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Lonely this Christmas?

An Cailín Rua

An Cailin Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

There’s no good way to say this, so I’ll just come out and say it. (Deep breath.) I really don’t like Christmas.
It can’t be unsaid now, so sue me.
Look, I’m sorry I’m a killjoy. I’m sorry for being the Grinch. But the run-up to the festive season leaves me a bit cold in more ways than one, and instead of merriness and jollity, this time of year is more likely to leaving me feeling stressed and cynical. I can’t be alone, right?  
Twelve winters of working in retail may have something to do with this, where Christmas begins in early October and holidays end at midnight on Christmas Day. I’m eternally  grateful that I’m no longer compelled to hear Slade or Cliff Richard on a loop throughout October, but that sense of still being sick of the previous Christmas by the time the next one rolls around has never really left me.
And this bag of misery is not done yet! Christmas is almost entirely a capitalist construct now; its true meaning diluted, and most communications around it are designed to part us with our money. Yet both the overt and subliminal messaging remains unimaginatively consistent: ‘You should be having a good time’. (And if you’re not, there must be something wrong with you.) If the religious aspect means little and Santa’s footprints are just a wistful memory, that’s a lot of pressure on a turkey dinner and a night of excess down the local.
This column isn’t really about Christmas though, or about my being a wet blanket. I do enjoy time with family and friends, and I love that there are full days when pyjamas are an acceptable form of attire. And I am grateful for all of the food, all of the time. No, this is about a problem that exists all year round, but is probably most heightened at Christmas. It’s also one of the last remaining taboos in modern society, and it’s called loneliness.
For all its warmth and goodwill and get-together with family and friends, Christmas can be a painful time if you are feeling lonely. It is a time where convention suggests that you should be surrounded by people and parties, and if for whatever reason this aspiration is not met, it can be miserable.
Most of us want to be seen to have close family and friends, to have people who want to spend time with us and invite us to participate in things. We want to feel wanted and we want to feel loved; it is a human instinct. Yet many of us find ourselves in positions where this is not the reality, and that is very hard. It is quite remarkable that we are empowered with more means of connecting with others than ever before, yet there is evidence to suggest that loneliness and social isolation are endemic, to the extent that they are now recognised as one of the greatest public health risks of our time. So much so that Mayo doctor Senator Keith Swanick, inspired by efforts made to combat the scourge of loneliness in the UK, has along with Seán Moynihan of ALONE, set up the Loneliness Taskforce to attempt a co-ordinated response. It is a worthy initiative, deserving meaningful engagement.
Being lonely should not be confused with being alone, and is not always a result of being physically alone. It is very possible to feel lonely within a relationship or a busy family home; conversely many people choose to be alone and are very content with that decision and with their own company. But for those who are lonely, Christmas and its glossy marketed expectations can be difficult and upsetting. Spare a thought too for those who are lonely because of the loss of a loved one; among the prevailing jollity, it is a particularly hard time of year for the bereaved.
Maybe we should all make an effort to avert our eyes from the blinding light of capitalism, and instead be the guiding star for someone who might need it. The best present you might give this year might yet be just a visit, a hug or a listening ear.