousy. We see their huge Christmas trees, and their open fireplaces with coordinated stockings and pyjamas, and can’t help ourselves but wish our lives looked like that.
Last Christmas may have changed all this, finally giving us the shake we needed to stop prioritising displays of wealth over the precariousness of our financial situations.
‘I think this Christmas will come with a lot of pressure… as so many of us have lost people, money, jobs, and so forth – it can be hard to put that all aside for a day even if it is christmas,’ says Emily, a student based in the West Midlands.
How do loss and grief play into changed attitudes?
The biggest change for many of us this Christmas will be the empty seat at the dining table. Grief is always exacerbated when it comes to holidays, as the lack of a loved one’s presence is more sorely noted. It is not often that the nation experiences grief at such a widespread capacity, though.
Natalie Bickel tells us: ‘I think no matter what causes the death of someone we love, grief surrounds that time of year, at least for a while.’
‘I definitely think grief has impacted my feelings towards Christmas,’ says Emily. ‘The buildup lasts so long, and you can feel like everyone around you is looking forward to a great family day while you are struggling’
Gwydion, a student based in the West Midlands, says there’s a real need for sensitivity over the festive period.
‘I’m lucky enough to have not lost anyone over this pandemic,’ he says. ‘I have lost family in the past however, for me it’s drawn me closer to the people I have. But I can imagine the feeling of having to “celebrate” family could definitely not feel right for those who haven’t been as lucky as me. I think we should be sensitive about that.’
Thousands of Brits will be facing their first Christmas without grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters – even children – as a result of the pandemic. Going back to ‘normal’ so soon after these deaths is inevitably an overwhelming experience, which will certainly contribute towards changed feelings about Christmas.
On the topic of losing a loved one, Michelle Ruth encourages people to ‘try to think about planning ahead so that you can make space for your grief on the day and you carve out some time to process the meaning it has for you this year.’
‘It’s important to be aware of your own tolerance and work out how to ensure your mental health is supported throughout,’ she adds.
Will Covid-19 change Christmas forever?
Despite the horrors of the pandemic, some people liked the lowkey feel of Christmas last year.
‘For many, Christmas 2020 was spent in the kind of low key way that people never believed was possible and some found that they actually enjoyed one of the most relaxing and stress free Christmases ever,’ suggests Somia.
‘Many people have rethought what Christmas means to them and will start to develop a new set of traditions for the future.’
On the other hand, Natalie Bickel suggests that it has made her more appreciative of her Christmas traditions.
She tells us: ‘Normally when everyone is in town, it’s madness, a beautiful chaos, but still madness. My husband and I were able to stay longer at the places we went [last year] rather than rushing on to stop after stop to meet and greet with family.’
‘I do miss the low-key, relaxed feeling the pandemic brought during the holidays, but getting to see the ones I love in person is much more meaningful and valuable.
‘Overall, it made me appreciate the chaos of rushing to see everyone because it means I get to be with them in-person during the one time of year we’re able to be together.
‘I don’t believe there will be a permanent shift in how people feel about the holiday. If anything, I think gratitude will outweigh any negativity that was experienced during Covid-19.’
Whether your traditions will be changing in accommodation of fears about Covid, or if they will be changing for good – the pandemic has helped strip back the ‘rules’ around Christmas.
Hopefully this means we’ll see more people spending the holiday how they want to – not how they feel they should.
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