‘Tis the season to be jolly… frightened?

Ignore the seasonal scaremongers and have yourselves a very happy holiday.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

You can always tell when Christmas has arrived – shop windows are full of fake snow and model Santas; the sound of Christmas carols resonate in city centres; the police warn women of the dangers of being drugged and raped; charities tell us that more people commit suicide at this time of year than at any other; safety organisations advise that merry-making can easily descend into ‘misery and mayhem’…. After all, ’tis the season to be jolly frightened.

From breaking your bum on the office photocopier to burning your house down while cooking the Christmas turkey, it seems the 12 days of Christmas are packed with threats to our physical and mental health, family relations, bank balances, careers and even our lives – and apparently we need an army of safety advisers, counsellors and other assorted wise men and women just to get through it. It is a sign of our miserablist, risk-averse times that the killjoys-that-be can’t even let us have a week off work and a seasonal knees-up without scaring us rigid.

It started early this year, with warnings about the dreaded office party. If you thought the annual get-together was just one of those obligatory things likely to end in alcohol-fuelled embarrassment, think again. Apparently it can ruin your career, land you in hospital, or even end in sexual violation – and not the good kind.

‘POLICE WARN OF FESTIVE PARTY DATE RAPE DRUGS’ screamed a headline in the Bath Chronicle, advising female revellers to be wary of accepting drinks at the office do. ‘What if the drink is spiked?’ ask Bath police. ‘Later you regain consciousness, you find bruises. You remember…nothing.’ ‘We are not setting out to be party poopers’, assures Bath’s chief inspector Paul Mogg, as ‘the festive season is traditionally a time for merriment’. No, those nice Bath bobbies only want ‘potentially vulnerable people, especially women’ to know that accepting drinks ‘could lead to problems, even rape’ (1). So have fun – just don’t talk to strangers or get drunk or take your eye of your glass of sherry for a split second.

If you get through the office party with your dignity intact, you may still find your career in tatters. ‘The holiday office party is a battlefield’, reports business magazine Forbes. According to a poll conducted by London-based recruitment firm Office Angels, 57 per cent of office workers surveyed said they would rather stay at home than attend the office party, which is seen as a ‘potential minefield of office political pratfalls’. ‘They have reason to be scared’, says career coach Richard Bayer. ‘I can’t tell you the number of people who have lost their jobs or done damage to themselves’ because of what happened at an office party (2).

Fear not – the caring capitalists at Forbes have issued an ‘Office Party Survival Guide’. Tips include: ‘Don’t drink too much’ – apparently, seven out of 10 workers commit a ‘conversational gaffe’ while drunk. ‘Think before talking to the boss’ – shock, horror, only five per cent of workers think about conversation starters ahead of the party, while 75 per cent of us spend up to three hours planning what to wear. And ‘Get out and circulate’ – even if you’re shy, says Forbes, ‘there are often non-verbal activities you can partake in [at office parties], like pool or darts’. But do not partake in drinking games, it warns (3).

Britain’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) knows a thing or two about the dangers of festive drinking games. In its Christmas safety tips list, it advises: ‘If you end up making “cheeky” photocopies [that’s photocopies of bums to the uninitiated], you may well find yourself spending the rest of the evening face down in casualty having shards of glass removed from your bottom.’ ‘Items of work equipment are not toys’, the TUC advises the workers of the world. ‘In drunken hands, even fairly innocuous devices can turn seriously dangerous.’ (4)

The TUC also has advice on what to do if your workplace constantly plays irritating Christmas songs. The TUC describes the ‘psychological terror’ of being ‘subjected to hours of piped Christmas music’ and ‘endless hours of Silent Night and Jingle Bells’ – and advises workers to try demanding compensation from their bosses. There’s also the hidden danger of balloons in the workplace. ‘Latex sensitisation is a serious problem’, which affects up to 3.6million people in Britain, claims the TUC; so don’t be embarrassed to ask your bosses to take down festive balloons, as they should ‘understand why you want to avoid contact with something that can cause you agony and distress’ (5).

If you survive the end of the working year without losing your job or getting raped or being subjected to the psychological terror of Christmas jingles and balloons, it is time for some last-minute Christmas shopping. But beware – apparently you run the risk of being mugged, conned or becoming a shopaholic.

Police in Texas, USA, have published some ‘commonsense tips for staying safe’ while shopping this Christmas. Tip no.1 is always to be alert. ‘When people walk out of a store, be aware’, say the cops. ‘If you don’t feel good about it or safe about it, go back into the store.’ (6) Good about what? Safe about what? The police don’t elaborate, except to say that shoppers should always be ‘aware of your surroundings’ and ‘guard your valuables’ (7).

But the police are surely being reckless by advising shoppers who don’t feel good to ‘go back into the store’ – don’t they know that stores can make people sick? According to health charities, Christmas shopping can induce panic attacks and even vomiting fits. The Mental Health Foundation warns that a ‘crowd of frantic shoppers’ can ‘push up your stress levels’, so perhaps it is best to ‘avoid the shops altogether by using mail order or the internet’ (8). So if you don’t ‘feel good’ outside a store, go back in – and if you don’t ‘feel good’ inside a store, go back home and shop online. Just remember the government’s advice that if you ‘buy online, watch out for crime’. Perhaps if you don’t ‘feel good’ on the internet you should take to your bed until Christmas is over.

It was all right for the three wise men with their gold, frankincense and myrrh, but modern-day gift-buying and gift-giving is apparently fraught with dangers. As one report says: ‘Pressure, stress, confusion, inexplicable choices, a complete lapse of taste…. Alzheimer’s? No, it’s Holiday Gift Giving Syndrome.’ (9) ‘Retail rage can affect many people’, says one charity, ‘so take a day off work when the shops are quiet and blitz the Christmas shopping list in one day’ (10).

Let us imagine that you survive the Christmas office party and the syndrome-inducing, panic-ridden search for gifts – next comes the big moment itself, Christmas Day, and apparently this is the most dangerous time of all. According to the Northern Irish mental health charity Praxis, stress is the ‘silent killer’ of the Christmas period, causing some people to commit suicide. Praxis claims that 60 per cent of people in the UK ‘find elements of the festive season stressful or even depressing’ (11). The ‘listening charity’ The Samaritans, which now issues annual advice on how to stay sane during the madness of Christmas, goes one better – describing the festive season as ‘excruciating’ for some people, when ‘increased expectations of “high spirits” among family or friends can lead to a deflating sense of anti-climax if they fail to materialise’ (12).

Praxis has some advice for how to survive Christmas day, though you might end up a little confused. It tells us (in not-at-all patronising tones…) that ‘Seeing family at Christmas can cause tension and stress for some people; try playing a humorous game or watch a comedy everyone likes on TV’. But, ‘Television can be a source of entertainment or a source of tension; try and plan what to watch and have a spare video tape handy’. If it all gets too much, you can always ‘Take yourself off to a quiet room and relax’, say the cheery souls at Praxis (13).

There are other hidden dangers in the festive home, alongside family members and the tension-inducing TV. ‘Be safe not sorry this Christmas’, warns an American safety organisation. ‘With the holiday season upon us, the risk of personal tragedy and injury runs high. In recent years holiday death and accident rates have sky-rocketed and most people are not prepared for the aftermath.’ (14) Britain’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents predicts that ‘80,000 people across the UK will go to hospital over the Christmas and New Year break as a result of an accident at home’, claiming that ‘festive trees, lights, trimmings and turkeys will be among the things turning seasonal merry-making into misery and mayhem for thousands of families over the holiday period…’ (15).

From the risk of lifelong shame and job loss at the office party to the risk of panic attacks while Christmas shopping to the risk of death, injury and depression in the home, it seems that the Christmas nightmare has come true. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents goes so far as to say that ‘Christmas is bad for your health’ (16), and according to one report many of us may actually be allergic to Christmas: ‘Thousands of people do genuinely have an allergic reaction to Christmas that, in some cases, increases their risk of becoming seriously ill.’ (17)

The whole sorry spectacle that modern Christmas has become is neatly summed up in a rewrite of a popular Christmas carol published in an American newspaper. It warns of: ‘12 pounds-a-gaining…. 11 cars-a-crashing…. 10 germs-a-jumping…. 9 letdowns looming…. 8 workouts missing…. 7 houses burning…. 6 pets-a-puking…. 5 golden cards [referring to the ‘battering’ taken by our credit cards]…. 4 falling moods…. 3 wrecked heads…. 2 stomach pumps…. and a choking toddler under a pine tree.’ (18)

What a bunch of killjoys. Bah humbug to the bah-humbuggers – with the emphasis on buggers. What really seems to grate on the health charities, safety groups, family counsellors, police and all the rest who have made it their business to butt into our lives, is that we are beyond their reach during the festive season. We throw caution to the wind, we go out and shop in droves and go out and drink in droves, or we shut the front door and spend time alone with family and friends – all beyond the ever-watchful eyes of today’s risk-and-safety brigade.

Tough – if they can’t cope with the thought of people spending, boozing, eating and partying, that’s their lookout. The rest of us should eat, drink, and get as merry as we like.

Read on:

Nöel, no faith, no fun, by Mick Hume

(1) Police warn of festive party date rape drugs, Bath Chronicle, 10 December 2003

(2) Six tips on surviving the office party, Forbes, 11 December 2003

(3) Six tips on surviving the office party, Forbes, 11 December 2003

(4) Christmas Issues, TUC, December 2003

(5) Christmas Issues, TUC, December 2003

(6) Police stress shopper safety, Allison Pollan, The Facts, Texas, 19 December 2003

(7) Police stress shopper safety, Allison Pollan, The Facts, Texas, 19 December 2003

(8) ‘Top tips to lift your spirits this Christmas’, Mental Health Foundation, November 2002

(9) 15 worst holiday gift ideas, MP Dunleavey, MSN Money, December 2003

(10) Stress: survival plan to combat silent killer, Belfast Telegraph, 19 December 2003

(11) Stress: survival plan to combat silent killer, Belfast Telegraph, 19 December 2003

(12) Samaritans and the festive season, The Samaritans, 17 December 2002

(13) Stress: survival plan to combat silent killer, Belfast Telegraph, 19 December 2003

(14) Be safe not sorry this Christmas, Emedia Wire, 19 December 2003

(15) Safety body in plea over holiday period accidents, Belfast Telegraph, 20 December 2003

(16) Safety body in plea over holiday period accidents, Belfast Telegraph, 20 December 2003

(17) Are you allergic to Christmas?, BBC News, 15 December 2003

(18) Warning: Christmas ahead, StarNewsOnline, North Carolina, 1 December 2003

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Topics Politics


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