By: Sophie Prosolek
Christmas is a time of festive joy, of giving and receiving – ‘it’s the most wonderful time of the year’, or so the song goes. But several years ago I decided to make a change to the way I celebrate Christmas – I decided to abstain from receiving gifts and I’ve been all the more joyous for it since! I sound like a real-life Grinch don’t I? But don’t worry, I don’t have green fur; I just have Bipolar (II) Disorder.
I have been participating in an “alternative” Christmas for the past 5 years. By that I mean I don’t receive presents, send cards, or join in with festive merriments such as tree-decorating or boozy organised fun. For me, all these things are fraught with mixed emotions, unrealistic expectations and of course, the pressure to be ‘happy’ – not really conducive to my mental health.
Christmas can be a difficult time of year for so many reasons, but for me it was my mood disorder which made the holidays hard. My moods never seemed to match the sense of festive joy that I was supposed to feel, and I struggled with the overwhelming expectations of a ‘perfect’ family holiday (which of course were never met). I found receiving presents extremely hard when my mood was low (I mean, why did I even deserve any presents anyway?). This also made being around my family very challenging as they didn’t understand my triggers (but who can blame them, neither did I!)
It took me a long time to realise that receiving presents was a big trigger for me. Unwrapping a ‘surprise’ with everyone’s eyes fixed upon my reaction – that was extremely overwhelming. My low mood and mixed emotions would often lead me to cry, and of course my family found this difficult. I think they were very confused, and perhaps thought I was ungrateful, but of course it was simply part of a seasonal, episodic mood.
I thought very hard about how I could improve my festive situation. At first I wondered if I should avoid my family all together, giving them a chance to enjoy the holidays without me (I was the ‘problem’, right?). Fortunately, I love my family far too much to cut myself off. I guess I must also love myself too because I realise that my mental health doesn’t define me, nor does it make me a ‘problem’. So, instead, I started asking my loved ones to not buy me gifts (including gift cards, vouchers and all other non-gift-type gifts) in order to avoid those mixed emotions. Christmas improved with immediate effect, just like festive magic. It was like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders and I could finally just enjoy my family’s company – which is all that I wanted really.
Though I no longer receive presents, I still give them. Of course, I understand that those who love me used to derive great joy from giving gifts to me, and I know that I’ve sort of deprived them of that, so I still might accept a small, useful gesture (I get a lot of socks!); but that’s OK, it’s low-key and almost guiltless – its easy.
For anyone out there who finds Christmas hard, I definitely recommend thinking about ways you can celebrate on your own terms. For me, making Christmas a little less materialistic has enabled me to continue enjoying the holiday season and frankly, it’s saved my festive mental health. Of course, my personal approach to the holidays won’t work for everyone, but it’s important to remember that we all have a right to celebrate differently – and that’s OK. After all, the best gift you can give yourself (and your loved ones) is good mental health.