Pastoral Care for the Holiday Season

Universities, schools and colleges in many parts of the world have closures between November and January for Hanukkah, Yule, Christmas and Kwanzaa. Whether you have a faith or not, these holidays may be a welcome break and a happy time. Equally, they may be difficult and stressful. Either historically, or because of the unique circumstances we find ourselves in (perhaps due to war, health problems, or financial hardship).

Holidays may be challenging because of proximity (either being confined with relatives or not being able to see friends and family); food and alcohol triggers; worries about health or work; or downtime where issues or worries can be magnified. Plus comparing your life with holiday movies and songs on the radio; or people’s social media sharing of their gift giving, baking and happy families. There are constant reminders of what you may be missing out on – or feel you’re not living up to.

This guide provides ideas on how to prepare for the holidays, potential flash points, and where to seek help if needed. It may be of use if you feel you need more assistance at this time of year, or if you are supporting others. Free resources are linked throughout this post, but you can also use the ideas set out in Being Well In Academia: ways to feel stronger, safer and more connected devise and implement self-care and maintain your rights and wellbeing.

Preparing for the holidays
As schools, colleges and universities are closed, it’s a good reason for you to take some time off. Even if you are not celebrating anything it allows you space to recharge and after the last few years we have just had that is more important than ever. This might include:

    • Scheduling things you enjoy throughout your downtime, including space to calm, get inspired and uplifted, and feel energised
    • Using your out of office (OOO) email to indicate you are on annual leave and signposting to other sources of information and assistance should anyone contacting you need it. (Plus being disciplined with yourself not to check email during this time, and avoiding emailing other people who also need a rest)
    • Giving yourself permission not to work or study for the duration of your planned break, including agreeing with colleagues and supervisors that you will not be having meetings (on or offline), nor taking or making phone calls (they can book a time to connect with you once you’re back at work)
    • Noting if you are pressured by anyone to work during your holiday; claiming said time back in lieu (TOIL) or seeking additional pay if it is unavoidable; and if it isn’t noting that you are not obliged to respond if you are on leave (see above)
    • Remember to take all leave that you are entitled to, and to join a union or seek advice from your graduate school/PGR programme, mentors, third party monitors, or HR if you are being pressured to work during agreed-upon leave
    • Creating a support network so you know who you can turn to when you need support, advice, reassurance and friendship You may want to schedule a series of calls and catch-ups across your break so you know you’ll have company every day, noting if there are particular times or dates when you may need more assistance than usual
    • Identifying any triggers that might leave you feeling anxious or unable to cope, or concerned about your wellbeing or that of those you care for. This could include preparing to avoid something that might upset you, getting assistance if you feel you cannot cope alone, or planning activities that will distract or reassure you
    • Checking what support will be provided by your school, college, or university during the holidays. Alongside knowing where to locate regulations, the syllabus and key email and phone numbers. This could include opening times for the library, multi-faith chaplaincy, counselling service, study skills office etc; plus when tutors/managers will be available; and who to call in a crisis. You may also want to note the details of charities and local support services who you could use should you need it (for example a mental health helpline or Foodbank, see below). This information could be included on your departmental website, linked to in your email signature, or kept by you should you need to refer to it in an emergency.

The holiday season is often associated with family and friends, making it difficult for those that are bereaved, estranged or separated (either by distance, legal restrictions, war, or the pandemic). Even those who have family and friends around may feel lonely, and while it is possible to keep in touch via social media, phone or video call this may not feel the same. Particularly if you’ve been separated for a while or feel exhausted by having to stay in touch remotely over long periods Creating support networks (see above) is one option, as is becoming a befriender, or connecting with others online. For example comedian Sarah Millican hosts #JoinIn on Twitter/X where anyone that wants company can connect on the hashtag on Christmas Day. If you are low or no contact with family the charity Stand Alone has advice, while Your Holiday Mom has an archived virtual home for the holidays with a bank of letters for LGBTQ youth or estranged or isolated adults.

Conflict, war, unrest, the impact of Covid-19 and financial crises have caused all kinds of losses. Whether that’s a friend or family member who has died, or other health problems, accident, or injury. You may also be sad about the loss of opportunities, broken friendships and relationships, your own health or wellbeing, or an imagined future. The holidays and particularly the focus on hope and families, can be especially hard to navigate. There is advice and support on bereavement, grief and loss from Refuge In Grief and The Good Grief Trust (plus the Blue Cross for those who’ve lost a pet).

If you are experiencing symptoms of burnout it is difficult to switch off and relax, and you may be tempted to overwork or struggle with interpersonal relationships, or be fearful of letting yourself or others down. Holidays may be especially triggering. There is more information on burnout, how to recognise and respond to it here.

Holidays can impact on relationships for many reasons, proximity (being close together or forced apart), spending more time together, disagreements over how to spend or celebrate the holidays, housework inequalities, demands from friends and relatives, and the additional emotional and physical labour the holidays can bring (e.g. cooking, buying and wrapping gifts). Support is available from:
Family Lives and
Home Start who both provide parenting tips and mentoring
CBeebies Grownups has lots of practical advice
The NSPCC has tips on child safety and wellbeing

Mental Health
For everyone who has found the year difficult the holidays may be a welcome relief and a time to rest and recuperate. Equally they may be a time where mental distress worsens. If you are already receiving mental health care from your doctor, Community Psychiatric Nurse or other Mental Health services you may want to check prior to the holidays that any care plans, contact details of care providers, and medication is current; and that you know alternative helplines you can also call if needed. This can include any support currently provided within your university, college, or school. Chapter 6 of Being Well In Academia contains a comprehensive list of global support networks, but you may also want to use:
Mental Health Resources for Black people in need of care has links to books, therapists and organisations delivering advice and support
The Blurt Foundation will email you regular updates to boost your mood
Mind provides information on mental distress plus ideas for self-care
Samaritans are there to listen if you are feeling overwhelmed (please note this is not a suicide prevention service, check below for alternatives)
Banardo’s hosts a helpline for Asylum Seekers needing advice on support on anything from rights to wellbeing
The Mental Health Foundation has specific advice on protecting your mental health or caring for a loved one

If you or someone you care about are feeling suicidal you can use the Hopeline and other resources from Papyrus including their safety plan (also adapted and explained in more detail at the end of Chapter 1 in Being Well In Academia) or contact CALM.

Physical Health
If you have been experiencing health issues, have ongoing healthcare needs, or become unwell during the holidays you can speak to your GP (potentially via phone or text) or call 111. The NHS website has more information on symptoms and common health problems (including Covid-19) and ways to care for yourself and when/how to seek help (in an emergency, for UK readers always call 999. Outside the UK use your state or country services; or Where There Is No Doctor if you lack access to affordable healthcare).

Domestic Abuse
Relationship violence worsens over the holidays, and that may be from partners or family members (including child and elder abuse). If you are concerned about your safety or that of someone you care about, mentor or teach there is more information here on recognising the signs of abuse and where to get help in planning on exiting an abusive situation, or in an emergency. You can also get support from the following organisations:
National Domestic Violence Helpline (for women and children at risk of violence)
Mankind (for men at risk of violence)
Galop (for LGBTQ+ people at risk of violence)
If you want to leave but are afraid about what would happen to your pets, advice is here via Refuge 
For the UK if you are in a crisis call 999. If you are not able to speak use the ‘Silent Solution’ by pressing 55 when the operator answers or install and use the Bright Sky app. You can also ask for help at the pharmacy counter in Boots, Superdrug and Morrisons as part of the UK Says No More Campaign (more information and a safe space locator here). HotPeachPages have a list of global violence prevention organisations in multiple languages.

Alcohol and food
Parties and social events may normalise alcohol making it difficult to refuse, hard to maintain sobriety, and easy to drink too much. If alcohol is an issue for you there is confidential support from Club Soda or your GP. You may find the presence of food or pressure to eat is triggering. If you need help with your relationship with food Beat can help.

Finance and fuel
The pressure to spend during the holidays, to borrow or get into debt, or the impact of the pandemic on your financial situation can all be worrying. You can get more money advice from Citizens Advice, National Debtline and the Money Advice Service.  Foodbanks can assist if you currently cannot afford groceries or other household supplies or need advice in completing paperwork to obtain benefits and other support. Warm Spaces are places within neighbourhoods where people can meet together in a heated and safe place and have a warm drink, you can find your nearest (UK) place via the Warm Welcome portal. Many places are also offering meals, community fridges, shared kitchens and other activities – your library or local council should be able to provide more details.

During any stressful time there may be additional problems arising in your life; or existing difficulties may remain. You can find help for any number of situations via the Helplines Partnership over the holiday season or at any time during the year.

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