“Christmas creep” - what is it (and how can we navigate it)?

Emily Whitton
By Emily Whitton,
updated on Nov 17, 2022

“Christmas creep” - what is it (and how can we navigate it)?

Feeling the pressure to pull off a great Christmas this year? You could be falling victim to the “Christmas creep”

“Christmas creep”. It’s a phrase we’ve seen floating around recently, but what exactly is it and why might the phenomenon be putting a strain on our mental health?

In a nutshell, the phrase has been attributed to merchandisers and retailers introducing and advertising their Christmas-themed goods before the start of the typical holiday season, and it seems to be happening earlier each year.

For many of us, the passing of Halloween marks the beginning of the festive season but how soon is too soon when it comes to retailers introducing their Christmas goodies? Well, some argue that the Christmas creep is, in fact, putting people off their holiday shopping as it has been found to trigger early stress (and that’s why we’ve left it until now to discuss).

With still over a month to go until the ‘big day’ and in the current economic climate, it’s no wonder people are feeling the pressure to ‘nail’ another Christmas this year. In an attempt to motivate us to get spending sooner, the phenomenon is actually forcing us to consider that Christmas is “just around the corner” (when it really isn’t). This can be contradictory as many of us start to feel the pressure to spend and, instead, retreat in an attempt to delay our festive shopping.

The Christmas season is meant to be a time of joy - getting together with our loved ones and sharing fond, happy memories. But the desire for quality time with our nearest and dearest can become overshadowed by the thoughts, “what will I get X for Christmas?”, “Is so and so doing gifts this year?”, “If they’re getting me something, I ought to get something for them”, “How much do I spend?”.

Sound familiar? When we get held up by these consuming thoughts, it’s easy for us to be put off by the festivities and the Christmas creep certainly doesn’t help. Unlike the Grinch, retailers really can steal the Christmas spirit.

What effect does the Christmas creep have on our mental health?

Whilst there is little research on the subject, the Christmas period is generally a stressor for many people. It can cause feelings of anxiety, low mood or depression, and loneliness and may trigger past trauma, particularly for those estranged from their families.

There are a number of reasons why the season can contribute to poor mental health, and the Christmas creep exacerbates this.

Workload and stress

Typically, the ‘head’ of the family has to put in the legwork during the festive period, buying gifts, and doing the dreaded food shop, all whilst managing their own workload - in their job and around the home. Early school and work closures for the Christmas break mean less time to cram all this in, so the demands increase. Whilst some people might be grateful for the early start, for many, the Christmas creep only prolongs feelings of stress and overwhelm.

Managing expectations

When we traditionally think of Christmas, we think of a flamboyant display, a family seated around the table, plenty of food and drinks, and everyone getting along. But the reality is that life is just too complicated for that. Instead of a relaxing Christmas Day, it’s generally full of chaos and yet, many of us still haven't learned to let go of the idea of a ‘perfect Christmas’. This expectation placed upon us (often by our own selves) is another source of stress that we just don’t need.

Family time

For those still close to their families, Christmas is the perfect excuse to get everyone together again, to catch up, reminisce, and create happy memories… or so it might seem. This can actually cause tension for a lot of people.

That act of regressing back into family life, returning to parents, being back in a room with siblings - it’s as if we revert back to our teenage years, only this time you might have children of your own with you and, before long, you’re battling with your parents over the Christmas dinner. The competing schemas of the child and the responsible adult create feelings of confusion and can make the family environment a stressful situation to be in.

What’s more, for those of us that may not have a family to go to this year, the festive season can be a time of loneliness and isolation. Whether you’re estranged from your family, you’ve recently separated, lost a loved one, or you or someone you know is battling an illness, Christmas can be extremely difficult. The Christmas creep can, therefore, trigger these feelings early and lengthen periods of poor mental health.

Financial pressure

Perhaps the most visible stressor right now with the rising cost of living is the financial pressure that many of us are experiencing. Life Coach Directory member Adam Craft says, “Going to the shops and seeing the Christmas lines out on display, it can make you feel like you have to start buying Christmas presents, food, and all the trimmings!

“It can evoke a feeling of pressure. The pressure of having to deliver Christmas to your loved ones but this time it feels even harder because money is tighter than ever and the last thing you want to do is let people down. Very quickly these feelings can snowball and bring on other feelings such as guilt, and anxiety.”

Can we avoid the Christmas creep?

Sadly, there’s little we can do to avoid the Christmas creep - it’s everywhere! How soon the shops decide to start stocking their Christmas lines is out of our control. However, Adam says we are able to focus on what we can control and set boundaries, so we can become more resilient to it.

“There is no need to feel guilt. Reframe what the Christmas creep means to you. For example, instead of evoking panic and stress, you could see it as a helpful reminder to get yourself organised and your budgets in place. Taking different approaches could help you change your perception of the Christmas creep and could even lead to you enjoying it a lot more!”

How can we navigate the Christmas creep?

Be more self-aware

You control when you start your festivities. Before getting sucked in, take a moment before you open up an email about a Christmas sale. Adam also suggests limiting social media usage.

“Many people say that social media is the shop front to everyone's happiness. It's rare that people post the negative bits of their lives. It's easy to compare ourselves to others and often when we do, it ends negatively. So If you think you're going to be affected by it, limit your usage and find something more productive to do with your time.”

Set boundaries

Setting boundaries might invoke feelings of guilt, but they are vital to protecting our mental health, especially in 2022. Communicating that you’re not doing gifts this year, or you’re limiting your spending, with friends and family can be daunting but doing it sooner rather than later can keep the stress at bay.

Find more information on how to manage finances and talk about money.

Instead of a gift, focus on what really brings you happiness at Christmas. Push the materialistic items to the side and focus on the opportunity to spend time with loved ones. Rather than gifting a present, you could arrange to meet up for a coffee instead or try one of our 8 low-cost things to do with friends.  

“It’s easy to forget the real meaning of happiness at Christmas when you feel you need to rush about, buying presents for everyone and making sure you have enough food. So keep your Christmas happiness close to you and don’t be afraid to keep reminding yourself. It will help you put things into perspective, especially if things seem a little out of control”, Adam says.

Find support

If you’re struggling during the festive season, whether it’s mentally or financially, it can be helpful to speak with a therapist or life coach who can guide you in the right direction, manage your expectations and share self-help strategies to keep feelings of anxiety, stress, and worry away.

Whether you choose to see a therapist or a coach will depend on your situation and what you wish to achieve out of sessions. For more information, read “Do I need a counsellor or coach?”

We know times are tough right now. If you’re struggling, here are some free resources that can support you through the next few months:

And a final note to say, for a lot of us, Christmas is a time of joy and celebration. If you don't want to fall victim to the Christmas creep, go ahead and enjoy it!

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