Harriet Walker: Stop feeling guilty about having fun

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For those paralysed by shame and self-loathing at the number of chocolates eaten this holiday, a cautionary tale: Donna Simpson of New Jersey consumed 30,000 calories during her Christmas lunch, including two turkeys, two glazed hams and three litres of gravy. Her aim is to one day weigh 70 stone.

If that doesn't make you feel better about eating your own weight in Quality Street, have you heard the one about the young mother who chose to take some exercise by skating on a thinly frozen pond? With her three children. One of whom was in a buggy. Thank goodness you haven't done anything as foolish as that.

And if you're concerned about how sexually attractive you might be after all the sofa-bound gluttony, take heart from another of the season's stories: a romantic odyssey between a 24-year-old beauty queen and the 84-year-old porn baron, I mean magazine mogul, Hugh Hefner. Such a marriage of equals surely proves that the age of superficial romance is over.

There are plenty of holiday howlers to laugh at around this time of year, from the weirdos who dress their entire houses in Christmas lights to the misguided families who spend thousands of pounds on presents only to find they're bankrupt by the New Year. Far from being a season of goodwill to all men, Christmas is about a deep-seated feeling of superiority. We're all searching for smugness because we feel so bad about ourselves – why else do we fall for the New Year dieting solutions, the exercise videos that never get played, the Hobbycraft magazines that fail to sell beyond their third issue?

A survey has found that 96 per cent of women feel guilty at least once a day, while nearly half report feeling shame-stricken more than four times a day. That seems normal – getting out of bed a bit too late: strike one. Caving in and having lunch at half-past eleven: strike two. Not getting as much done as you intended to: strike three. Getting drunk by accident: strike four. Feeling and accumulating guilt is easy.

But it's also necessary. The modern sense of responsibility is abstract at best. The current generation of overgrown children – who marry late, can't afford to buy their houses, can't get jobs and spend what little they earn on things like iPads – could do a lot worse than buying into a cult of culpability. We curb our anxiety and dissatisfaction with ourselves by finding scapegoats: the Donna Simpsons, the ice-skating mums, the ageing princes and their airhead showgirls.

Feeling guilty reins in our baser instincts, and reminds us to treat others sensitively. A pang of conscience is worth twice its weight in smugness and finger-pointing. Now, I love a sweeping gender stereotype, but the fact that anxiety besets women more than it does men is just an extension of the fact that women are more sociable and more sensitive; that their consideration of others is more acute.

But there's feeling guilty and being guilty. If the worst thing you've done over Christmas is stuff your face and watch TV, then congratulations. You need only look at the headlines to know that others have far more reason to feel regretful. "Why is it you give yourself excuses to eat loads of chocolate, just because it is Xmas?" tweeted rugby Romeo Will Carling earlier this week. "Already have huge regrets..."

Because, Will, it is Christmas. At least you haven't indulged in Donna Simpson's chosen dessert of marshmallow "salad" with cream and cookies. When festive guilt strikes, remember: someone else has always done something worse. This isn't allowed at any other time of year, so make the most of it. Usually you have to spend the aftermath of a boozy night feeling like the sky will fall on your head and reliving each moment you spent being the worst, unfunniest, lamest person in the world. At Christmas, everyone does it, so don't sweat it. That's what New Year is for. Quick, pass the chocolates and the fortified wine.

h.walker@independent.co.uk

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