Every year, people in the Western world celebrate Christmas. It is a festival that stands out because of its position near the solstice, but above all because it marks a decisive change in cultural history. For all that, Christmas is also a recurring everyday form in which universal basic relationships seek to find a livable solution. 2020 will be different for many than they are used to. The restrictions in connection with the Corona pandemic will have an impact on the celebration. We reproduce here a text by Werner Wagner that appeared in the journal zwischenschritte in 1988. It is a comprehensive study based on 75 interviews conducted as part of descriptive exercises at the Psychological Institute of the University of Cologne in the 1980s. We reproduce it here without the footnotes and references of the original text.

Werner Wagner

It happens every year -
On the psychopathology of Christmas

The holidays are always funnier for me the following day

In contrast to the 'movable' festivals, the date of Christmas is fixed. Every year we celebrate Christmas Eve on 24 December. The success of the celebration seems to depend on the fulfilment of a simple 'requirement profile': Presents, a Christmas tree, 'Bescherung', possibly going to church and a good meal. But at Christmas there seems to be 'more' at stake than the revival of a traditional pattern.

If one does not want to deal with Christmas any further, one is quick to come up with certain objections: the mercantile hype, the consumer terror, the compulsion to buy, the Christmas carol in the department store, and so on. But what has 'degenerated' into business - the feast of children, a Christian event, the 'real' occasion, an 'originally' pagan solstice festival or the Saturnalia?

The first things that come to mind when we think of Christmas are festivity, joy, warmth, security; these qualities are usually localised in an 'earlier' time. Synaesthetic images of opening doors, trees with lights, baubles, the sound of bells and fragrant smells stand out. There is talk of expectations, surprises, being overwhelmed - and, as if to protect oneself from sinking into these, as one thinks, remembered images, one tears oneself away: one would prefer to leave, to escape Christmas, to be somewhere else entirely, to throw off the 'emotional ballast'.

Disturbing things become noticeable: That Christmas will soon be boring, tensions arise, differences become visible, hectic, nervousness, quarrels, disappointments, envy - all sensations that are contrary to Christmas, the feast of family, peace and love.

Finally, one wants to be left alone by Christmas; the high demand is experienced as unfulfillable. Forms are sought that can be lived more easily: eating together, having a party, going on a trip or a holiday.

It is noted with relief that one may ask the question, 'how will we celebrate Christmas this year?' The possibility of variation is understood as an indication of a loosening of restrictions or even compulsion.

Father and I usually decorate the Christmas tree on the 24th in the morning in the living room and then no one is allowed in until the presents are given. In the meantime, my mother makes something to eat, stew, which goes quickly, and then we eat lunch in the kitchen. Then we watch TV; we try to keep Berti (8) busy, because he's so fidgety then, and around three the family arrives.

All relatives, yes, all those who belong to the family, to the inner circle, who live in Cologne and the surrounding area, aunts, grannies and so on.

At Christmas, everyone comes to us because we have the most space, for the Christmas tree and so on. You need a lot of space, because we always buy a really big one, right up to the ceiling. The small, fuzzy ones are stupid. Besides, I find such a large much more atmospheric and cozy, if it is nicely decorated.

When they come, they give my father and me the presents. We decorate them under the tree, and they sit down in the dining room, and the women all help set the table for coffee. Then there's usually a big mess, because nobody really knows where the things are and so on; and Berti, he shrieks around. Susanne plays in the children's room, but every now and then he comes to spink. The men go off into a corner and chat. And then grandma comes, always at the last minute, she brings lots of cake and cookies. And then they drink coffee, quite festively with candles and so on. And Berti, he's always teased, so whether he already knows what he's getting, and he's usually really excited, and that then rubs off on the adults.

We have a sliding door between the dining room and the living room, and when we're done drinking coffee, my father goes in and turns on the lights from the tree and a few candles, rings a bell, and then he opens the sliding door. Berti always rushes in like a rocket. And everyone looks for their presents. Then it's usually terribly noisy until you find what's for you, and all that rustling of paper and the exclamations when you've unwrapped something. Then someone always shouts: 'Look what I got. One is given a gift. And then you also have to, you don't have to, but then you also give a gift. You then also give something to the person from whom you get something.
But actually, I mean, it's the same everywhere, with all the people; the families, they all celebrate Christmas the same way, if you look around."
(From an interview with an 18 year old student).

If one examines the descriptions of the experience of concrete festivities in terms of fundamental dimensions, one notices first of all a continuous feature that one could call 'coming together'.

Christmas seems to insist on getting together - with the 'inner circle' of family, friends, closest relatives, grandparents, in-laws. etc. There is then a sense of being 'amongst oneself'. It is important that daughters and sons who have long since outgrown the household return to the family to celebrate Christmas 'together'.

Caring for those who are alone, sheltering the homeless, inviting the isolated, all point to this tendency. Bringing in a stranger who one assumes would have had to spend the evening alone, far from home, where there may be no Christmas at all, draws attention to a peculiarity: even the hosts are no longer alone when they have someone with them.

The gathering takes place in a 'warm cave', in the 'good parlour', which is lit by a tree of lights, specially prepared and decorated, filled with music and pleasant smells. In contrast to this is the image of Father Christmas, who comes 'from outside', from the snowy, dark forest or from the cold of outer space, to stop for a short moment and share in the joys of the cosy home.

The contrast evoked by the image of the 'unhoused' heightens the feeling of being at home. In waiting together and singing carols, in mutual consideration and giving gifts to all sides, one assures oneself of belonging. By remembering earlier times and past Christmases, this feeling can be strengthened. There is a danger of it becoming rigid if there is too much insistence on 'traditions' and the gathering takes on an obligatory character.

The coming together very soon reveals another side; for the restoration of old conditions cannot succeed, since changes have taken place in the meantime. Those who have returned home ask themselves who or what they have actually come as. Often they are assigned the old places, the familiar conditions are to be re-established. They are imagined as the little ones who have to be given presents and who have to make their parents happy with a gleam in their eyes. One is made an 'old child'. To a certain extent, one is even made to play this role once again. Freed from everyday worries for a few days, one can let oneself be given presents and cared for as before. It seems possible to immerse oneself in a world that one considers lost or overcome, or at any rate long since abandoned. As a rule, however, there is a feeling of being in a suit that is far too small.

What speaks against coming together is the assessment of having become someone else with one's own views, demands and desires. This also includes one's own idea of Christmas. The claim of becoming different stands in contrast to the concern to restore old conditions.

The question becomes important, how one is seen, as which one emerges, and how one sees the others. Especially 'at Christmas', when one goes into the familiar circle, the problem of 're-definition' becomes clearly perceptible. It is in the encounter that it is decided whether a change is registered and can thus also claim validity. Changes become recognizable, for example, when as a child one no longer believes in the Christ Child, as an adolescent one is already allowed to decorate the tree with one's father, to stay away from the parental gift-giving altogether, or as a young family one can organize one's 'own' Christmas celebration. When one's own little ones are to be given presents and the parents appear as grandparents, the circumstances have reversed.

After a failed Christmas, you resolve to do things differently next year.

Having waited long enough, the door finally opens; blinded by the glow of the tree of lights, one must first orient oneself in a room filled with tinsel, packages, colorful plates, etc. A crowded gift table soon becomes the target of all endeavors. When unwrapping presents, people take their time in order to enjoy them as long as possible. In the memories, Christmas seems to be an event of abundance, of excess, of the extraordinary. It is as if a cornucopia has poured down on the Christmas community. It is even said that it 'rained' sweets from a hole in the stucco rosette.

Even if you don't feel overwhelmed by gifts, there is still a little something special, something out of the ordinary. For example, a special meal is prepared or a special drink is served or a pastry that is only available at Christmas. Festive music is played, songs are sung in the native language and stories are told. A church service that takes place in the middle of the night (Christmette) can be visited; here, too, one encounters special features. In the church, which was still dark, the lights suddenly came on, and fir trees and mangers were set up.

Compared to the memories, the idea of 'today's' Christmas usually falls qualitatively. One would like to have everything as it was in the past, but resigns oneself to the irretrievable.

Since the Christmas gifts have been brought by the Christ Child or Santa Claus - at least they are under the tree and have not been handed over personally - one is relieved of the duty of personal gratitude. The Christmas gifts thus escape the cycle of gift-giving - counter-gift-giving.

Even though the need for gratitude is eliminated in the case of gifts without a giver, there is, however, a duty of commitment already before Christmas (Advent) and also during the festive season. One must personally commit oneself in a busy, financial, moral, religious or at least imaginative way to the success of a feast. A high level of commitment is required in the selection of gifts, the preparation of the Christmas meal, the arrangement of the celebration. The children in particular are expected to behave 'well' at this time. Special efforts are made in kindergartens, schools and churches to prepare the festivities; Saturdays that are open for sales are available for adults to make their commitment to Christmas. In the institution 'Christmas market' the idea of 'Advent' and the mercantile interest find a common expression. In many cases, a visit to the market fulfils in a meaningful way what is expected of Christmas. It replaces what it anticipates - the Christmas feeling. It is with wistfulness that one registers on the holidays that the Christmas market has already closed.

A celebration of one's own 'self' is connected with the performance of one's commitment and the showing of one's commitment. Whether it is the self-made, the self-baked, the tree cut by one's own hand or one's own musical performance - if the performance shown is a self-made one in contrast to a commercially achievable one, a more 'original' Christmas seems to have moved closer.

With the investment of one's own or substitute pecuniary means, a measure is given at the same time, which makes a statement about more or less possible. Comparisons are made with previous Christmases. The number of gifts can be determined, as well as the increase in sales of the businessmen or the price difference of the Christmas tree.

Christmas demands something from the individual, up to the use of all available means and possibilities; in return he may hope for something.

The ideal Christmas takes place in the snow. The snow covers all differences, blemishes and discords. In the 'white Christmas' the promise of a balancing of all differentiations is condensed. All should be satisfied, reconciled and form a unity. The fulfilment of these expectations would find an audible expression - according to some fantasies - if all the bells would ring at the same time, all the lights would light up at the same moment.

The ideology of equalization leads to the fading out of disturbing events. The usual daily news, already reduced to brief reports, are not taken note of. Weapons are at rest in war zones; conflicts, problems, catastrophes are experienced as inappropriate and particularly tragic. One wants to avoid incriminating contributions in the media.

"Horrible Christmas Eve - what on earth were you thinking, publishing that big article about cancer in the Christmas issue of all things?" (Letter to the editor to the KStA, 3.1.1986).

Christmas pretends that the rest of everyday life does not exist. In ignoring the separating, the different, the disturbing, the claim is maintained that at least in a small, narrow circle a balancing of the opposites, a covering up of the differences could be achieved. The disturbances should be banished from life at least for one evening, one day, one festival.

Christmas is the festival of the great production. Once a year the living room becomes the stage, the illuminated Christmas tree the backdrop for a piece of 'stirring bliss'. It 'stirs' the annual celebration of the same ritual. Everyone strives to play their part in the Christmas play as best they can. The children pretend to believe in the Christ Child, the youngsters join in 'in family', the parents pay homage to an illusion of the non-perishable. One allows oneself to be a child again for one's parents. The childlike faith is preserved in imaginations.

Everyone takes on a role in the game 'Christmas' and acts as the person responsible, the doer or as the one waiting, surprised, given a gift; touched. The mother prepares a special meal, the father decorates the tree, the children receive presents. The timing has to be right. One allows oneself to live beyond one's means for a short time; everything can easily take on a trait of the extraordinary.

As a player, however, you are also a spectator. What is staged can at the same time be checked for its effect and corrected if necessary. However, there is no possibility to rehearse the play with all participants. After the preparations, things take their course; either the celebration succeeds, or it does not. Every Christmas is a dress rehearsal for the next year.

A common story has been agreed upon for the performance. The focus is on the 'Bescherung'; this has to be prepared; one has to wait for it. The whole thing is done by the 'Christ Child' - but you don't get to see him. This story, which is told to the children, but which is also followed by the adults, serves to create tension and atmosphere. Basically, it is a story of deception.

The Christmas story of Jesus' birth functions in the story of Christmas like a film within a film. It has the status of symbolization: the birth of a child in a stable, in a foreign land, without a dwelling, in 'reality' the Son of God, a king, adored by shepherds, promising world redemption. Going to church enlivens this story; it turns the celebration on a small scale into a public, global affair. In the erection of a manger, the whole receives a visible expression. The figuration in a miniature landscape records an event with world-historical significance. It not only marks for us the division into a pre-Christian and a post-Christian age; Christianity has indeed also made history.

Christmas total

To come together at the same time in the old familiar and to redefine oneself, to make a high commitment and to expect ideal compensations, to receive overabundance without justification and to be fixed in a ritualized staging, is a mental undoing.

The different demands are in contradiction. To bring the different demands nevertheless into a form, it demands considerable effort. This cannot be done in one go; Christmas has to be practiced. At best, the dimensions of abundance and redefinition complement each other in the extraordinary. Christmas becomes an opportunity to live the 'completely different' for once. In transcending the usual forms of life, one assures oneself of one's everyday circumstances; it becomes possible to experience where the limits of one's personal scope lie.

On the other hand, the ideology of comprehensive equalization is no longer compatible with the expected abundance. Not everyone can be equally richly endowed; nor can the world be brought into balance in one fell swoop. Individual differences remain and are emphasized by different kinds of gifts. Only the uniform gift could remedy this. Nor can the question of the meaning and benefit of the effort be eliminated. Again and again questions arise such as: "Are the effort and the result in a justifiable relationship? Did the gifts 'arrive'? Did the food taste good?" Against the backdrop of irresolvable contradictions, a series of considerations arise that may eventually culminate in a general questioning of Christmas.

Completely incompatible are the demands of redefinition and expectations of the traditional. To be the old again' only succeeds through denial. Christmas presents the alternative of restoring the past and immersing oneself in it, or finding another form of celebration.

Christmas baby tower in Dortmund

Christmas brings together not only the closest relatives, but also a number of psychic affinities that cannot easily be brought together. In order to 'save' the construction of Christmas, one would have to suspend for a day or two the opposites that otherwise regulate the everyday life of the soul. This can only be achieved with the help of 'over-playing'.

One can only get involved with Christmas if one is prepared to play along with this game or to stage it oneself as rich in contrast as possible. Ambivalences, irreconcilables, incompatibilities must be kept hidden. The motto is 'not to be noticed' and 'to persevere' in order to endure false pathos, holy appearances, festive embarrassments. What the experience can bear in extremes becomes perceptible in the Christmas ritual:

The Christ Child 'unmasked' nevertheless continues to exist; the former faith is preserved in imaginations; the solemn idyll only with difficulty conceals the banal; the tree inside 'proclaims' the outside; 'superstitious' customs are revived. Falling into the choir of angels (on record), the heart beating in time with the bells (on the radio), the 'soul' shining in the glow of the (electric) candles - this is how the dream of the real, the actual is fulfilled for the individual.

The fiction of the original is preserved in the absolute artificiality. The danger of losing something precious with the abandonment of Christmas is countered with the installation of an 'all the more'. Over-playing' becomes a question of overloading or overstretching.

What 'body and soul' can endure in terms of supply, being showered, overflowing, becomes clear at Christmas. The demands of Christmas are reflected in bodily realizations: abundance, happiness, tension, excitement, heat, goose bumps, but also irritability, stings, 'nervousness', upsets, pain. There are somatizations of various kinds, so that one could certainly speak of a 'Christmas fever' in the psychological sense.

Where one wants to get particularly close together, makes a high commitment, expects ideal balance and abundance, without at the same time paying attention to the as-if character of the production, things can go wrong.

The more perfectly Christmas is supposed to succeed, the greater the danger of failure and disappointment. The overstretched bow breaks.

Chaos, caretaker forms, discord are the result. Depression and boredom set in; the suicide rate rises significantly high during the Christmas days. In contrast to the high expectations, loneliness, isolation and neediness are felt particularly clearly.

The downsides of Christmas splendour become visible very quickly. The family togetherness proves to be tense and hardly sustainable; reconciliations show themselves to be fragile; old quarrels break out; deviations from the traditional are 'audibly' noticeable; outdoing with gifts becomes a power struggle; inequalities in distribution produce envy and ill will; the non-fulfilment of (secret) wishes has to be endured, etc.

Evasive forms
In this crisis situation, relief options are sought out; a stroll through the city loosens up the tightness, fresh air does you good - a change from the scent of fir and the aroma of cinnamon. One would like to get rid of the sweet taste, this succeeds with alcohol. The television does the rest. Finally, Christmas becomes a day like any other. It is good to know that soon everyday life will have you back with its obligations, delimitations and alternations.

Increasingly, attempts are being made to avoid Christmas appropriation from the outset. Trips are booked to distant foreign countries or to the snow in order to be 'offered' a perfectly staged celebration with Santa Claus and presents. Even on the sunny beach in Tunisia a little tree is decorated for the tourists. If you have 'escaped' to a place where nothing reminds you of Christmas, you still notice this as emptiness.

From a visit to a pub or a discotheque, if you can find them open, you expect 'exuberant' celebration, atmosphere, action. But they also don't believe they can 'get loose' without sticking glitter stars on their cheeks "because it's Christmas". High on the agenda are fantasies of visiting the railway station mission or homeless asylums in order to celebrate together with lonely people, 'outcasts'. Some make this dream come true and work as volunteers for the elderly, the sick or the homeless.

Instead of the traditional old-fashioned way, people want to celebrate Christmas more spontaneously, with more affection, far away from the 'wanted'. They arrange a poker evening, organise 'dressing-up' parties, which they perceive as 'children's fun'.

If the same thing repeats itself the next year, it is already the 'usual' again. Christmas, its structure do not let you go.

One cannot exclude the attempt to remove the disillusionment of Christmas constitutions by producing Christmas throughout the year, e.g. by preparing the home, providing sweets, supplying surprises. Then we can confidently do without an intensification in the form of a special Christmas celebration.

The desire for exuberance, dressing up, gathering of people, as it is formulated by the Christmas rejecters, refers to festivals like New Year's Eve/New Year's Day or carnival. The winter solstice was celebrated by the Romans, as well as the Germanic tribes, with a 'merry' festival.

Yule was dedicated to the souls of the departed, who held their 'procession' at the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, and partook of feasting and carousing. The living swore vows at the head of a boar. The sacrificial animal was later replaced by a biscuit. The dwelling was decorated with greening branches or made to blossom; the blossoms promised a happy new year. The decorated fir tree is only attested since the 16th century.

For the Romans, during the Saturnalia, the celebration of the unconquered sun or of the god Saturn (god of the golden age) was central; the otherwise forbidden game of dice was permitted; slaves and masters exchanged their roles; laurel and olive tree branches were set up for decoration; from them women prophesied good fortune. The "tabula fortunae," a table laden with all the pleasures, had an omen of the abundance of the coming year.

How the development of the Christmas festival from the most diverse sources, the amalgamation of Christian and 'pagan' ideas, took place, is difficult to prove in detail and cannot be the subject of further discussion here. However, folkloristic observation makes it clear that the celebrations of the winter solstice, thematizing the beginning of a new year and the end of the old one, are characterized by contrast and interchange:

Celebration of light in the darkest season, revival of the deceased and foresight for the living, offerings and demonstration of abundance, role reversal and approval of the forbidden point to the possibility that circumstances are reversible.

By emphasizing the past and the coming, the evocation of the Golden Age, the fertility and rebirth symbolism, the original end-of-year celebrations reinforce the hope of survival. The two-headedness of the year, ultimately of life, was celebrated joyously and exuberantly.

In modern times, Christmas, in its more 'contemplative' overall quality, is followed by New Year's celebrations with fireworks and dancing, and finally by the exuberance of Carnival. The original unity of a festivity taking place in winter was divided under Christian influence into three individual celebrations, of which Christmas has acquired an outstanding significance in terms of experience, although the ecstatic sides of the celebration seem to have been silenced or excluded.

How to help at Christmas
In its construction, Christmas restricts the fullness and possibilities of life to a 'small circle'. The intention is to cancel out the polarization of old and new, commitment and compensation, abundance and necessity in a staged idyll.

For a moment, the thought 'stirs' that a total reconciliation of opposites might be possible. The idea of feeling wholeness across all differences constitutes what is elsewhere understood as 'sentimentality'.

On a more realistic level, however, one cannot avoid acknowledging that the contradictory demands to which the Christmas person is exposed cannot be fulfilled simultaneously. Either one succeeds in skilfully 'overplaying' the contradictions, or only individual dimensions of Christmas joys can be enlivened.

In concrete terms, this means: not striving for perfection in all aspects; not wanting to do everything yourself at all costs; avoiding perfect staging and overabundance; expecting the less ideal; making the schedule flexible; allowing for the unforeseen; opening the circle!

That 'relaxed' forms of Christmas are possible can be seen in other countries such as France or England.

(Extended version of a radio contribution broadcast on 24 December 1986 on Deutschlandfunk)