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COMMENT: This Christmas and Chinese New Year, switch off from gift obsession and annoying relatives

Holiday season should be fun, so relax and set the agenda, prioritise what’s important and forget social media and cultural pressures

Feeling the blues during the Christmas holiday season.
Feeling the blues during the Christmas holiday season. (PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: Getty Images)

EVERY holiday season comes with a Google spreadsheet in our home. There’s a timetable for family visits, a gift list for those relatives who’ve been nice, a black list for those who’ve been naughty and a reminder not to send a Christmas card to that auntie who upset me 30 years ago. ‘Tis the season to bear grudges, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la!

Oh, it’s the most wonderful time of the year to sit in traffic, line up in department stores, complain about presents, eat too much unhealthy food and spend time with family members who say ridiculously cruel things on the grounds that a) they’re old and b) we’re expected to give them a pass because they’re closer to dying.

Essentially, from early December to Chinese New Year, someone, somewhere is being insulted at a family gathering about something. We agonise over the presents, only to watch my step-father unwrap his England football jersey and say, “I’m not wearing that rubbish.”

So why do we do it then? Every December, there are columns like this one, waffling on about the pitfalls of gathering relatives around a turkey like they’re warring despots gathering at a United Nations emergency meeting, rather than a couple of aunties who can’t be trusted after too much wine and Brussels sprouts. Medical experts will speak of the holiday season blues (rightly) and offer tips for rising stress levels (helpfully) and suggest managing one’s expectations (correctly).

Focusing on the good memories that endure

So why bother?

Because my step-father begrudgingly wore that England jersey and spilled his dinner on it, which he insisted was a deliberate act of petty rebellion against a gift he didn’t want. It wasn’t. He was dying. He couldn’t eat properly anymore. So we blamed the mess on his childish anarchy, took the piss out of the England team and wilfully ignored the inevitable.

We focused on the other festive, family stuff instead, like the time he sang Elvis’ Blue Christmas so badly, the neighbours thought our cat was being tortured. Or the time he wore my mother’s Christmas presents – women's underwear no less – on his bald head.

Those are the memories that endure, because that’s what the holiday season should be, a family gathering conducted on our terms, with the people we want, doing the things we love. Whether it’s Mahjong or a board game, a holiday away or a few beers at the coffee shop, a night out, a night in or nothing at all, it’s really the season to do whatever you like, surely. You owe that to yourself after the previous 11 months of rat-racing, box-ticking, deadline-delivering, ass-kissing and whatever else was required in the job description.

But we can’t, apparently. Social media comparisons, the rise of FOMO and the cultural pressures to be the human gift who keeps on giving have all conspired to set the bar impossibly high. A quick scroll through your feeds will invariably show a fresh-faced family taking the perfect snow shot on a Korean ski slope, or a perma-grinning couple enjoying a festive high tea, or the latest kiddie extravaganza in Orchard or Marina Bay, or a sumptuous roast turkey, exquisitely carved and flawlessly carved. That’s what you’re up against, people, so get spending, flying, cooking, dining and selfie-ing.

Yes, selfie-ing is a made-up word, but most of those photos are made up. The ski slope photo was taken 27 times before the parents were satisfied and the youngest, shivering child wet himself. The perma-grinning couple got the waiter to retake their high tea shot so many times, he was contemplating peeing in their tea by the end. And food porn galleries are usually for those who are more interested in shooting a meal than eating it.

In other words, the holiday season is just the latest human experience to be commoditised and repackaged as implausibly perfect joy, offering about as much authenticity as the fake snow currently falling somewhere near you at a Singaporean family attraction.

By all means, enjoy them, but don’t fall for such unrealistic expectations of peace, love and joy. Make your own with your family. On your terms. Or don’t. Sidestep the relentless commercialism and ignore the season altogether, if that’s your thing, but never feel compelled to satisfy the demands of so many others.

Don't follow social media, cultural pressures

A few years ago, I vividly recall a relative discussing the colour scheme and the ornamentation for her Christmas table settings. It was September. While others played along and pondered which shade of blue to use, I pondered her sanity. By the time they moved on to candlesticks and pinecones, I was practically shoving a tea towel in my mouth to stop myself from shouting, “it’s ******* September, you psychopath,”

Unless that table setting came with a train set, Santa’s grotto and a high-kicking show from the Radio City Rockettes, how was it ever going to live up the hype? Why do we do this to ourselves?

Last year, an APA poll found that nearly one in three Americans expects to be more stressed at this time of the year. In Singapore, the Institute of Mental Health website refers to the challenges of “holiday season blues”, as Singaporeans struggle with the burden of responsibility, the fear of so many social gatherings or the prospect of being alone.

In fact, Harvard Medical School highlights the concept of set-shifting, which is a type of executive, mental functioning that comes into play in the holiday season, as we plan, organise and obsess over time management. As a consequence, the brain’s prefrontal cortex gets overworked. Eventually, such demands can decrease memory. This certainly happens to my father at Christmas, especially after a dozen pints.

So here’s a radical thought. Just do what you can, not what social media, cultural pressures or nagging relatives insist you must do. Stop scrolling those artificial happy snaps. Social media comparison is the Grinch of the holiday season. It steals more than it gives.

Cut back on the obligations. Say ‘no’ more often. Buy only what you can afford. If friends and family expect more than you can afford this Christmas, then maybe wish for new friends and family this Christmas.

Prioritise what’s important and forget the rest.

Because in the end, you’ll only cherish and remember what matters in the holiday season, which in my case was my late step-father wearing my mother’s underwear on his head.

Cut back on the obligations. Say ‘no’ more often. Buy only what you can afford. If friends and family expect more than you can afford this Christmas, then maybe wish for new friends and family this Christmas.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.

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