[A version of this article previously appeared in TheJournal.ie]
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.”
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a radical rethink of our festive plans. As traumatic and as heart-wrenching as this can be for many people, perhaps it also affords us an opportunity to re-evaluate our priorities. We are challenged to find new ways to meet old ends: in the absence of an in-person Christmas, how else can we mark the occasion and reach out positively to those who matter to us ?
This year, more than ever, Christmas is indeed very much a state of mind.
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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 (“about”) 126 million results. Even Google Scholar gives us 200,000.
There is much to cover.
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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, conspiracy of mirth-making, and near obligatory hiatus from toil.
Indeed, COVID-19 might even help to remind us of the true purpose of Christmas: a symbolic coming together in communal solidarity in an effort to fend off some of our collective existential anxieties.
But how might that make us feel?
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Studies into the impact of Christmas on well-being have produced varying results. Data from the European Social Survey have suggested people report lower emotional well-being at Christmas. But other data 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 datasets (i.e., America).
If the phrase were not now banned by some of the high-profile medical journals, we might conclude that “more research is needed”. Well, as with every Christmas regret, there is always next year.
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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 view gifts as objects of material value, which may or may not come in handy sometime, or else can be returned to the shop.
But remember, all gender differences research is based on a false binary, so please don’t use this as a guide for your Christmas shopping. Your mileage may (and probably will) vary.
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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? 1990? 1980?
In fact, anybody who places this quote in the current century – or the previous two – is wrong. It appeared in an editorial of The Times way back in 1790.
This year, why don’t we try to kick that particular habit?
With COVID-19 restrictions curtailing the festivities, surely this year more than ever we can see that Christmas — and festivals like it — can be marked in many ways. These occasions need not get bogged down in materialism, marketing, or mulled wine.
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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.
Above all else, this liberating conclusion is perhaps the most valuable lesson to draw from the psychology of Christmas.
The most important thing is that we let others know that we care about them.
That is the gift. Everything else is wrapping paper.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.