Are you navigating a different sort of Christmas this year? You’re not alone.

I am a veteran of spending Christmases in different ways than with my birth family. Over the years I’ve spent it by myself, with different groups of friends, with friend’s families, with my partners’ families or volunteering. I’ve done one or more of these things each Christmas for about the last 20 years (a number which I’ve not reflected upon before but which definitely made me pause. Blimey). There are many others like me who do not have the sorts of ‘family Christmases’ that are shown in films, tv shows and adverts, and of course there are many people for whom Christmas is, and will continue to be, unimportant or no big deal for a wide variety of reasons.

As Christmas 2020 gets nearer, I’m also aware that a lot of people are contemplating, perhaps for the first time, navigating a very different Christmas than what is usual for them. We don’t know yet what the lockdown rules will be, but I know of a number of friends who have already made the decision to do things differently this year. For some, there is excitement attached to this opportunity to create a new or altered Christmas experience. There may be relief in escaping some of the more mundane or frustrating aspects of ‘typical’ Christmas and enjoyment at a chance to shake things up. But I am aware that for others, feelings of sadness, numbness, despondency and anxiety are creeping in. If that’s you, please know you’re not alone. A lot of people are concerned with how they will cope with this and worried about the impact on their loved ones of this being a different sort of a year. 2020 has already been a year of unusual loneliness and isolation for many and the thought of doing things differently at Christmas can feel heart-breaking.

So, here’s a small selection of things I’ve learnt over the years which, at least for me, feel useful when navigating different sorts of Christmases. Disregard whatever doesn’t speak to you, improve upon it wildly but can I respectfully suggest that if you suspect that your Christmas is going to be different than what is normal for you and you imagine that this could prove tough, perhaps start to think now about how you can make this as okay as possible? Christmas can be a bleak time without some thought and care and planning (well and let’s be honest, sometimes even with all of that in place).

1) If you are spending Christmas with one of more people who you have not spent this time with before, manage each other’s expectations ahead of time. Ideally, start doing this now. DO NOT ASSUME that just because you’ve always opened presents at 7am sharp with a glass of bucks fizz that the other person will be up for this. If something is desperately important to you, make it known and build that in. If you really want a Christmas tree and know that you will probably be a bit grumpy and sulky without a Christmas tree (and it’s within your means to get one) get a Christmas tree! If you know that 24/7 company for a day or multiple days will be too much for you and you will need some time alone in a room or out for a walk then make this known. Don’t deny yourself the good bits or the stuff that you need – talk talk talk, listen listen listen and get to know what you both/ all need ahead of time.

2) If it’s a different sort of Christmas for you, there can be benefit in MAKING it a different sort of a Christmas. I’ve personally found it helpful to think about each of my Christmases as their own unique entity. It might work for some people to try and keep things as normal as possible and to replicate as much as possible their typical experience but, for others, this might just set up a game of comparison where this Christmas falls short. There can be enjoyment in going a bit off-piste. It you have quite a lot of control around what it looks like, you could give your Christmas a silly theme, a weird and wonderful structure, make it an outdoors-as-much-as-possible Christmas – whatever can help you connect to it.

3) Plan a loose structure for Christmas day (and maybe the days around it too). You might feel a bit lost, sad or listless so have some things scheduled in so that the days have a form. Trust me, Christmas day can feel absolutely endless if you’re low and it’s a shapeless thing. Make a bit of a schedule that has meals planned in (both cooking time and eating time) and some nice stuff like walks, films, maybe a game, calls with loved ones, crafting, time reading a book. Mix it up, create variety and hopefully this will build a sense of energy through the day. If you need a bit of added motivation you can pair particular drinks and foods with certain activities to increase the likelihood of it happening. Going for a walk could also be time for hot chocolate or mulled wine, board games could come with Prosecco or a cheeseboard and so on.

4) After all these years I can pretty reliably know that I’m going to need a cry at some point over Christmas. Sometimes I lean into this a bit and will deliberately watch a sad film or two to provide that sort of release. Are you crying for yourself or for Demi Moore’s character in Ghost? Who knows. But it can definitely be helpful to build in a chance to outlet some of that stored emotion. It’s worth thinking about how you can allow yourself some sad and quiet time without feeling like you’re ‘bringing down the mood’.

5) Talk to your friends or family who you won’t be sharing the day with ahead of time and if you can, agree with them when the best times will be to call/ chat/ connect. This is really important to talk about ahead of time if you know on the day you might feel shy or insecure about calling in case people are busy or you’ll be interrupting. If you have someone in your life who you know will be alone this year or in different circumstances (and if you’re able to), ask them if there would be a good time for you to call/ message for a chat over Christmas. Let your loved ones know you love them, care about them and if/ when you can be available.

6) This means something different to everyone, but whatever it means to you, please be kind to yourself. There are helplines staffed by volunteers all across the Christmas period and they are there because, whilst they don’t want people to struggle, they do want people who are struggling, low, lonely or in crisis to call them. You are not being a burden by calling, you are doing exactly what they are wanting you to do. There’s absolutely no shame or burden in using a service that is there to help, for help. [Samaritans 116 123 (24 hours a day, every day); Cruse Bereavement 0808 808 1677).

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