What to do when the festive season doesn’t feel like the most wonderful time of the year. By Beth Kempton
For me, the days leading up to Christmas Day have been the hardest in the past.
It’s a dark, rainy night in the second week of December, and my head is resting against the filthy window of a double-decker bus while I watch the raindrops falling down the glass at the end of a long day. I’m a postgraduate student in Bath, riding the top deck back to my flat after class. The bus stops for a moment, and the raindrops take on an orange glow. They are reflecting the light from chandeliers blazing through the night from the second-floor drawing room of one of the elegant Georgian houses on the hill. I see the silhouettes of a woman in a dress and a man holding a glass of wine by one window, and a group of people chatting and laughing by another. It’s a storybook scene, and I am the reader, unable to make my way into the page and participate. I can’t tell whether the knot in my stomach is hunger or longing. Not for a Georgian drawing room and chandeliers, but simply for an invitation.
I felt so lonely that year. Utterly absorbed in my studies, I had made few friends outside of class. I was single and living on a tight budget. Everything about the countdown to Christmas in that beautiful Roman city seemed to tap me on the shoulder and remind me of that fact. Colleagues were heading out to the Christmas market for mulled wine after work, friends were out shopping, every restaurant was filled with people in party hats popping champagne corks. Meanwhile, I spent a lot of time in the bookshop.
As term was drawing to a close, in a translation study group with some of my Japanese classmates, one of them started to cry. Then she set off some of the others. With the release of tears came reluctant admissions of how much they were all missing their families. Only then did I realise that they too had been wandering through the streets of the same city, feeling a similar way to me, only their yearning for home was possibly even deeper than my own, given the thousands of miles between them and their loved ones.
I invited them all to my parents’ house the following weekend. We baked Christmas biscuits, ate a roast dinner and laughed more than we had since meeting each other three months earlier. By looking up and out, I realised I was not the only one, and that solidarity made all the difference. I began to see loneliness as a sign that I was in need of connection, and in the process I discovered others who needed it too.
According to Caroline Abrahams, charity director of Age UK, ‘Loneliness is a negative feeling people experience when the relationships they have do not match up to those they would like to have. When this feeling persists it can have a negative impact on wellbeing and quality of life. It is similarly common at all ages, but the circumstances which trigger loneliness can vary by age: for younger people this might be leaving education, whilst for older people loneliness can begin with the loss of a spouse or the onset of poor health.’
Sometimes a profound change – such as a loss, or a breakup, or a serious illness – can leave us in a difficult place for a while. There is a stoicism in our culture that has kept the lid on loneliness for far too long. Thankfully, though, people are finally starting to talk about it. According to the UK government, loneliness is as detrimental to your health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, and more than three-quarters of us feel lonely at one time or another. But while it is pervasive in society, loneliness is not always visible.
Of all the stories I gathered while researching my book Calm Christmas, some of the most affecting came from people who felt lonely within their marriages. They would go through the motions at Christmas but feel empty inside. Others felt deeply lonely within large groups of people, often suffering a sudden realisation that they didn’t really know – or like – those with whom they were spending time. Social media influencers admitted feeling empty beneath the façades of their Instagram feeds, while others felt trapped within the walls of their expensive homes. Some people felt lonely as they clung on to the ragged end of a friendship. Others shared that they had few friends to call on, often because single parenthood or a demanding job or years of travel had caused bonds to stretch and eventually break. For some, the chill wind of loneliness blows in through the front door whenever their children leave to spend part of Christmas with an ex-spouse. For others, it lingers all season long now that their life partner has departed and their children live on the other side of the world.
Loneliness is an aspect of the human experience that we all dwell in from time to time. The sensation of loneliness is not always the main issue, ache as it might. The main problem arises when we ignore the message it is sending us, and it is exacerbated when we measure ourselves against other people and feel inadequate. Many of us are loath to reach out due to fear of rejection, which causes us to retreat further, feel even more lonely, and deny ourselves the medicine of human contact we really need.
But there is always something you can do. Know you are not alone. When you’re down, reach out. When you’re up, reach out.
Decorate the outside of your home with lights to raise the spirits of passers-by. A simple lantern by the front door or fairy lights around the window can be your gift to strangers. This simple act can forge strong connections with neighbours and the rest of the local community as it sends a message of friendliness and approachability.
List the advantages of your current situation. If you find yourself complaining about something, add the words ‘so I can …’ at the end of the sentence to flip it into an opportunity.
Broaden your horizons by listening to podcasts, reading books, attending lectures and exploring new music. Minimise your screen time and be mindful about how you are using social media. Meditate, do yoga or attend a mindfulness workshop.
And most importantly, take good care of your mind, body, and spirit this winter.
Beth Kempton is the author of Calm Christmas and a Happy New Year: A Little Book of Festive Joy (Piatkus, £12.99) and host of The Calm Christmas Podcast. Find out more at bethkempton.com or connect on Instagram @bethkempton