It’s December, and Christmas is upon us (in fact, it’s been here for a few weeks already!) It’s the time of year for festive parties, Christmas jumpers, an inordinate number of TV ads telling us what to put under the tree, and supermarket shelves groaning under the weight of Christmas chocolates.
But Christmas isn’t really about all those things. If we strip it right back, it’s a religious festival that celebrates the birth of a saviour. But given that the majority of the population no longer identifies with Christianity, the true purpose of Christmas is now about time spent with family and sharing with our loved ones. We treasure this time of year for the fond memories of childhoods sat eating Christmas dinner round a big table with all the family, and we look forward to future Christmases with our own children.
Regardless of your financial situation, Christmas isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about the amount of presents received, or the consumerism of the event. It’s about the joy of children believing in magic, seeing loved ones that you might not see at any other time of year, and taking the opportunity to give to others.
And Christmas is the same for everyone, right? That’s what the TV ads would have you believe – across the land, Christmas means happy smiley families sat round a big table with an abundance of food and drink, and everything is merry and bright.
But unfortunately, that just isn’t the case for many people. According to recent research conducted by Age UK, more than 2 million older people wish they had someone to spend Christmas Day with, and 1.6 million find Christmas to be the hardest day of the year. While this research was focused on those aged over 65, adults of any age can feel lonely at Christmas.
This is because Christmas can highlight inadequacies in our social connections that we can try to brush under the carpet at other times of year, particularly when it appears that everyone around us is being extra social, and expectations for the perceived notion of a ‘perfect Christmas’ are high.
It's also possible to feel lonely even if you are with other people at Christmas. This is because it is the time of year when we are expected to visit family, and sometimes these relationships are not as supportive and loving as we’d like them to be. Being surrounded by people that you struggle to connect with can make you feel just as lonely as if you were sat in a room on your own.
All of this combined with cold, dark days that make us less likely to venture outside, along with the current cost-of-living crisis, can quickly cause you to be overwhelmed, and turn Christmas into a time of dread and despair.
It’s important to note that loneliness doesn’t just bite at Christmas. It’s something that affects people all year round, regardless of age. Recent research shows that up to 45% of adults in England say they have feelings of loneliness occasionally, sometimes or often. That equates to around 25 million people feeling lonely at some point.
Loneliness isn’t a mental health condition in itself, but it can make existing conditions worse. Having a mental health condition also makes you more likely to feel isolated and alone. Feeling lonely can cause anxiety, depression, lack of self-esteem and confidence, and a general feeling of disconnection from everything going on around you. This in turn can lead to wider problems, like trouble sleeping, being less motivated and productive at work, and less likely to be physically active.
But there are ways to overcome feeling lonely, and ways to help others you think might not have anyone around them:
Sign up to the Age UK Telephone Friendship Service, where you can chat to a friendly volunteer 365 days a year. It’s not just for older people, you can benefit from it at any age, and that regular conversation can be a lifeline;
See if there are any opportunities to volunteer at local community centres. At Christmas especially, more volunteers are often needed, and it can be a great way to meet people;
Try to think of ways to help pass the time – perhaps by doing something creative, finding a new book to read, or spending time in nature;
Plan something nice for after the Christmas period, so that you have something to look forward to;
Drop in to a relative or neighbour for a cup of tea and a chat;
Offer to do some shopping for someone you think may be in need of assistance and company;
Help an older person to access the internet to give them more options for talking to family members or finding activities they enjoy.
For those on X (Twitter), you can always #JoinIn with Sarah Millican’s annual Christmas campaign which encourages strangers to start conversations in the hope of making them feel less lonely.
This Christmas, be kind to yourself, and reach out to make sure others are ok. ‘Tis the season for giving – and what better gift to give than your time and companionship.
 https://www.ageuk.org.uk/latest-press/articles/2023/more-than-2-million-older-people-wish-they-had-someone-to-spend-time-with-at-christmas/  https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886920302555
Photo: Lonely Christmas by Adam Croh