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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

Over the holidays my inner voice proves to be the most critical as I straddle the pull of a commercial Christmas and the deep-seated draw of Kwanzaa. On tackling the minefield of tackiness, tinsel, and trappings of the season.

This story is the first in the Mental Health for the Holidays series. While end-of-year celebrations can be a time of joy — they can also trigger feelings of stress and loss. Read the collection to learn how others were able to meet those challenges.

It always starts with childlike glee. The excitement, bubbling over with an irresistible anticipation of the merriment, the food, the socializing, and of course, the presents. Christmas time is the best. Well, almost. There are always undercurrents.

There’s the worrying about the consequences of all that good cheer. Actually, worrying doesn’t quite cover it. It’s more like gnawing than worry — more like guilt, really. You know how it goes. Should I try the yummy cookies? It’s Christmas after all. How many? Perhaps just one. . . they’re not that big. How much butter and sugar could they have? Oh, but they’re so good — and gone so quickly. I barely tasted that. Perhaps two, three. . . seventeen?

Then comes the guilt. I ate way too much. All that butter and sugar. Ugh. I think I can hear my arteries hardening. The familiar commitments to do better follow. Tomorrow I’ll have a salad. . . but then someone invited me out for lunch. Dinner with friends is on for the next day and of course all those friends I haven’t seen in, like, forever. Drinks! Wasn’t that a special bottle of rum! Oh, and the best Côtes du Rhône I’ve had in an age. Recriminations arrive in the morning, delivered in that scathing voice I reserve just for me. Ugh, again! But the see-saw of pleasure and punishment is just getting started.

I turn my attention to the glitter. All that sparkle and rich, scented greenery. Bright bulbs touch every surface until the house feels like a fairytale wonderland. I love the Christmas cheer. But is it excessive? How many garlands are too many? Is tinsel elegant or tacky? What does “less is more” even mean? What do designers think it means?

Soon I’m surrounded by magazines, each offering contradictory advice. My house isn’t that big, and I don’t have a bevy of assistants to help me add glamour. Could someone also explain to me why I would I want an all-white tree? Or an all-red one? It all seems less like Christmas and more like branding. Perhaps a more traditional approach is the way to go. But honestly, string popcorn just seems like a good way to invite a mouse infestation. Besides, the way the dog is eyeing the popcorn bowl has me thinking I’ll have to guard the tree 24-7. It all seems unnecessarily constrained and formal. Maybe I’m just too tacky.

ornamental candy cane

How much money am I spending on decorations, food, presents? Too much. Not enough? How many families are doing without while I squander cash on the most useless items imaginable? I look at my silver bells laid carefully beside my silver reindeer and big bowl of shiny do-nothings and think, Wouldn’t that money have been better spent on a donation? Am I selfish and self-centered?

All these concerns mark the coming together of my neuroses — otherwise known as Christmas time.

But then there’s the secret guilt I hold close to my chest. The guilt of being Black while enjoying Christmas — I like to call it my Kwanzaa guilt. It starts to simmer a few months before the week-long celebration of African American culture, beginning on December 26th. Why the guilt? Because I don’t actually celebrate Kwanzaa. I’m not sure I even want to. Yet such an admission from a proud and — I like to think — progressive Black woman, can be tantamount to proclaiming my status as an Oreo or a coconut — Black on the outside, white on the inside.

Kwanzaa is not supposed to replace Christmas, but coming when it does certainly feels like competition. Healthier, more thoughtful competition. As I rub my hands in greedy anticipation of the fatty foods and rich desserts of my usual Christmas gluttony, I imagine the contrast to what my Kwanzaa sisters will be enjoying: fruits, vegetables, and corn. More guilt follows (not to be confused with the reams of gilt I’ll be spreading with abandon across my home, with nary a straw mat in sight).

Kwanzaa is the thoughtful creation of a Black academic. At its core, it’s a celebration of reflection, a seven-night toast to the Black diaspora, and our success in overcoming a multitude of struggles. It slides in, brimming with the aspirational concepts of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and at the forefront, faith. For Kwanzaa, homemade gifts are offered, and commercialism is avoided. In lieu of string lights, we find seven candles burning.

Yet, despite its wholesome message and optimistic values, I shun it — instead embracing a holiday that has me wondering if any of the wise men were Black.

My Kwanzaa guilt didn’t start with its inception in the ‘60s or even its prominence in the ‘90s. No, my love of — OK, let’s face it — hate of Christmas started as a child. No one in my family looks like Santa and, until very recently, every tree angel had golden hair and the rosiest of cheeks. I got my first fireplace when I was 28, so there was no hope of Santa making his way down the chimney when I was a girl. And Barbados, which my family calls home, doesn’t have a single pine tree. In fact, from mistletoe and cranberries to rutabaga and turkey, for my family the traditional dressings of Christmas were an exploration in foreignness. Yet we embraced its customs and, over time, made them our own.

So every year I drag boxes upon boxes of Christmas décor out of the basement. I string lights outside and inside my home, and I sing and dance — like Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — to Christmas carols as I do so. Thank you, Sir Paul, I’m sim-ply haaaaaving a wonderful Christmas time. While Kwanzaa intentions are good, the trappings are even more foreign to me than Christmas. Why should I give up the traditions of a lifetime?

Though I’m not one, like a good Christian I’ve learned to change the holiday to suit my cultural needs. So this year, we’ll be serving rice and peas, fish, and oxtail. I’m looking at Weight Watchers for healthy Christmas recipes and, despite having a beautiful fireplace, we’ll be hanging our stockings along the banister by the front door. As usual, our treetop will be home to a glittering pair of lovebirds instead of an angel.

Every year I find new ways of making the holiday mine, adding touches of me and stripping away those things that reflect a colonial mindset. As I draft each of them to my own cause and purpose, I’m learning to make peace with the parts of Christmas that may have had a different meaning in the past. Hopefully, the only Oreos at my house will be those I enjoy while indulging in a Hallmark Christmas movie. Happy holidays!

More resources to support your well-being over the holidays:

How to Give Back (or Reach Out) This Holiday Season (Mental Health Commission of Canada)
Five Ways to Protect Your Mental Health This Holiday (Canadian Mental Health Association)

Author: , is a communications specialist living and working in Ottawa.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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