Christmas is a confusing and often stressful time of year. It both challenges and reinforces a lot of the organising principles of British society.
Gendered roles come to the fore for many, heterosexual nuclear families are idealised and huge strain is put on people on lower incomes to provide a ‘perfect’ Christmas in times of financial hardship and minimal state support.
But there are also elements of escape and subversion. One of the ways this is most apparent is through the celebration – and indeed idolisation – of rest over the holiday period.
For the vast majority of the year, hard work is held as hugely important not just in terms of economic productivity and output but morally, too. We are told that being a hard worker is a virtue and conversely being ‘lazy’ is something not only undesirable but implicitly cast as selfish and a personal failing.
The message is clear; good people work hard and those who don’t are either inferior – if they can but choose not to – or to be pitied – if they can’t work at all.
This kind of hustle, work-obsessed culture is harmful for everybody, but especially for disabled people.
Many disabled people can’t work or can only work certain hours, sometimes because of their disabilities, sometimes because of the inflexible nature of many jobs and the difficulties in securing reasonable adjustments – despite them being a legal requirement.
This contributes to disabled people’s financial insecurity – especially as being disabled comes with its own extra costs – but also can be damaging to disabled people’s mental health in a society that places work in paid employment on a pedestal.
So, that’s why Christmas feels like a truly special time of year. For me, it’s not about the usual ‘magic’ of Christmas but the chance for rest to be socially acceptable for once.
Because Christmas is still the holiday in the UK that the calendar year is organised around, and that most workplaces organise themselves around too, it’s the only time of year that you can be confident that almost everybody will be off email for a few days and that there will be no expectation of a speedy reply.
It’s also the one time of year where doing nothing feels socially acceptable.
Obviously, rest at Christmas is far from achievable for everybody – particularly those with caring responsibilities or those who work in hospitality or other service industries – but it is the case that images of relaxation are promoted in a way that at other times of year would be unthinkable.
Adverts and other forms of media encourage us to ‘take a break’ and ‘put our feet up’. The pressure to have a great Christmas can be isolating and problematic, but it is also notable in its rareness to see how much pleasure and relaxation are turned into virtues for a brief moment in time.
As someone with a disability that makes work challenging for me, Christmas provides a break from the guilt that can come from not fitting into society’s mould that celebrates productivity in wage labour above all else.
Despite the fact that I passionately believe that no one should have to work if they don’t want to and that so-called ‘hard work’ is by no means a moral arbiter, I still find myself feeling guilty when I prioritise rest throughout the year.
It’s a kind of internalised ableism that I’m still trying to work through by being compassionate to myself, doing things at my own pace and learning how to truly rest.
But come Christmas, no one is surprised or disapproving when I get up late, don’t leave the house all day or choose to stay warm and cosy.
Friends understand and even praise me for things that make my life easier and happier whereas they would usually be (at best) taken aback by. In fact, people often swap stories (sometimes competitively, which is its own problem!) about how ‘little’ they’ve done and how much they’ve tried to chill out.
It’s like people’s desperate need to rest gets bottled up until the end of the year and then fizzes over because we all know that come January the pressure will be back on, often with the addition of punitive resolutions and goals for the upcoming year.
Resting is something many disabled people have to learn as a skill for their own survival. It’s not something we are taught to value or even taught how to do as we are grow up, despite it being an essential life skill.
I’ve had to read articles and books on it, and schedule it into my calendar to make sure that I actually do it. But for about one week a year, it feels far more natural and normalised, far more of a core value, alongside aspects like community, love and shared celebration.
Although it’s very far from perfect, Christmas provides an all too brief glimpse of what society could look like if we held up rest as a necessity both for health but also for its own sake – for pleasure and the sheer enjoyment of doing nothing.
What is, in many ways, the most consumerist time of the year, also provides a glimmer of what life could look like if capitalist notions of work weren’t centred so completely.
So, this Christmas, I’ll luxuriate in the knowledge that my rest isn’t only accepted but encouraged, and I’ll try to enjoy that as much as I can – while it lasts.
But I also know that longer-term, this isn’t sustainable – for me, for other disabled people, and for not yet disabled people. We cannot live on the scraps of rest we are sanctioned one period a year.
We need to take what is culturally permissible at Christmas, and think about how society can be organised differently to support it at other times, too. A liveable future must centre rest as an achievable thing for everybody – the true Christmas miracle would be seeing that translate to every month of the year.