The Christmas loneliness epidemic

(Photo: Unsplash/Sandra Seitamaa)

Perhaps for you Christmas is a cherished time of sharing great food, giving gifts, telling stories, and making memories with those you love. But for a growing number of people, it is a depressing and lonely season.

In the UK, a YouGov poll from December 2019 found that a quarter of Brits felt Christmas had a negative effect on their mental health, especially the unemployed, divorced and widowed.

In Australia, more recent data acquired by the Red Cross showed that around a third of people struggle with loneliness at Christmas time, showing an increase over previous years likely due to lockdown restrictions. And of course it overwhelmingly affects the elderly.

The tradition and its effect on the socially isolated

These figures show that societal loneliness around the holiday season is higher than you might realise, and within the church it is no exception.

I've had both positive and negative experiences over the years, and due to moving around a lot I have been the 'outsider' more than once. Social circles in church can be quite 'cliquey' and take time to break into.

Unfortunately, it is much more noticeable if you happen to be the new person leading up to the festive season. Though Christmas was not a big tradition in our family, I have found myself at times just trying to avoid being alone as everyone disappeared for the rest of the year.

Sometimes life puts you in these situations and it just isn't avoidable. But I believe a large part of the problem is the mentality behind the traditional Western Christmas season.

Many of us treat it as a time to focus exclusively on family and close friends. While there is nothing inherently wrong with time set apart just for those dearest to us, setting the whole season aside for it leaves those without good social connections figuratively out in the cold.

Many people come from broken families or have lost loved ones over the years, and haven't been able to maintain strong social connections for a variety of reasons. We are awakening to what is now being called an "epidemic of loneliness" in society, which has no doubt been exacerbated during the lockdowns.

For people suffering from this 'epidemic', important holidays such as Christmas are just a magnifying glass for their condition if no one makes the effort to reach out and include them.

Jesus as an example of inclusiveness

This is an area of growing need that we as a church can address, and we must ask ourselves if a personal sacrifice is required in order to show God's love to the growing number of people desperately in need of it. We don't have to look far for a model of what we could do if we chose to step outside our comfort zone and try.

Jesus is our best example of what it looks like to selflessly love others at one's own expense. He was often making time for those on the fringes of society, even people who were considered morally reprehensible.

And he not only made time for them but invited himself into their lives and befriended them, meeting them where they were. The gospel of Mark says he ate with "sinners and tax collectors" and was criticised by the religious leaders for it (Mark 2:15 - 17). He broke bread with people who might make you feel uncomfortable or awkward, and in so doing broke with age-old traditions to show love that transcended familial bonds.

What are you willing to sacrifice?

There is a confronting challenge in Jesus' example for us as his followers, and as members in the Kingdom of God as to how we approach special occasions like Christmas. We are not here to just live enjoyable lives in comfort with those we are comfortable with. We are supposed to share with others the love God has already shown us, and that can only be achieved by being available to those in need. This requires a sacrifice, and it may mean we have to make room in our existing traditions, or even transform our traditions to make them more open to others.

I remember when a friend and pastor told me how he and his wife decided to stop leaving town to spend Christmas with their relatives. They felt God had put it on their hearts to free themselves up for others in the church and in their own neighbourhood – people who had no family or friends to be with. It was a tough decision and they faced strong criticism from their families, but they answered the call to give up cherished time with family to love those without it.

I also remember what a difference it made to me when I was away from family, and a couple I had met only days prior offered to have me over for Christmas day. It was a relatively small sacrifice on their part, but it made a world of difference to me.

So as another Christmas approaches, take a moment to honestly consider what it means to show selfless love and use this season as an opportunity for the 'Kingdom of God'.

Is there someone on the fringes you could include in your celebrations? Or could you even start a new tradition that will create the 'campfire' for others to gather around and benefit from the warmth that family and friendship brings?

After all, as the numbers show, opportunities abound and that is not likely to change any time soon.