In an ideal life, in which I have a loving family, close friends and much less trauma, I think I’d enjoy celebrating holidays. Maybe I’d still be far too concerned with my own mortality and thus would still avoid celebrating my birthday. But stuff like Christmas? Count imaginary me in.
Sadly, I’m not in that life. Imaginary me is worlds away. Real me is here, and I associate those holidays with pain.
For younger me, Christmas was full of mixed emotions. I always delighted in the magic of it, in that particular feeling of Christmas. The familiar songs, the decorating of the Christmas tree, covering myself in tinsel, the books I had about Father Christmas and snowmen… I never got too old for it. I always enjoyed those things.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t all there was to Christmas. I won’t go into details here, but I had a very painful childhood that involved me being mistreated by the people I lived with. Christmas was always tainted by this, and although I could enjoy things like the tree and the books, I was never truly happy. Sadness, loneliness and fear were ever-present in my existence, and even Christmas couldn’t banish them.
Birthdays were also tainted by this, but also by that focus on my own mortality that I mentioned. They can be quite anxiety-inducing for me, and can fill me with a feeling of failure because another year has gone by without me having found / achieved any of the things that I’ve dreamt of. I’m too hard on myself, and I’m working on that, but it will take me a while to change that as much as I need to.
Other holidays (Easter, Halloween, etc) aren’t such a big deal for me. They’re still associated with pain, but they’re holidays that I probably wouldn’t have much interest in celebrating even in that ideal life.
I live alone now. I have no family (and am cut off from my biological relatives) and very few friends. This is part of why I don’t celebrate holidays – because I don’t have anyone to celebrate it with – but the pain that I associate with holidays is also a reason. If I had a loving family or close friends, I might start celebrating, perhaps only a little the first time and then gradually building it up. But I don’t know for sure what I’d be comfortable with.
Point is: I don’t feel comfortable celebrating holidays, and that’s totally valid. Even if I hadn’t explained my reasoning at all, it would be okay for me to not want to participate in these events.
Now, onto the second part of this post: not forcing these celebrations onto people.
Too often, I see people’s (including my own) discomfort with these events being dismissed, and other people’s desire to celebrate being prioritised. Even for birthdays, which are (in my culture, at least) supposed to be focused on the individual whose birthday it is. But still, though I ask people to not mention my birthday and to not try to celebrate it, celebrate they do. I’ve managed to get it down to just comments on my social media, but I can’t seem to get people to stop completely.
I managed to avoid Christmas entirely last year. Someone offered me the chance to spend Christmas with him, but he didn’t push me on it or expect me to definitely be there. That I’m fine with. That’s a nice way to let me know that I can join in if I want to, without putting any pressure on me. However, in past years there has been more pressure, from various people.
This is not right.
I get that people probably have good intentions. It’s nice that they want to wish me well, or include me in their celebrations. I do appreciate that.
But when they keep pestering me to join them (though this may seem like friendly encouragement from their perspective), or basically do anything more than just tell me I can join them if I want to, it doesn’t feel nice. It feels like pressure.
If I have said that I’m not comfortable doing something, respect that.
One of the worst forms of this ‘coercive celebrating’ is the surprise party. Thankfully I have never experienced this first-hand. The combination of people forcing something that I’ve stated I’m against on me, the association with painful memories, the lack of respect for my need to know what’s happening in advance (shout-out to my autistic brain), and the panic that would probably set in when everyone jumps out and yells, “Surprise!” would probably end with me hiding in the bathroom, panicking and crying. And even if I could avoid doing that, the pressure of maintaining a smile and pretending to be enjoying myself could be utterly draining.
Now, if you know that someone is okay with being the focus of surprise parties (because they have said that) then go for it. It seems to be enjoyable for some people, and I have no wish to deprive them of that joy.
But don’t force them on people who you don’t know are comfortable with them, and definitely not people who have said that they don’t like them. What you might think of as something fun could be panic-inducing for them.
I remember reading a post in one of my Facebook groups, about a woman who had birthday celebrations forced on her after she specifically asked her friends to not do anything for her birthday. There were so many comments calling her ungrateful, and not nearly enough acknowledging that she had her comfort and consent disregarded.
My point here is: there are reasons why people don’t want to celebrate holidays, and it’s not okay to pressure / force them into celebrating. Sure, it might be sad to not have someone you care about celebrating with you. But, if they’re anything like me, having celebrations forced on them could seriously impact their mental health.
If you really care about them, let them avoid things that are uncomfortable / distressing for them (and remember, you’re not entitled to know their reasons). Maybe you could meet up a while after that event has passed, and find something else to celebrate together – the anniversary of the day you met, the first day of Spring, the release of a new book in a series you both enjoy… There are so many possibilities.
This is one of those tricky situations that we may never find a perfect solution to. If they don’t celebrate with you, the celebration might not feel as enjoyable to you, and it might even lead to you feeling lonely and sad. But if you make them join in, it might be harmful for them in similar or very different ways.
So I don’t have a perfect solution. All I can do is ask you, from the perspective of someone who goes through so much pain around these holidays and who doesn’t want to be pushed into even more: please, please just tell them that they’re welcome to join you if they want to, but that it’s totally okay if they’d prefer not to. It’s the simplest and most considerate thing.
Please stop trying to make us celebrate when we’re in agony inside.