Have yourself a very scary Christmas

Vicars want it banned, police warn of its hidden dangers, and charities reckon it can drive us to drink and distraction - why is everybody so down about Christmas?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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‘Christmas is cancelled!’ screamed Alan Rickman’s nasty Sheriff of Nottingham in the film Robin Hood. This year it’s a man of the cloth called Martin Swan of Greater Manchester calling for Christmas to be cancelled.

Reverend Swan reckons the festive season is a time of ‘madness’ that brings ‘sadness and misery’, and has called for a ban on Christmas. ‘There’s so much pressure to conform to this mystical day’, said the cheery vicar. ‘And I don’t want Christ’s name being associated with so much harm and hardship to people.’ (1)

Harm and hardship? What about goodwill, good cheer and having a good laugh? Dream on, says Swan: ‘…over the Christmas period more people attempt suicide than at any other time, more families break up, there are more arguments, and people can’t stand it.’ (2) Mental note to self: avoid Swan’s church on Christmas Day.

But Swan is not alone. Charities, police and government bodies are falling over themselves to issue warnings about the financial, familial, emotional, stressful, criminal and diet-related horrors that make up the festive season. From overeating turkey leftovers to anorexics undereating turkey leftovers, from getting robbed on the high street to getting conned on the high street, from family bust-ups to family murders, it looks like Christmas is more jingle hells than jingle bells.

In short, the not-so-festive season is a time of strain, stress and depression that can drive even the most rational adult to drink, drugs and too much turkey. Who knows how previous generations coped with having time off work, loads of grub and presents, and trips to see friends and families? Let’s just give thanks that this year there are wise men (and women) to help us through the yuletide psychological traumas.

According to the ‘listening charity’ The Samaritans, Christmas brings ‘extra anxiety and heartache to many sections of the community’ (3) – with a Samaritans poll finding that ‘financial worries will affect almost one in four this Christmas….one in five people find the pressure to have a good time makes Christmas difficult….and 22 percent will find that family problems and pressures affect their enjoyment of Christmas.’ (4)

And this year will be particularly bad, thanks to Osama bin Laden and co. ‘Over a quarter of the population said the current world situation will make Christmas especially difficult this year’, says The Samaritans. ‘People over the age of 45 are more likely to find the world situation upsetting, with one in three people in this age group finding it a stress factor.’ (5) You might be able to drown your own sorrows in mulled wine and mince pies, but you can’t drown the sorrows of the world.

No wonder the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) has published ‘Top tips to lift your spirits this Christmas’. ‘Christmas may be the season of good cheer, but for many of us it’s also the season of great stress’, says MHF, advising people to ‘look after their mental health over the next few weeks and to resist the pressure to try and make it perfect’ (6). How? By following MHF’s ‘12 days to a mentally healthy Christmas’, that’s how. All together now:

‘On the sixth day of Christmas, learn to relax: lie down in a quiet place and tense and relax each area of your body in turn…. On the ninth day of Christmas, get moving: people with mental health problems have reported that exercise can be really helpful…. On the eleventh day of Christmas, watch those tipples: there’s a lot of booze flowing over Christmas and too much can disturb your sleep patterns ….’ (7) It looks like Ali G was right – Christmas really is mental.

If you’re thinking of escaping all the stress by indulging in a bit of retail therapy, think again. According to consumer bodies and cops, Christmas shopping is a minefield of con artists, pickpockets and angry shopaholics. ‘The festive season not only brings out the shoppers, but also the thieves’, warns chief superintendent John Wilson of Strathclyde Police in Scotland (8). But don’t panic – in time for the fake snow in shop windows and carol singers on street corners, the Strathclyde bizzies will be sending out ‘mounted police, dog handlers and motorcycle units’ to ‘deter bag snatchers, pickpockets and credit card fraudsters’, adding the final touch to the true Glaswegian Christmas experience (9).

But if you’re lucky enough to avoid getting mugged, you’ll probably get conned. The Department for Trade and Industry warns that Christmas is the perfect opportunity for rogue traders to take advantage of enthusiastic consumers, imploring us to ‘not let fake goods ruin your Christmas’ (10). Or maybe you’ll just suffer a Christmas shopping-induced panic attack, with the Mental Health Foundation warning that ‘a crowd of frantic shoppers’ can ‘push up your stress levels’, so maybe it’s best to ‘avoid the shops altogether by using mail order or the internet’ (11).

But why bother with all that shopping anyway, when it only adds to the ‘rampant commercialism’ that is the modern, stress-packed, sacrilegious Christmas? The Manchester-based Campaign for Real Christmas plans to ‘take on the world of commercialism and excess’ by launching a TV advert and song called ‘Sing your hearts out for the lad’ (the lad being the baby Jesus – remember him?) (12). And the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions has reminded its employees that ‘Christmas is not about consumption and general excess but sensible celebrating’ (13). Who said Scrooge was dead?

At least you can look forward to simple Christmas pleasures, like watching the kids’ faces light up when they open their presents – as long as you haven’t bought them anything to do with Harry Potter or video games.

According to consumer activists, ‘pester power’ (where kids pester their parents to buy, buy, buy all the latest toys) is one of the biggest contributors of stress to the ‘season of great stress’. And what the pests really want this Christmas is the Lego version of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Castle – which is a) 125 percent more expensive in Britain than in America, heaping further hardship on to the poor; b) already sold out, heaping further hardship on to everybody; and c) anti-Christian, with one British toyshop chain refusing to stock Potter toys for fear that children will be ‘drawn into ouija boards and the occult’ (14).

One Irish consumer expert reckons it’s time children (but mostly parents) were protected from big bad toy adverts: ‘The pressure put on parents because their children are being manipulated by advertising is immense. This should be the last Christmas where children’s TV programmes are targeted by toy advertisers.’ (15)

Then there are video games, bringing even more bad language, bad attitudes and bloodshed into homes this Christmas – with one journalist claiming that ‘Christmas, as we all know, is the season of stealing cars, shooting men in the face and wrestling with mucous-soaked demons’ (16). Just in time for the Christmas rush, a bunch of killjoys at the charity Children Now warn that video game-playing kids are ‘at risk from a desensitisation to violence’ (17): ‘They will be prized as Christmas presents, but Britain’s bestselling video games are so violent and sexually graphic that they are unsuitable for children.’ (18)

Surely we can still eat, drink a little bit and be merry? Don’t bank on it. We all know of the seasonal hazards of overeating, when clothes that fitted perfectly when you finished work in December suddenly don’t fit so well when you go back to work in January. But there’s also the problem of undereating – ‘When Christmas indulgence spells despair’ (19).

‘Bulimia reaches an all-time high over Christmas’, says the UK Eating Disorders Centre, ‘with people throwing up all the time and some resorting to cutting themselves’. According to one UK journalist, ‘Anyone with an anorexic in the family will recognise the mad, sick way that tension mounts towards Christmas’ (20). There was a time when Christmas was seen as a time of plenty – plenty of food and booze. Now we’re encouraged to spare a yuletide thought for those who see food as the enemy: ‘Christmas might seem like a good excuse to indulge in overeating and excess to many, but to people with eating disorders it can spell despair.’ (21)

But then, if the animal rights people have their wicked way, the thought of what your sliced turkey goes through in between the factory farm and the Christmas spread will be enough to turn us into a nation of temporary bulimics. ‘The turkey is synonymous with the festive season’, writes one journalist. ‘But the short life of the modern factory-farmed version is a distressing catalogue of disease, violence and sexual abuse.’ (22) Yes, you read it right – sexual abuse. ‘Grown men spend their days tweaking turkey’s penises for a living, sucking the semen into tubes (it tastes lightly salty, in case you were wondering), and then squirting it into females.’ (23)

So don’t go shopping in case you get mugged or conned; avoid visiting family or friends so that your stress levels don’t rise; don’t drink too much, unless you want to end up riddled with liver disease or dead in a drink drive incident; don’t buy kids the wrong kind of presents – but don’t let yourself be pestered into buying them the right ones either; and on Christmas Day spare a thought for sexually abused turkeys everywhere. Maybe the safest bet is to just stay at home where at least you’ll be ‘safe as houses’. Except that…

‘Homes can be lethal, especially with the combination of alcohol, cooking, possible unfamiliar surroundings and new toys strewn around the house.’ (24) According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, there are about 8000 victims of domestic accidents on Christmas Day, and another 10,000 on New Year’s Day. Merry Christmas….

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

‘Sensible celebrating’, by Munira Mirza

Bar, car, black sheep, by Rob Lyons

Bah humbug – it’s Christmas, by James Panton

(1) Clergyman calls for Christmas ban, BBC News Online, 22 November 2001

(2) Clergyman calls for Christmas ban, BBC News Online, 22 November 2001

(3) Season of peace and goodwill? Britain doesn’t think so, The Samaritans

(4) Season of peace and goodwill? Britain doesn’t think so, The Samaritans

(5) Season of peace and goodwill? Britain doesn’t think so, The Samaritans

(6) ‘Top tips to lift your spirits this Christmas’, Mental Health Foundation, 26 November 2001

(7) ‘Top tips to lift your spirits this Christmas’, Mental Health Foundation, 26 November 2001

(8) Christmas crackdown on retail theft, BBC News Online, 3 December 2001

(9) Christmas crackdown on retail theft, BBC News Online, 3 December 2001

(10) Don’t let fake goods ruin your Christmas, Department of Trade and Industry, December 2001

(11) ‘Top tips to lift your spirits this Christmas’, Mental Health Foundation, 26 November 2001

(12) Carol services to ‘reclaim’ Christmas, BBC News Online, 26 November 2001

(13) The Christmas Survival Guide, Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, December 2001

(14) Toy shop bans Harry Potter, BBC News Online, 24 September 2001

(15) ‘Ban on children’s TV toy ads urged’, Irish Independent, 10 December 2001

(16) ‘Strafe the halls’, Guardian, 30 November 2001

(17) Fair Play? Violence, Gender and Race in Video Games, Children Now, December 2001

(18) Violence makes games ‘unsuitable for children’, Observer, 16 December

(19) When Christmas indulgence spells despair, BBC News Online, 20 December 2000

(20) ‘When fat is a festive phobia’, Observer, 16 December 2001

(21) When Christmas indulgence spells despair, BBC News Online, 20 December 2000

(22) ‘This unhappy breed’, Independent, 14 December 2001

(23) ‘This unhappy breed’, Independent, 14 December 2001

(24) Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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