8 Student Struggles During the Winter Holidays
If you’re a student in the Netherlands, there are a few things that December will bring about: work(over)load, Mariah Carey’s All I want for Christmas song, sun which sets at 4pm, Sinterklaas and its racist tradition, pepernoten, oliebollen, and all your friends going their separate ways for the holidays. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
Yet with all the holiday cheer, we might forget that for many students it’s all mostly bad and ugly during the holidays. So, before we leave for the holidays, let’s take a moment to reflect on a few things that unfortunately make this winter holiday period so dreadful for some students.
This blog post is a note for all of you who go through this - you’re not alone! And for those who don’t - be mindful with your friends, classmates, and roommates.
1. Unhealthy Family Relations
By default, the majority of people assume that everyone is excited to go home for the holidays. They assume that all students will be met with kind embraces, truckload of presents and an overwhelming amount of love and care. However, for many students going back home for the holidays means going back to complicated and even unhealthy family relations. These relations can be particularly difficult to navigate when you’ve spent time away from home unlearning old habits, learning new ones, and setting boundaries. Going back to an environment that doesn't support or respect this growth can be very emotionally draining.
For example, many may have come out and learned to embrace their sexual orientation while being away from home, so coming back to a conservative or homophobic home could feel like taking 10 steps backwards. Others may have learned that saying no is okay. Yet they could be met with a family which doesn’t understand such boundaries. Some students might have even unlearned the discriminatory behavior they learned at home and are now going to be confronted with that behavior and attitude they are uncomfortable with.
Unfortunately changing our family relations isn’t an easy task - and sometimes it’s not even a possible task. And for many students simply ‘not going home’ isn’t an option, and even if it is, it brings about its own set of challenges. So what can we do to make the winter holiday season more enjoyable in spite of our unhealthy family relations? You could try celebrating the holidays with your ‘chosen family’ and friends before/instead of going home, make time for therapy or self-care during or after your trip, or be a little selfish and put your wants first.
And how do you support someone with unhealthy family relations? For starters, you can try not to assume everyone is excited or ‘better off’ going home for the holidays. If you have the possibility to invite them to celebrate it with you and your family or be open to a pre-celebration which might be the only enjoyable holiday celebration.
2. Staying Away for the Holidays
Unhealthy family relations, expensive travel options, academic responsibilities or a global pandemic are all potential reasons students might be staying away for the holidays. Whether we are staying away from an unhealthy or healthy home-life, by choice or are forced by their circumstances - being alone for the holidays can create a sense of alienation and loneliness.
So how can we survive the holiday season while staying away for the holidays? The same rules apply! Celebrate with your ‘chosen family’ and friends and prioritize self-care. And local friends, don’t hesitate to extend an invite if possible.
3. Academic Stress
Many higher education institutions in the Netherlands have important academic deadlines set either right before or right after the holidays which can take away from the enjoyment of the holidays. Students are either missing out on holiday activities to study and work on assignments or just too preoccupied with all the deadlines to have fun. And those that do allow themselves to take time off and joy the holidays, are overwhelmed with the workload after the holidays.
On the other hand, for many students this is also the first time seeing family and relatives during the school year. In the meantime, they might have failed some courses, gotten a study delay or maybe even changed their study program. This can often be met with a lot of overbearing questions and criticism. Which can all be intimidating and overwhelming.
Ideally, higher education institutions would encourage and enable a system that allows for a real break during the holiday. However, since that is not always the case, you could try giving yourself earlier deadlines for some assignments (if possible) or make an agreement with the family and/or friends you’re celebrating with that you will be taking an x amount of time to work on your assignments every day.
4. Holiday Expenses
The holidays are expensive; tickets, gifts and food make up a big chunk of the many costs that come along with the holidays. How will I afford it? becomes a repetitive and stress-filled query during this time. But for many students it's a year-long struggle! These students might have to work throughout the holidays, to afford the rest of the year and are forced to skip some of the fun traditions because they just can't take time off work.
And in general, the jobs that are accessible for students are in retail or hospitality (among others) - which are extra busy during the holidays. Furthermore, even if students have the time available, the holidays are expensive. A simple plane ticket back home can for many students be as high as tuition for the whole year (or higher).
5. Excessive Talk about Food and Weight
The holidays revolve largely around food which can be very stressful for many, especially if one. They are confronted with backhanded comments like: "You've gained weight" "Are you going to eat all that?" "Maybe you should skip dessert." Not to mention the spam of weight loss new years' resolutions. Comments on people's bodies and food habits are never ok and can be major triggers for students with eating disorders.
So let’s collectively agree to skip the weight comments before, during and after the holidays. Instead ask your friends substantial questions about their holiday experiences. And instead of centering your new year’s resolution on fatphobia and an unhealthy body image, try setting resolutions that will nourish self-care, kindness, empathy, allyship etc.
6. Christian Normativity
During the holiday season, there are other holidays aside from Christmas happening which are not Catholic Christian or that don't have any religious affiliations (e.g. Hanukkah or Kwanzaa). In some Eastern European countries which are typically Eastern Orthodox and not Catholic, Christmas is celebrated on the 6th of January. This period often overshadows underrepresented celebrations because of the normativity of Christian traditions and the extent to which they are embedded in lifestyle in the West.
How can non-Christian students include their holiday celebrations and traditions in all the December festivities? There’s several aspects to it. On one side, we as students should make sure that we do not expect our peers to celebrate Christmas traditions solely. And when we know that another holiday is happening - to be curious and open about it!
Secondly, higher education should invest resources in ensuring that at least the major holidays of other religions and spiritual groups receive similar attention in the way Christmas and Easter do, for example. Unfortunately there are some things such as the fact that it is state law that official off-days are Christian holidays. But that shouldn’t mean that we as people and institutions can’t put effort into making spaces more inclusive!
7. Sinterklaas and Racism
If you are a black student living in the Netherlands, your first holiday ‘tradition ’in the country likely involves fighting systemic racism by protesting "Black Pete". Which is a stressful and hurtful way to start off the season. While there might be nicer traditions to look forward to, it certainly puts a strain on the festivities.
How can you support black students during sinterklaas? Firstly, don’t do black face. Furthermore, join the conversations, call out your family and friends and stop asking every black person you see if they think it’s racist.
If you want to learn more about Black Pete and what you can do against this racist tradition, tune in to our podcast episode: Students on Black Pete
8. Seasonal Depression
It might be the holidays, but it's still winter and seasonal depression won't be taking a break. During this time many students are experiencing seasonal depression that is common during the darkest and coldest period of the year. On the other hand, for many, depression and (social) anxiety might even be heightened by the holidays and all its aforementioned hindrances.
So, in conclusion… The holidays can and should be a happy period for all. And they often are! But unfortunately having a safe environment and the resources to go back to during the holidays can be quite a big privilege. Let’s be mindful of each other and make the best out of the darkest period of the year.
See you in 2022!
Your SCDAI team