The Dark Side of Christmas

The Dark Side of Christmas

At this time of year, we tend to get caught up in our own bubble. While Christmas is a time of joy and happiness for many, it is also a struggle in countless ways for too many others.

In recent weeks, I have seen a lot of posts on social media promoting things like “Sleep in the Park” and “Social Bite” to support rough sleepers and those without a permanent address. It is great that so many are supporting others. Where is the government?

Social Bite
Social Bite
Rough Sleepers

However, I have also seen some appalling & callous comments on Facebook from people who have no sympathy for rough sleepers: “I have no sympathy”, “give them a shovel” and “it is their choice”.

Rough Sleeping

What a crock of shit. I urge these reprobates to walk a mile in these people’s shoes before making comments like that. How do they know what their circumstances are? They have no idea how they ended up where they are presently. Do they really think these people would be where they are now through “choice”? Have they seen the weather?

There may very well be an extremely small number of people that live their lives in a certain way through choice. The majority would surely prefer to have a warm bed, a hot meal and a job giving them a steady income so they can support themselves and their family.

It Could be you…

There are a myriad of reasons why someone may find themselves in these circumstances. Indeed many of us are only a couple of month’s income away from being unable to meet our own commitments and the hardships that may result.

Some of us are lucky and have family and friends who could/would help. But what if you have no-one? What if the problem is your family and friends? What “choices” do you have? Addiction and mental health problems can send some down a road that they find it hard to come back from. What if your mental health problems stop you from asking for or getting the help you need?

It is hard to put yourself in someone’s shoes if you haven’t been there yourself. Don’t judge.

Christmas can be an impossible time of year if people don’t have the means, support or coping mechanisms that will help them through. That could be money worries or a lack of roof over their heads. It might be that this time of year exacerbates addiction problems. Or Christmas (or should I say everything that surrounds Christmas that makes it difficult) brings on poor mental health through stress, anxiety or depression.

Fortunately, I have never been in the position of having no permanent address or had to sleep rough and I haven’t had to rely on food banks or the charity of others to feed my family. I am all too conscious though that it could happen to anyone. I would urge anyone to do whatever is in their capacity to support by doing what you can, but not just at Christmas, to support your fellow human beings.

Christmas and Mental Health

I can, however, relate to people who may be suffering from poor mental health. I can also see how that may be magnified at this time of year. Some of my past issues with anxiety and depression could easily be exacerbated by Christmas. I have a fantastic family and friends round me & I have been in the fortunate position of getting support through employee’s schemes at work. These have enabled me to gain the knowledge and skills to be able to recognise when my self-belief, thoughts, actions and behaviours are taking me down the wrong route and this helps me to take the right action to turn around. Unfortunately, the same levels of support aren’t accessible to everyone

I love Christmas and don’t find it to be a problem, but I could see how someone who does struggle with anxiety and depression could hate this time of year.

What do I mean?

Take social anxiety for starters. If you are someone who suffers from social anxiety, I can totally understand how Christmas party season could be hell. Be it a works Christmas nights out and parties having to constantly be around people, talking, joining in, laughing, joking, generally having a good time. Sounds like hell doesn’t it?

For someone who has never suffered from this, it will be difficult to understand, but yes this could be like hell. Being in the middle of a crowd of 100 strangers is sometimes easier, and preferable, to being with 20 people you know. You can hide, and you don’t need to talk to anyone!

I you are suffering from anxiety, and faced with a social situation you will start questioning everything. What will I say to them? I’ll look like an idiot if I say the wrong thing? What if they have more to say than me? What if they disagree with my opinion? I am inferior to them all, and if I say the wrong thing that will confirm it. You then open your mouth and speak. Oh no what did I say that? They must think I’m a dick? What can I say to make it better? How can I excuse myself and leave?

Add that over-thinking and over-analysing to the mix and you have dug not a hole, but a pit for yourself that you can’t climb out of.

These thoughts may not be logical but can either make these events unbearable or result in bizarre or inappropriate behaviour. Perhaps drinking heavily to cope or to build up the courage to join in, which of course can end up in acting the fool and the next day, week, month become an excruciating exercise in over-analysing and thinking the worst.

In more extreme circumstances, it can also mean isolating yourself and avoiding these social circumstances altogether, coming up with various excuses why you can’t attend events. This only makes things worse, especially if your anxiety means that you need the acceptance of others, you have created a lose-lose situation for yourself.

ingrained self-beliefs

Many anxieties are brought on by ingrained self-beliefs – such as a feeling of worthlessness or failure and trying to over-compensate by being a perfectionist and setting unreal goals. This could be in any situation work or otherwise. I used to do it constantly in work, set myself unrealistic goals that would ensure EVERYTHING would be perfect. Of course, nothing is ever perfect, but that didn’t stop me dwelling on it, beating myself up and either working harder to make it happen, which often a waste of time and energy and only had the result in driving my mood lower, or almost giving up – that feeling of “what is the point, I’ve failed – I can’t do this”.

I could see how Christmas could easily have a similar impact on someone who has low self-esteem. Christmas movies all ultimately have a happy ending where everything turns out perfectly. Unreal expectations. If those outcomes aren’t replicated for someone with anxiety – they can feel they have failed. TV adverts show perfect Christmas dinners with smiling family and friends. Another potential unreal expectation – nothing ever goes that smoothly. You can plan your perfect Christmas as much as you like, but would you not be better just taking things as they come and enjoying it as much as possible? Think about why you are doing something, why are you having that thought, what has brought it on? What would be the result if you didn’t do something?

Add to that equation the money worries. TV ads again encourage people to spend what they don’t have to keep up with the Joneses. That may not have an immediate effect on mental health. I’ve experienced something similar, just not at Christmas. Spending money you don’t necessarily have on “stuff” in a vain attempt to lift your “mood”. It works momentarily, but come the month of January when the bills hit…

That’s just scratching the surface. Once you add fatigue into the mix too – managing your normal daily life and making lists of other things you “must” do to make it the perfect Christmas – get the decorations up, write cards to all and sundry, shop excessively, tidying the house for visitors. Physical exhaustion can have a bearing on how someone manages their mental, spiritual (in a non-religious sense) and bodily health. Lack of sleep, over-tiredness and lack of the right exercise can impact your ability to think the right way, make the right decisions and ultimately take you down “that” path, which for many people is one way journey.

Loneliness

Loneliness has also been in the news. I’m sure people aren’t just lonely at Christmas though. Why are we only supposed to care about them for a couple of days a year? Another thought though, lonely people aren’t just people who live on their own. You may know someone you work with or live with who is constantly surrounded by people but still feels dreadfully lonely. They feel they can’t relate, they feel worthless and although they may be in company they cut themselves off. They stop communicating, their mood changes, maybe their behaviour is not normal? It can come on over time and is sometimes not easy to spot in yourself, but perhaps sometimes others can see a change.

I can see how, without the support network of family, friends, employers, colleagues around them, someone could easily spiral. The impact of that could be serious – relationship breakdowns, inability to work, loss of income. It is easy to see how someone could end up on the streets or worse. Is that a “choice”? I don’t think so.

Does the government even care?

I do believe that those in authority do very little to support a lot of these groups of people. How low does the temperature have to go before they do anything? How many people will have to freeze to death?

How many empty homes and office buildings do you see around your area that could be opened up even as temporary refuge to people who are rough sleeping? How much is being spent on social housing? I see plenty of luxury homes being built. What about housing for those for whom that type of property is and will only ever be a dream?

That isn’t enough in itself. There needs to be a whole programme of support to put a roof over people’s heads, temporarily to get them out of the cold, but ultimately permanently but this needs to go hand in hand with money & work advice and support for other issues such as mental health and addiction problems. Without this, many will end up back where they are.

However, what are the authorities interested in? To me it seems they are more interested in spending billions on pointless tram systems, superfast trains (part of the issues of the modern world – everything needs to be instantaneous – maybe if we slowed down and chilled out it might help?), fancy bridges, fixing big clocks and archaic buildings, automating everything to save time and money and buying new nuclear weapons. Oh and there is the self-promotion interests form pro- and anti- MPs, focussing their all on Brexit and forgetting the basics about looking after their citizens NOW.

No amount of lobbying seems to make a difference. Just watch an MP in full flow – every excuse under the sun will be thrown out as to why it is not a simple solution. If they had the desire to do anything, they would. They all have an excuse, no matter their political persuasion and so it comes down to people power.

Care for each other

We can only what we can, but make sure it is not just at Christmas. Be a caring human who cares for their fellow human all year round. Don’t be like the unfeeling morons on Facebook who make blasé and frankly disgraceful comments about people they don’t know and have no idea about how they have got to where they are. Ditch these fools.

It could be as simple as speaking to someone. Find out how they are and if there is anything you can do. Buy a coffee and hot meal for someone rough sleeping. Even stopping for 5 minutes to say hello. Make a donation to a local food bank.

No matter how simple it seems it makes a difference to someone.

Find out what is happening locally that you can support – food banks, restaurants serving Christmas dinner to people who aren’t able to provide their own, charities or individuals providing sleeping bags & warm clothes to rough sleepers.

But don’t forget those close to you.  Has their behaviour changed, do they need support from you but they just don’t know how to ask?

Remember, Christmas isn’t a competition. It should be spending quality time with family/friends, not about who spends the most on presents, has the biggest turkey or the flashiest tree.

And no matter how much I enjoy Christmas, it is only a day. There are 364 more in the year. Don’t put yourself under financial or emotional strain for a day. Enjoy your time with family and friends.

Merry Christmas.

Mental Health Hotline 0800116123 (Samaritans).

Christmas songs

Its Chriiiisssssstmas

For many it is now that dreaded time of year when they are bombarded with Christmas songs everywhere they go. Actually, for many it is just that dreaded time of year.

Christmas itself is a great divider of opinion. I could go on at great lengths about commercialism and consumerism, the continued Americanisation of our culture (Black Friday) slowly turning us into the 51st state. Or the age-old religion versus paganism debate about where many of the Christmas traditions came from and what they symbolise. However, I wanted this blog to be about music.

Not all wine and roses

It did get me to thinking though. For many, the season is a time of coming together and having fun with friends and family. However, for too many others it can be a time of loneliness, stress, anxiety, depression & money worries. For people with poor mental health, the whole season can exacerbate everything for them and is often not a time to be relished.

That doesn’t even touch on those that through circumstance are living on the street or without a fixed address. People who are rely on the charity of others through night shelters and food banks to just merely survive the festive season in the most literal sense.

This is where society  often has its priorities so wrong, and I include myself in that group. Spending too much on gifts that aren’t really needed, overindulging on food and drink and generally being self-centred.

Let me give you an example. I was in a well-known supermarket at the weekend. The specific intention was to buy Christmas pyjamas for my daughters. When we arrived there were volunteers for the Trussell Trust handing out leaflets at the door. I took one and didn’t think much more at the time. Then my daughters started arguing over clothes. “You can’t have that, that’s the one I want” – you get the picture. That moment made me realise how wrong our priorities were. They were arguing over pyjamas and I had a leaflet in my hand asking for donations of food for people who can’t afford to feed their families.

The shopping trip immediately changed focus and I was on a mission to get everything on the list I had been handed. Despite moans of dismay from my daughters. Even they eventually realised what was going on and how wrong their attitude was and calmed down.

While that assuaged my guilty conscience for a while, it’s not enough. In 21st century Britain, this shouldn’t be a problem. We are living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world and our governments can’t even be bothered to look after our citizens that need the most help and support. Of course their self-serving policies and making Brexit happen are more important.

Christmas songs
Merry Christmas Everybody - Slade
Merry Christmas Everybody – Slade

So back to my reason for writing this blog. I am not for one moment suggesting that these are not important consideration and I’m not ignoring them or trying to be flippant, but that is a massive debate for another blog.

When I started writing this blog post it was intended as a celebration of my love of Christmas songs – old & new, traditional but probably more with the less so!

I am a lover of all things Christmas and obviously a big part of that is Christmas songs.

I grew up in the late 70’s and 80’s and from my rose-tinted memories, Christmas songs were a big thing – the 70’s glam of Slade, Wizzard & Mud (the first single I ever bought was Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody) to the likes of Wham, Jona Lewie, The Pogues and of course Band Aid in the 80’s into the 90’s.

Back in the day, Christmas music specials were all over the TV. From the likes of T-Rex to the ever-present Val Doonican and his famous rocking chair and cardigans. The Christmas Day Top of the Pops was a must watch for all the family with its review of the year and Christmas songs dotted throughout.

Val Doonican
Val Doonican

Going further back, the old classics by the crooners Sinatra, Martin, Crosbie and the likes of Nat King Cole and his ilk are timeless songs.

Christmas Number 1

The battle for Christmas number one was always something that was watched with anticipation – Who would it be? Would it be a Christmas song?

That anticipation has largely disappeared, well, totally disappeared for my part. I have no idea what is in the charts these days, is there even such a thing?

Why is that?

Obviously the manufactured “artists” churned out by X-Factor is one big reason for this – for as many years as I can remember there has been no battle for a Christmas number one. (Apart from the year of the anti-Cowell campaign where Rage Against the Machine reached number 1. How festive!) Nowadays, It’s probably a shoe-in that Simon Cowell will own the Christmas number 1 (and the artist, their family, the pet dog..) with an act who will be famous for 10 minutes. Then, having served the purpose of being a puppet for the egocentric Cowell, they return to working in their local McDonalds a few weeks later.

The X Factor
The dreaded Simon Cowell self promotion vehicle The X Factor

I may be totally off the pace but then again, I did say I have no idea what happens in “the charts” these days. Does anyone actually care?

It used to be like a religion for me on a Sunday afternoon listening to the charts with my C90 in my battered ghetto blaster. My fingers on play/record ready to record my favourite songs and hoping whatever eejit DJ was doing the chart rundown didn’t talk all over it.

The way “the kids” access their music these days on all the streaming platforms and not buying physical records makes a difference too. I don’t see the same excitement from fans for singles coming out and fighting for their chart positions. The instantaneousness of it all takes away the excitement of waiting for weeks to go into the local record shop and buy the shiny vinyl you’d been waiting for.

Christmas music sucks?

However, all of that said, back to Christmas music. It is definitely still around, and very much a thing – from early November in some shops. Maybe now its more Christmas albums than singles though . Everyone and their dog seems to be releasing one. If you’ve been on the TV for more than 5 minutes, you may as well go for it…

This is nothing new either. I remember my Mum listening to Johnny Mathis and Cliff Richard Christmas albums when I was growing up. The range of Christmas albums is now vast – from the traditional choirs, through the crooners (old and new) to punk, psychobilly, rap – the whole gamut.

I personally have a vast playlist of Christmas songs that cover a wide range of genres. I can totally appreciate those who work in a retail or customer service environment hate Christmas songs. They are subjected to the same small playlists of the obvious standards day in/day out. This must grate on them, even a Christmas lover like myself would balk at that.

There is an interesting article on this in The Guardian. I have been there too. I worked in a bank for 20 years. One year we had a promotional video on loop daily for the month of December. It only had 3 songs on it, all sung by children’s choirs. If I ever hear “It’s a holly jolly Christmas” nowadays, I begin to twitch.

I however, am happy to subject myself to a variety of Christmas songs throughout December.

Christmas songs are a bit of fun, they are a distraction from the shit of daily life (obviously some have served a greater purpose over the years – Band Aid for example – but again, that’s a different topic altogether).

Some people get all po-faced and critical about bands releasing a Christmas song/album. “They’ve sold out, they’ve released a Christmas song”. By the way, I never did understand that whole selling out thing. Do you want your favourite band to be successful and popular? To make enough money to keep going as a band and releasing singles and albums for fans? Or do you want them to disappear into obscurity because only you and 2 of your mates knew about them? But Christmas songs, lets not over-analyse, they’re a bit of fun – aren’t they?

Must Be Santa

I was shocked a few years ago when a well-respected and serious artist like Bob Dylan released his Christmas album, but I was pleasantly surprised and now “Must Be Santa” is one of my favourite Christmas songs.

In the Mood (for Christmas)

Some artists have made it a career move. Brian Setzer has several albums of Christmas songs and now tours his big band extravaganza across the US from November right up until Christmas.

Love ’em or hate ’em

I also find myself listening to bands/artists who I normally wouldn’t give the time of day because I like their Christmas songs (Mum, I’ll still listen to Johnny Mathis but I draw the line at Cliff!)

Christmas songs are for enjoying, bringing a smile to your face and adding some fun to the proceedings. They are never going to appeal to all and are hated by many. That’s fair enough the world would be a boring place if we were all the same. Vive la difference.

So, I’ve lost all the bah-humbuggers by now. OK, they probably didn’t read beyond the title. If, like me, you love Christmas, and you love Christmas songs, dig a bit deeper than the “Now That’s What I Call Christmas” compilations and you might unearth some gems you love and won’t sicken you of the whole season by hearing the same old songs over and over.

31 Days of Christmas songs

I could share a massive playlist, but as there are 31 days in December, here are some of the tracks I love, some are well-known classics, others not so.

El Vez – “Feliz Navidad” – a Merry Christmas all the way from a Mexican Elvis with a massive debt to PiL’s Public Image. Lets face it. It is just Public Image with different lyrics…

Glasvegas – “A Snowflake Fell and it Felt Like a Kiss” – Glasvegas’ James Allan once stated his favourite album of all time was Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You. He and his band recorded a mini album of Christmas songs taking that as their inspiration. The rest of the mini-album touches on topics such as homelessness and relationship breakdowns, so not the album you want to play at your Christmas party probably.

The Yobs – “Tommy the Christmas Tree” – The alter-ego of 70’s punks The Boys released an album of Christmas tunes (The Worst of the Yobs). This is one of the cleaner ones – poor Tommy. Warning – I don’t recommend listening to their 12 Days of Christmas in front of the kids.

Siouxsie & the Banshees – “Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant” – Just because its Siouxsie. The video which you can find on YouTube from a French TV. Robert Smith on cymbals looking as if he’s about to drop off to sleep.

Toyah – “I Believe in Father Christmas” – originally from a David Essex Christmas TV show, Toyah does her take of the Greg Lake classic. If you know me you know how much I love Toyah. Ha ha.

The Futureheads – “Christmas Was Better in the 80s” – because the lyrics remind me of growing up and the family Christmases as a kid in our house. (Although you better make that 70s’s/early 80s).

Bob Dylan – “Must Be Santa” – as mentioned earlier from his surprisingly good Christmas album, this became an instant Christmas classic.

Ramones – “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Wanna Fight)” – Because how could you not like it – it’s the Ramones. (see also Joey Ramone and his version of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”.

The Greedies – “A Merry Christmas Jingle” – a good fun romp of a Thin Lizzy/Sex Pistols collaboration.

The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl – “A Fairytale of New York” – my ultimate Christmas song. Not a sugary coated saccharine song of sweetness but a tragic take of love and hope gone wrong. All the more tragic following the death of the mega-talented MacColl.

Cocteau Twins – “Frosty the Snowman” – Liz Fraser’s ethereal vocals – what else do you need?

The Primitives – “You Trashed my Christmas” – 90s indie stalwarts Tracy Tracy & co with their contribution to the festivities.

The Wedding Present – “Step into Christmas” – Their take on the Elton John classic, from the b-side of “No Christmas” the 12th single of their year of releasing a 7” single a month in 1992.

SLF – “White Christmas” – You can’t have Christmas without Stiff Little Fingers White Christmas!

TV Smith – “Xmas Bloody Xmas” – One of the hardest working men in music. Mr TV Smith with a tale of consumerism and all the stuff I talked about at the start of this blog…

Julian Casablancas – “I Wish it was Christmas Today” – Me too…

Jona Lewie – “Stop the Cavalry” – An anti-war song not written as a Christmas song but one of the best known now.

The Wildhearts – “Geordie in Wonderland” – not really a Christmas song, but I love it and it makes me think of Christmas.

The Dickies – “Silent Night” – not so silent from these US punks

Coffin Draggers – “Jingle Bell Rock/Jingle Bells” – just to throw in a psychobilly Christmas tune. From one of a number of Psychobilly Christmas compilations out there.

The Fall – “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” – Mark E Smith singing a Christmas Carol – why wouldn’t you?

Brian Setzer – “Getting in the Mood (for Christmas)” – Big Band sounds from the rockabilly master.

Half Man Half Biscuit – “All I want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit” – Because its HMHB and I couldn’t resist.

The Waitresses – “Christmas Wrapping” – Just a great song.

Darlene Love – “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” – from Phil Spector’s Christmas Gift for You. Many would say the best – or the only – Christmas album you should own.

Goldblade and Poly Styrene – “City of Christmas Ghosts” – John Robb and the much missed Poly get together for this punk stormer. See also Poly Styrene’s “Black Christmas”.

Frankie & the Heartstrings – “(Too Right) Its Christmas”. Christmas from the North East – too right – Its Christmas.

Low – “Just Like Christmas” – Just a lovely song.

Peter & the Test Tube Babies – “I’m Getting Pissed for Christmas” – I’m sure they’re not alone.

Sinead O’Connor – “Silent Night” – That voice!!!!

Bubblegum Lemonade – “White Noise Christmas” – Well, I know him….

Bubbling under (see what I did there – Bubblegum Lemonade…) Weezer, Eels, Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan – Time of the Season, Pretenders – 2000 Miles, Frightened Rabbit – Its Christmas so We’ll Stop, Run DMC – Christmas in Hollis and so many more…

Merry Christmas Everyone (yeah that one too).

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