Violence at Christmas: Peering through the frosted windows

When the brilliant @therealsgm mentioned she was organising a bloghop as part of 16 Days of Action on Violence against Women, my almost-instant reaction was “I know! I’ll write something on VAW at Christmas!” Not because I’ve experienced it myself or because I’m an expert on the subject, you understand. Merely because I love Christmas almost as much as I hate violence against women, therefore … Well, anyhow, I didn’t think the general ignorance would be a problem. I assumed it would just be easy to look up stuff on the internet. Turns out it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to write about it.

To begin with I was obviously going to adopt a smug, pseudo-saintly position, from which I would inform everyone that actually, abusing others IS BAD and surely at this time of year – AT CHRISTMAS, of all times! – we should all be nice and love one another. For the fact is, Christmas is a time for families and children and … well, that’s the whole problem. Violence really rains on the whole Christmas parade.

It’s well known, albeit in a vague sort of way, that violence against women is more of a problem around Christmas and New Year. It’s the booze and the pressure. Same with football tournaments, or something. It is sad – and we all pull sad faces at the thought – but well,  just what can be done? Police forces and local councils make attempts to raise awareness over the Christmas period, and domestic violence charities seek extra funding and support. This is all very well, but meanwhile Christmas carries on as normal, setting the same ridiculous standards for what is “normal” – a blind idealisation of the traditional nuclear family plus excessive spending and all-round consumption.

It’s never crossed my mind before that precisely what I love about Christmas – the fakeness, the sheer bloody-minded pretence – forms a particularly nasty trap for those in abusive relationships. Christmas is a time not just for physical abuse behind closed doors – as illustrated by the National Centre for Domestic Violence Advent Calendar – but for emotional manipulation and financial exploitation. The fact that families often don’t get on at Christmas but stick together anyhow is something of a running joke, but the more insidious message is: grin and bear it. Anything’s better than being alone. If you have children, it’s all the worse. It’s not just about keeping up appearances, despite what your little ones really see. Financial abuse gives those who do – or don’t – pay maintenance the power to “cancel” all those special treats that apparently make the season bright.

In all of this I’m still only really looking in the advent calendar windows – seeing the shapes in silhouette but not really knowing what that fear and loneliness means. I still buy into all the hollow messages about what this special time of year means for men, women and relationships. Come November, I’m buying magazines I wouldn’t normally touch with a bargepole – Prima, Family Circle, Good Housekeeping – because all of a sudden, I’m no longer an independent woman who doesn’t conform to gender stereotyping. On the contrary, I’m Martha bloody Stewart (with a lot less money but also, on the plus side, without the prison record).

This year Refuge has launched an appeal which enables supporters not just to donate money, but to send messages on baubles to the women and children receiving their help:

The baubles will decorate Christmas trees in all of our refuges to bring some Christmas cheer to women and children escaping domestic violence. […] For most of these women and children, Christmas will be a very challenging time of year.  Many will be away from friends and family, spending the day in a refuge.

And yet it will be worth it: “Many women tell us that, for the first time in a long time, they and their children will have a Christmas free from violence”. Perhaps if there is a message worth sending, it’s that this should be the measure of a “successful” Christmas: being safe and loved, and not being forced to conform to external standards of what “a family” should be.*

Those of us who aren’t under immediate threat can find it easy to get wrapped up in creating the perfect, Kirstie-meets-Nigella-meets-the-Waltons-style Christmas. Domestic violence seems other-worldly, unrelated, yet it’s not all Eastenders’ Trevor pushing Little Mo’s face into the turkey dinner. Violence at Christmas can be more subtle, more manipulative, more rooted the values we supposedly share – and if we want it to stop, it’s worth taking another look at the prejudices we’re all complicit in reinforcing each year.

* Just as, if one is believes in the nativity, Jesus, Mary and Joseph did not. Although I don’t know why, as a non-believer, I’ve gone all Thought For The Day. Christmas does this to me.