Great Expectations

“The greatest hindrance to living is expectancy, which depends upon tomorrow and wastes today.” Seneca the Younger, Roman philosopher

Christmas is coming. There. I said it. Whether you love it or loath it, there’s no avoiding the festive season.

And even though there are over three weeks to the big day, Christmas is everywhere (or “all around” as the fabulous Bill Nighy might crone). In fact Christmas has been very present for a long time now, (some stores opened their Christmas departments on 1 September). When Halloween and Bonfire night were over, it seemed the invasion of the Christmas trees and seasonally cheesy songs were upon us almost overnight.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas and all that it entails. And come mid-December I’ll be singing along to Wham’s “Last Christmas” with gusto whilst I decorate my home with all things sparkly. But I do wonder whether this massive build up to 25 December is any good for us. Why such a big build up for one day in our 365 day calendar? When it comes to Christmas, why are our expectations so great?

As Seneca says above, our expectations might be part of our human condition as a means of essentially avoiding the present moment by fixating upon the future. I think this avoidance of the present is a possible reason for the overly long build up (as well as satisfying the retail sector by expanding the potential for festive profits). But I also believe that we place massive projections onto Christmas, which when coupled with the long build up (and a massive dose of addictive consumerism), creates a perfect storm for great expectations.

Firstly, what do I mean by projection? Put simple, this is when we unconsciously defend and deny parts of ourselves by placing them onto others. For example, if say someone feels unintelligent, they may defend against this part, by claiming others are stupid or incompetent. Projections can be about positive as well as negative parts of ourselves.

We project our desire for perfection onto Christmas. We fantasise that when Christmas comes, we’ll all be smiley and happy, with everyone getting along (regardless if they do the other 364 days of the year), the food will be plentiful and delicious and the presents will be immaculately wrapped, under a beautifully decorated tree. This projection is to defend ourselves from the opposite realization; that we are not perfect. And of course no Christmas is perfect either. We seem to allow our most insecure urges of not being perfect, or even good enough, to sit fully in the driving seat of our psyche when it comes to the festive season.

And when poor old Christmas doesn’t match our great expectations, we blame our mix of disappointment and anti-climax on numerous things (bad traffic, bad weather, toxic relatives etc.). But we fail to acknowledge that maybe the issue is that our expectations were too great and to own responsibility for the inevitable emotional come down.

The overly long build up to Christmas only adds to the expectation, and in turn helps to guarantee the mismatch between fantasy and reality. Conversely, I do feel there can be good psychological benefit from looking forward to something, holding something in mind and to envisage how things might be. But this needs to be reflective of the event itself. We seem to start to “look forward” to this one day for a period of around 3 months (as an aside this also heavily applies to the massive build up to weddings)! To indulge in some fantasy once in a while is all fine and part of good mental health. To allow for some childish wonder and play time isn’t necessarilly a bad thing. But the pendulum has swung way too far where Christmas is concerned.

We need to be able to manage our expectations better instead of letting them run riot. We need to take more responsibility for what we project onto Christmas and become conscious of how we might manipulate this one day to compensate for our own short comings.

Ultimately we need to embrace the limitations of Christmas, just like we need to embrace our own. By acknowledging, and having compassion for, our own imperfections, we can begin to withdraw our outward projections, leaving Christmas alone to be just what it is; a day in the year where we can celebrate.

And so I propose an alternative Christmas message this upcoming holiday. Not one about peace and goodwill to all (we should be living that anyway) but one about wishing everyone a very real Christmas, may it be as perfectly imperfect as we all are!

Happy holidays all!




Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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