THE clutch of days between Christmas and Hogmanay seem to operate in their own bubble, or perhaps I should say bauble. They may be short and the dark may fall swiftly, yet for so many these few days feel long, lonely and tinged with melancholy – heavy with the comedown that follows Christmas and the anticipation of the New Year.
Time seems to bloat with our over-indulged bellies, to stretch into oblivion like a festive EastEnders special. It’s hard to believe that this period, bookended by two of the year’s biggest events (and the biggest pressures to spend, spend, spend), lasts less than a week. On and on it goes. We know we’re supposed to be having a wonderful time. We know it’s supposed to be a holiday. But there is no taking time off from ourselves.
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Loneliness can strike at any time of year but social isolation feels particularly painful during the festive break. The pressure to be joyful is never greater: to have roasted well, hosted well, gifted well, received well, partied well, slept well, recovered well… until next week, when we’re supposed to start detoxing well.
The fantasy of being perpetually surrounded by one’s own loving, singing, dancing, sharing, caring family and friends is even more persuasive than usual. If we aren’t belting out Frozen’s Let It Go around the perfectly set dinner table with our well-adjusted children and their new aspirational toys, we must be failing. And if we are on our own? We are simply erased out of the picture. No-one wants to know.
The reality is as sobering as the return to normal life on 5 January. A recent BBC poll revealed that around four million people expected to spend most of Christmas on their own. Men, older people and those from poorer backgrounds are more likely to be isolated, but no-one is immune to the great disease of our times. More than a third of young adults worry about feeling lonely.
It’s thought that at least a million people in the UK feel lonely all or most of the time. And many feel isolated when surrounded by their nearest and dearest, refreshing their Twitter feeds and Facebook pages every five minutes. This, in its own way, can be just as tough as seeing in the New Year alone. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that hell is other people. But loneliness can be other people too. Especially if those other people happen to be your own dysfunctional family who you only see for a few frazzled days of the year.
I’ve had a few lonely Christmases and Hogmanays of my own. There was the year when my mum and dad were struck down with the flu, my sister was in Australia and I spent days on end lying in a single bed watching musicals while my stomach rumbled beneath my elasticated waistband because I was too young and silly to be able to roast so much as a spud for myself. I was ashamed of the awfulness of it all and never told a soul when I went back to school.
Truth be told, there were quite a few bleak festive seasons in the early Nineties following the repossession of our home and various other mini disasters that shook our small family to its core. My dad would disappear to India and my mum, sister and I would do our best to pretend to be happy. And as anyone who has a family knows, there is no sight more dispiriting than watching someone close to you faking joy wearing a paper crown.
Loneliness is now deemed an epidemic and a major public health issue for us all. This was the year when we learnt that being alone is as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and twice as deadly as obesity. We are a nation of social animals who have lost the ability to reach out to one another.
We have a government determined to pull us further apart. What we really need are people in power who not only know that there is such a thing as society but that we have to protect it, invest in it and above all equalise it in order to keep its cogs turning. Loneliness may be but one of the effects of inequality and rampant individualism but it has an invisibility that makes it all the more difficult to quantify, and all the more insidious too.
We are living, as the writer George Monbiot put it earlier this year, in the Age of Loneliness. And every year it reaches its zenith right about now. So what can be done? The Campaign to End Loneliness (which, if you ask me, must be the most tragic yet valiantly hopeful campaign ever cooked up by a lonely biped) recommends all sorts of wholesome activities: volunteering, walking, phoning someone and telling them how you feel, joining a community project.
There are many clever initiatives – not Facebook groups but actual groups out there in the world – that remind us that there are people out there after all. Like a pilot project in Dundee that gets volunteers to cook for elderly people living on their own. Or the community garden off Leith Links that I’ve been watching slowly grow over a long, hostile winter. Sometimes, when I stride past on a dog walk, I see a few locals congregating on the recently cleared patch of wasteland. There they are with their bags of compost, heads bent against the howling wind that rages constantly across the Links, picking up litter, hitting spades against packed, scrubby earth, blowing on cold fingers. I watch them and feel a little less lonely. A little more part of a world with people in it. «
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