You’re allowed to be single, sad, or shoeless on Christmas, but God forbid you’re a hater. As someone who dreads this holiday, I know this to be true. A deluge of books, movies, and music has words for people like me—Scrooge, Grinch, Hans Gruber. In most cases, these people exist to perform as the trauma-addled heel to the happy-go-holiday-lucky protagonist. Their destiny? Either succumb to the Christmas spirit, or be reviled by generations. The anti-Christmas contingent is anything but derivative, and yet we’re treated as such because admitting to disliking this holiday—in all of its pomp and capitalistic circumstance—is silly, strange, and frankly, un-American. And rather than allow us to hate in peace, we’re reduced to a mawkish origin story.
Well, I don’t have one of those. With the exception of too many Catholic school Christmas pageants, I can’t immediately recall anything traumatic ever happening to me in December. No one I’ve loved has tragically died or fallen ill, my family has always enjoyed the privilege of affording the kind of Yuletide that might inspire Norman Rockwell, and though I love them, I cannot personally relate to the lyrics of Last Christmas. And yet, for reasons I’ve previously never thought to interrogate, I’ve spent every year in recent memory listening to Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas” on loop, white-knuckling it to New Year’s Day.
Apart from an entirely universal disdain for spending a lot of money and being forcibly subjected to mostly bad entertainment and only slightly more enjoyable gatherings, I have not earned the right to hate this holiday. So, I recently went to therapy. And when I say therapy, I mean I called a few psychologists to aid me in identifying the genesis of my own disdain.
“I mean, I hate Christmas,” Dr. Sarah Gundle confided less than two minutes into our phone interview. This isn’t the first time that Gundle, a New York-based clinical psychologist specializing in break-ups, trauma, family conflict and the like, has spoken about why certain people struggle with all things manufactured to be holly jolly. For her, it’s personal: Gundle is a Jewish woman doing her best to co-parent a child with a man who isn’t. Under her roof, the daughter she shares with her ex celebrates Hanukkah. Under his, well, it’s full-throttle to the North Pole.
“It’s really hard to avoid the sparkliness and the kind of seduction of Christmas,” she explained. “I find that just as a Jewish parent, the boundaries have to be laid very clearly that we don’t celebrate Christmas because otherwise, the whole world is celebrating something that just ends up bleeding into [my household]. It’s hard to not hate that thing that gets in the way of raising your kids with a Jewish identity.”
Of course, there are plenty of other reasons to hate Christmas too. For starters, all of the responsibilities thrust upon people. “There’s all this pressure that you have to spend time and money,” Gundle said. “You know, the pressures of commercialism, of gift giving, of being enough, of having a happy family gathering—most people’s family gatherings, wind up not being so happy. I think a lot of peoples’ holidays end up less joyful and more tiring.” Of course, she’s not wrong. For many of us, there’s a meal (or meals) to prepare, or the perfect gifts to buy and wrap for both the people we like (family and friends), and the people polite society tells us we should feign fondness for (co-workers). Then, there’s the gatherings—both optional and obligatory. All of the aforementioned is compounded, too, if you happen to be a woman.
Obviously, I’ve already considered these things. While I can certainly empathize, none of them necessarily make me sad—just annoyed. Gundle and I then discussed traditions growing stale: recipes that no longer excite us, decorations that after years of use don’t shine quite the same, and repetitive parties of the same people, drinking the same things, listening to the same music. In time, we concur, it all becomes a sort of mundane, ritualistic practice that sends a professional yearner such as myself right into nostalgia’s embrace.
There have been many times I’ve found myself longing for years past at Christmas. Sure, the midwest is home to Campbell’s soup casseroles and drunk driving, but it’s also the backdrop to some sweet, simple times I’ve never been able to replicate—because despite my best efforts, I’m growing older and therefore, more disillusioned. Plus, certain people aren’t alive to celebrate anymore. Christmas can make people feel absence more keenly, Gundle told me—whether it’s a lost loved one, a home to return to, or the means to make it feel as magical as the movies. But by the time the lights are hung, presents are beneath the tree, and there’s mistletoe to evade, I often feel as if I’m the only one feeling that absence—and mostly, in private. Because who the hell wants to be reminded that sometimes all the time, money, or effort in the world isn’t enough to be merry?
“It’s a time of high risk for people who are very depressed,” Gundle continued. “I know my patients always talk about feeling even more isolated, but it’s one thing to feel isolated day-to-day, and it’s another thing to feel isolated when everyone around you is seemingly happy and at home in front of the hearth.”
Do I actually hate Christmas? Or am I just depressed? I wonder. God, how boring.
If you’ve ever Googled “holiday blues,” it’s likely you’re aware that among the first results, Dr. Elaine Rodino is quoted at least twice. She didn’t coin the phrase, but make no mistake, she is an expert on it. And once upon a time, some decades ago, she worked with the person who did.
“This is one of my favorite topics!” she exclaims via Zoom. “I’ve been getting interviewed about this for years.”
Years ago, when Rodino worked in a Los Angeles suicide prevention center, she recalled the facility receiving an influx of press inquiries come December on whether or not rates of suicide were exacerbated by Christmas. In short, no. “Suicide rates do not go up,” she insisted. (Dr. Gundle, I’ll note, said otherwise).“There’s issues that come up at the holidays, but it’s not a clinical depression.” After we hang up, I once again take to the internet, and scores of studies spanning the last decade confirm this.
There are, however, plenty of other mental and emotional issues especially plagued by the holiday too. Addiction, disordered eating, anxiety, subsisting poverty, and trauma incurred from childhood can make Christmas worthy of dread. Guilt, too—even if it’s just repentance for your own holiday hatred. “You have a home, a family, and income, so, things could always be worse!” my mother loves to remind me at this time of year. She’s right, but none of these are the most common causes of “holiday blues” Rodino has encountered. What is?
“Expectations,” she said, succinctly. She listed a few specific ones that have already been mentioned, but the most sweeping diagnosis for the holiday-hating masses is, quite simply, fulfilling expectations—one’s own, and others’.
Case closed: I hate Christmas because I’m expected to love it.
Dolly Parton didn’t write “Hard Candy Christmas,” but she did make it famous after singing it in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Within the film’s context, the up-tempo ballad is performed by a cortege of dejected sex workers as they pack up the shuttered Chicken Ranch—the place they called home—after its goings on are exposed by a pious reporter. But when it’s sung by Parton alone, it sounds more like a confession of restlessness specific to someone who’s longing at Christmastime. Even if you haven’t listened to it as much as I have, the metaphor within its wistful melody is so glaring it could put Rudolph out of commission: Life is like a hard candy melting in one’s mouth—it’s sweet, especially when you savor it just so, and sometimes, it’s capable of choking you.
Hating Christmas because I’m expected to love it is a comforting thought in that it’s only partially sincere. The truth is, I dislike it because I find the vast and varied stress it places on people—not just me—profoundly bothersome. I dislike it because I’m genuinely, infuriatingly empathetic and wish I had the time, energy, and money to help those who have it “worse.” I dislike it because my loathing puts me in the company of grumpy British men. I dislike it because it no longer feels the same as it did when I hadn’t been overtaken by chronic cynicism and I still believed in people and Santa Claus.
But most of all, I dislike it because the end of every year reminds me of just how choked I am by all things I have yet to find the bravery to do with my life. And the other grim verity of hard candies is that one never knows how fast they’ll dissolve. With every agonizing December, I realize I am running out of time.
Whether or not any of this allows me the right to hate Christmas is up to you. If you happen to find it cloying and dull, I hear you. Me too! Because the only thing worse than being a Christmas cliché is being a pathetic Christmas cliché—like that weird guy with the cue cards from Love, Actually. The one that no one liked. So, when it comes to me? I’ll be just fine and dandy.