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What is the psychological impact of Christmas?

‘Christmas affects the human mind in many ways, capable of stimulating joy, nostalgia, excitement, trepidation, and stress – occasionally all at the same time’, writes Professor Brian Hughes.

Brian Hughes

In the 1930s, US President Calvin Coolidge made the following observation on the annual yuletide festivities: “Christmas is not a time nor a season,” he said, “but a state of mind.”

For sure, Christmas affects the human mind in many ways, capable of stimulating joy, nostalgia, excitement, trepidation, and stress – occasionally all at the same time. It is little surprise to learn, then, that behavioural science has produced voluminous research into the human side of Christmas.

At the time of writing, a standard Google search for the ‘Psychology of Christmas’ yields approximately 126 million results. Even Google Scholar gives us 200,000. There is much to cover.

Perhaps the best starting point is to remember that Christmas is one of the most psychological of human festivals, in that it echoes the visceral terror of darkness that characterised humanity’s earliest experiences of winter.

In primitive societies, the steady shortening of days as autumn passed was a truly frightening thing, as there was little to reassure the world that spring would ever come.

The foreboding led to superstitions aimed at worshiping the sun, and sure enough, once rituals were performed and sacrifices offered, the days began to lengthen again.

The first winter solstice celebrations coincided with rewards from the sun god, and hence, the emergence of religion and mysticism as powerful influences on the human psyche. The fact it was all based on correlation rather than proof of causation might seem obvious to us now, but the damage was done. Winter festivals and religion itself were born and were to prove pretty much unstoppable.

Fast forward through the millennia, and today we have our familiar globalised Christmas, replete with enforced familial engagement, social choreography of gift-exchange, a conspiracy of mirth-making, and near obligatory hiatus from toil.

But how does it make us feel?

Health and Wellbeing

Studies into the impact of Christmas on well-being have produced varying results.

Data from the European Social Survey has suggested that people report lower emotional well-being at Christmas.

Meanwhile, other studies show that suicide rates decline markedly at this time. (That said, please remember it is always wise to check in with each other at Christmas and to engage in self-care and appropriate help-seeking if things get tough.)

For physical health, one legendary study reported that death rates of seriously ill people around Christmas suggest they can ‘hang on’ for a few days longer than they might otherwise do, in order to join in seasonal celebrations.

On the other hand, we know that people suffer more heart attacks at Christmas and that Christmas Day sees an annual peak in deaths in hospital emergency departments in countries whose healthcare systems are large enough to produce meaningful data sets e.g. the U.S.

Gifts

Even the simple act of giving a gift is fraught with psychological pitfalls. Christmas gift-giving is reciprocal and allows for an immediate assessment of the relationship between givers and receivers. While one’s first instinct might be to strive for equity, psychology suggests that things are more complicated. 

Equity must take account of the relative statuses of those involved. A gift that is too expensive or showy might backfire on those intending to impress. When reciprocity is expected but not realised – such as when a gift is given but none received in return – the result can be socially mortifying.

Research suggests that gender differences compound all this, making romantic gifts between men and women particularly perilous. Apparently, women are more likely to view a gift as measuring the compatibility between them and their partner. In contrast, men often view gifts as objects of material value, which may or may not come in handy sometime, or else can be returned to the shop.

That said this depends on individual personalities your relationship could be a reverse of the overall trend. 

Re-inventing Christmas?

One behavioural habit that humans regularly exhibit at Christmas is nostalgic moaning. Annually we complain that ‘years ago’ the festivities were better and that nowadays everything has become so commercial.

However, this habit seems to be a cognitive distortion of memory. Nostalgic moaning is nothing new. Try to guess when this opinion was first published?

Within the last half-century, this annual time of festivity has lost much of its original mirth and hospitality.

2000? 1980? 1960?

If you placed this quote in the current century, or the previous two – you are wrong. It appeared in an editorial of The Times way back in 1790.

This year, instead of focusing on the negative perhaps let’s remember that much of what we do and say at Christmas is conventional, arbitrary, subject to conditions and within our control to change.

In other words, you can create your own reality at Christmas time. Above all else, this liberating conclusion is perhaps the most important lesson to draw from the psychology of Christmas.

Professor Brian Hughes will explore these and other issues in a free lecture on the Psychology of Christmas today, 06 December, in Trinity College Dublin at 6.30 pm.

Professor Hughes is a Chartered Psychologist and a member of The Psychological Society of Ireland, he works in NUI Galway and his latest book Psychology in Crisis is out now.  

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Brian Hughes

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