The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future

Chrismas stars and ballsEach year, when I take down the Christmas decorations and pack them away, I write a motivational note to my future self encouraging me to look up, chill out and enjoy the festive season. That might sound a bit crazy, but the truth is I have an anxiety about Christmas that borders on a phobia. The note is usually brief – ‘Relax and enjoy!’ Or ‘You can do this!’ – instructions meant to cut through the tension. Then I seal it in the box with the baubles and store it away, only to be read when I unpack it again the following December.

I have been in Buddhist training for most of my adult life. Practice helps me to understand why I am the way I am, accept the way I am, and illumines the path to necessary change. Like many of us, I have weathered some very human storms. Through Buddhism, I have come to understand that whilst our suffering is caused by our conditioning and attachments, it is also the path to liberation. I know this to be true. I know how to be still. I know how to direct myself. But then there’s Christmas!

While others happily and excitedly prepare for this seasonal event, I become increasingly aware of my building anxiety. I pledge to pace myself, take things steady. There are presents to buy and wrap, cards to write and send, decorations to put up, Christmas food to order and prepare. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Yet, as I go through the motions, a sadness descends like a grey mist and even though I make lists and organise myself so that I can get through the preparations in small, manageable chunks, I seem to be ruled by the limbic brain and struggle not to spin into utter panic.

Knowing this, I write the notes in acknowledgement of this unconverted state of suffering. Christmas Past, speaks to Christmas Future and tries to reassure this fearful being that it is not a big deal, yet for me, karmically, it really is!

Christmas 2020 was different. In a state of lockdown, due to Covid-19, the Government allowed us Christmas Day to be with our families but only three households could mix. I have three grown-up children, who usually pile back into the old family home, with their partners and children, so to choose just two households to join us for Christmas, leaving one of them out, was not something that I would countenance, even though one of my daughters volunteered to stay away. So everyone stayed at home. Things were quiet and low key and, without the usual hustle and bustle, I had time to ask more deeply just exactly what my difficulty with Christmas is.

As a result of doing this, I read a very different note to myself this Christmas. It did not chide me to be happy. It spoke not so much of a dislike of Christmas but the ambivalent feelings that it invokes. The idealism of all our hopes and dreams being pinned onto one day in the calendar year and the uncomfortable, unsatisfactoriness of that. It spoke of the love of sharing with others, set against the concern that I have for the homeless and those spending Christmas alone and how the homeless and the lonely are homeless and lonely all year round but somehow, on this day, it feels so much worse.

It spoke of how I found myself tearful and fearful for turkeys and pigs in their blankets, whilst also thumbing through the BBC Good Food Magazine and planning lunch. It spoke of the tension between the wish to be generous to others and a tendency towards excess that does not represent ‘The Middle Way’. Christmas has a quality to it that can seem to promise eternity, whilst slyly leading us away from it if we are not careful.

But the note also pointed out that, in my reflections, I had ‘touched that tender, soft spot of being’ and understood that the basis of my sadness and suffering is love. Christmas has a way of drawing up wistful melancholia that is still present but easy to miss at other times of the year. It is good to acknowledge that, to investigate it.

There is no note in the bauble box for me to read, next year. I thought about it but the need was gone. These missives have served their purpose. Christmas will continue to press my buttons, I have no doubt but I can see some of the causes, if not all and I will continue to do my Christmas training, with open-hearted curiosity, however long it takes.

8 Replies to “The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future”

  1. That is perfectly lovely, Karen. Thank you. I am SO in tune with it! I spend most of December on the edge of tears. I think I know what it’s about – the dead are gone, the past is past and I want it all back at once, just for a day. And I too am more than likely to cry, or at the least feel sick at heart and in the stomach, at cartoons of rejoicing pigs anticipating blankets for Christmas. Even typing that makes me well up. All to do with over- anthropomorphising I guess. And I am enduringly sad for turkeys too. I guess we all do it to some extent, but I seem to be a rather worse case than most of my friends. Most likely all to do with childhood, the memories of which are so vivid. Being human. A blessing of course…
  2. Thank you Karen, I love your article, for me, the way you express things comes across as heartfelt and open. Your words illustrate someone who is called to do the very best they can and an acceptance of ‘that which is’, without trying to control or ‘fix’ things. I sense in many ways you are talking about the reality of many who are living with suffering and vowing to live with all we encounter in a way which has the consequence of realising an enlightened world, despite knowing we are not in control and don’t know how our actions will bring this about. Simply following life wholeheartedly. Thank you so much for sharing your training Karen. Bows, Mo
    1. Thank you, Mo. It seems that I am not alone in having these feelings around Christmas. And you are right, being open to the world, as it is, means we will feel both the sorrow and the joy. Thanks for commenting.
  3. Thank you for this, Karen. It makes me think of “With the ideal comes the actual”, and how we, as human beings, can feel caught between the two. Maybe training with this, accepting both, as fully as we can, is what training is? Julius
  4. Beautifully written Karen. There are so many expectations around the festive season. It is supposed to be a joyful, happy, harmonious time of plenty. One can easily feel not able to deliver on the tall order, which then can trigger a host of feelings. As you say, the openness of simply being present, allow whatever is arising and investigate, makes that whatever is arising does not need to define us. Your present self seems to have sufficiently instilled the truth of that.

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