‘Tis the Season’ — A psychologically informed reflection on Christmas’

17.12.2021: As I write this week’s PIE blog, as the lead for Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE), at the national youth homeless charity — Centrepoint, I am finally getting a few moments to sit down and reflect on what has been a very busy couple of weeks. I have had the pleasure of delivering face-to-face reflective practice and PIE day training to our staff in Manchester, as well as other delivery sessions in our supported accommodation services in London alongside all the strategic work (e.g. budgets) that come at the end of a year. Sadly, due to the increased COVID-19 cases in the UK, the PIE team have had to postpone some planned PIE day training this week because the UK government’s guidance is now advising that we work from home when possible again and we need to minimise risk by not mixing staff from different ‘bubbles’ in indoor training venues. However, the PIE team will continue to prioritise and deliver face-to-face reflective practice sessions to our amazing frontline teams, and remain available for staff support sessions as we face another challenging period across the organisation.

Of course, it is not just COVID-19 that makes the current time challenging for many of our Centrepoint staff, or for the homeless young people they are supporting. Whilst for most of us, Christmas is a time of joy and celebration (and hopefully an opportunity to reconnect with our family and friends), for some, Christmas can actually be a very difficult time of the year. Imagine for a moment that you do not have family or friends to spend Christmas with, or perhaps you want to spend time with loved ones but they are unable or unwilling to see you. Maybe you do try to see them, but the conflict, trauma or challenges that result from this interaction are painful, difficult or re-traumatising for you. Perhaps, you would like to see your loved ones but they are not in the UK as you have travelled here as an unaccompanied minor seeking refuge from a war-torn country. These are the types of situation(s) that many of our homeless young people living in our supported accommodation services are facing this Christmas. Moreover, many more young people in the UK might be facing homelessness for the first time this year with all the associated risks (c.f. https://twitter.com/centrepointuk/status/1466092999742533641).

Moreover, maybe you would like to see your family and friends at Christmas but as one of our valued frontline staff, you are working over this period within our many varied homelessness services to ensure that they remain open. I am always struck at this time of year by how much our frontline colleagues often go above and beyond to create some sense of Christmas within our supported accommodation services, and give the homeless young people they support the opportunity to have a positive experience of Christmas, perhaps for the first time. Decorations are put up, Christmas dinner is cooked, and a gift is sourced for every homeless young person, so that whatever their experience of past Christmases, this year they can feel like they are at ‘home’ and have the opportunity to share in a festive experience that many of us might take for granted. This work, often unseen by the wider world (although highlighted here: https://twitter.com/centrepointuk/status/1468304854015787023), is so vitally important to create a psychologically informed environment (PIE) by giving a sense of psychological safety and support to some of the most vulnerable young people in the UK so they can cope with whatever the Christmas period may trigger for them.

As a result, I think that it is helpful to take a break from all the usual chaos and pressure in the lead up to the festive period to reflect on what Christmas means, not only for ourselves but also for those who find themselves homeless or working as a ‘keyworker’ in this sector. For example, in previous blogs (e.g. https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/compassion-at-christmas-and-the-homeless-nativity-story-3a263b4645a5) I have reflected on how it is important to remain compassionate to others less fortunate than we are at this time of year. Moreover, how even the Christian ‘nativity story’ is particularly relevant to ‘homelessness’ because of how Jesus and his family were effectively homeless because there was ‘no room at the inn’. Yet, this arguably real meaning of Christmas can easily be lost with all the focus on the commercialisation of Christmas, the presents and Christmas adverts and the need to have the ‘perfect’ day / Christmas meal (especially perhaps after last year when this may have not been possible due to COVID-19 travel and social restrictions). This can cause us undue stress and pressure that can affect our mental health and psychological well-being (for some ideas about how to cope with this pressure at Christmas, please see here: file:///C:/Users/HMiles/AppData/Local/Microsoft/Windows/INetCache/Content.Outlook/P3VCF6IS/Tips%20for%20coping%20during%20Christmas.pdf).

As I was thinking more about Christmas this week, one of the lessor known festive stories that I was reminded of is that of ‘Babushka’. Originating in Russia, before being a famous Kate Bush song(!), the word means ‘Grandmother’ and this Christmas story tells us about an old woman who was known for keeping her house clean, tidy and perfect. One day the three wise men called at her house, following the star on their way to see the baby Jesus. They stayed and rested with her before continuing with their journey to Bethlehem. As they were leaving, they asked her to come with them but she refused because she had not had time to get the ‘perfect’ gift for the baby and her house was not clean and tidy after their visit. Babushka then spent time searching for a suitable gift and making sure her house was in order before leaving a few days later. She followed the route of the wise men but by the time she arrived at the stable where Jesus had been born, the family had left having fled to avoid King Herod’s decree to kill all first-born sons. The legend then goes that Babushka spent her life searching for her saviour, Jesus.

So why is this story important to reflect upon? For me, it shows that we need to be mindful to avoid the trap of searching for the ‘perfect’ Christmas, whether that be making sure our house is perfectly decorated, or we have the ‘prefect’ gifts or food for everyone. Setting our expectations for a Christmas that is something straight out of a John Lewis advert, is likely to result in disappointment. Focusing on the ‘stuff’ that makes Christmas can result in us missing out on the real meaning of Christmas, which is a time to celebrate the birth of a baby that Christians believe was the Saviour of the World, in whatever way suits us and is possible in these unprecedented times. If we are too much like ‘Babushka’ we can miss what is important at Christmas (and indeed within a psychologically informed environment), that is our ‘relationships’. We can feel inadequate or sadness because our Christmas does not look exactly like it is supposed to rather than focusing on what we do have, and being grateful for this. As noted above, many of our homeless young people in Centrepoint will be facing a far from perfect Christmas, but our amazing staff work hard to create a sense of Christmas for them, to remind them that they are valued and of worth, even when they might be spending Christmas in a supported accommodation service rather than where they might really want to be. Moreover, behind the scenes many of our support team staff (e.g. fundraising) have also been working hard to make this possible through their Christmas campaigns (e.g. see here: https://centrepoint.org.uk/xmassocial).

Therefore, as we head into the festive period, after arguably another difficult year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am trying to reflect upon and focus on what is really important to me this Christmas. It is not being ‘perfect’, like Babushka tried to be, something I am certain to fail at! Rather it is about being ‘good enough’ and remembering to be grateful that I am in the privileged position of being able to spend Christmas safe at home with most of my loved ones. It is a time to pause, and acknowledge my blessings as well as a time to recognise that not everyone is as fortunate as I am. Whatever the next year will bring, both personally and professionally for our PIE team, taking a psychologically informed approach to this Christmas by valuing my relationships and taking time to look after my psychological well-being will be important. Focusing on the imperfect present and making the best of it, rather than the perfect presents(!), will ensure I don’t miss what can be really special about this time of year just like Babushka did. On which note, I wish all my colleagues at Centrepoint and the external readers of this blog, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I want to thank everyone for your support of Centrepoint’s PIE journey so far, and roll on 2022 for our next steps forward as we work to #EndYouthHomelessness by 2037…

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Consultant Clinical & Forensic Psychologist & Centrepoint Psychologically Informed Environment (PIE) Lead @orange_madbird

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Dr Helen Miles

Dr Helen Miles

Consultant Clinical & Forensic Psychologist & Centrepoint Psychologically Informed Environment (PIE) Lead @orange_madbird

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