As you open your eyes, the inviting smell of freshly made focaccia fills the room. Later, the chat and laughter from friends and relatives reaches your ears – it’s more of a general buzzing chatter and you can’t make out the drift of the conversation because it is all happening at once.
This is how Christmas mornings have always been for Marta Tudisco, 30: enormous quantities of Italian food shared with the 40 people that make up her family in Sicily.
“Every time I go back home I feel this Christmas atmosphere all around. It’s a way to look after family, but also to look after my mental health. At the moment, things have changed so much and so quickly, you feel the need to go back to your bubble, where you feel safe. That’s what Christmas is at least for me,” says Marta.
But not this year. She will have to stay in the UK for the holidays, renouncing all her traditions and her much-longed time with family. After Italy announced the new travel regulations, flights to her hometown shot up to £500 with at least two layovers. At the beginning of December, Marta’s auntie passed away, so her unrealisable dream of returning to her hometown for Christmas was equally fuelled by the desire to be with family during this hard time. “My auntie was suffering from depression and eventually, she committed suicide.”
“I feel it's really really hard at the moment also because, after the COVID situation, it has given new value to the importance of family and spending time together – you never know what's going to happen.” says Marta.
This year it’s different for all expats. Our advent calendar is made up of frustrating surprises: every slot of the calendar reveals cancelled flights, new travel restrictions and tears from our loved ones after hearing their sons and daughters won’t be home for Christmas. All this uncertainty and the emotive dimension of the holidays has strongly affected the mental health of many.
Italy, unlike the UK, has implemented harsher restrictions for the holiday period: self-isolation, tests and travel bans are only few of the reasons that dimmed the hope of thousands of expats in the UK to return home for a Christmas with their family.
Mental health for expats have been proved to be worse than domestic citizens - mainly because of the distance from family, friends and a support network (William Russell, Aetna International and International Journal of Mental health). Furthermore, Christmas time is also the time of year when people are more susceptible to anxiety and depression, as everyone’s expectation to spend Christmas with family and loved ones not always matches reality.
“It really is a depressing time for me – as an adult you lose the magic. It all becomes stressful: getting everyone a present, making sure everyone is happy. It definitely affects my mental health more. It doesn't help that they only put bloody Christmas movies on Netflix and everybody's happy and everybody's cheerful and they're all happy endings. It just makes me want to cry really.” says Melina.
Unlike Marta, Melina Donadello, a 26-year-old quality engineer living near Brighton, has always spent Christmas in a more intimate and cosy way: she joins her mom and her brother at her home in Vicenza, Northern Italy. Despite having lived in the UK for the past 5 years, she has never missed a Christmas with her family. Until this one.
“I feel like the Grinch, taking Christmas away from everybody because I’m not going home.” She explains: “I just need to give my mom confirmation that I'm not going back home, and I don't even know how to approach the topic. I have been dying of anxiety for days.”
When faced with the prospect of no family reunion, Melina’s mom already started taking the Christmas tree down.
“My mum suffers from bipolar disorder and she had a few episodes of self harm. I am afraid this could trigger some behaviours,” says Melina.
Melina has been in a stable job in the UK for the past 4 years, so even expensive flights would normally be unproblematic for her, as her priority is to reunite with her mother during this festive, but still difficult time. Fears of the spread, limited testing facilities and lack of flights have made this more impossible.
“Whenever I wanted to go home I could just get up in the morning, buy a ticket, go to the airport and to be home within 24 hours if I wanted to.” Melina continues: “I have a secure job so money's not an issue, I can just go if I have to. This is the first year that you could have all the money in the world, all the time in the world, but still not be able to go.”
It is this feeling of powerlessness that is mainly affecting all the expats that will not be able to see their family and loved ones this Christmas. This frustration, together with higher anxiety and stress, grows by the day as the 25th approaches, in a situation already made unsettling by COVID.
“I mean I'm not a big fan of Christmas – I've never been, but I know it's special for my mom, I know it’s special for my brother. It is the most important time of the year. I mean, you can miss everybody's birthday but you cannot miss Christmas,” says Melina.
Marta has been seeing a therapist for over a year. She feels like she has made a lot of progress in taking care of her mental health. One of the lessons she learned is that sometimes it is important to let go and during this tough time she recommends:
“I think mentally it's really important that you learn to accept [your mental state], rather than fight it. It requires a lot more energy than just trying to accept the things as they are and wait for a better time – because there will be.”