Why celebrating Christmas with our loved ones, even remotely, is good for our mental health.
There is a certain cliché about Christmas that we’re all familiar with, especially in films: there’s a lot of fairy lights, far too much family, stress and drama and cooking disasters, if you’re lucky Hugh Grant shows up on your doorstep to see the local nativity, and it’s either an awful or an amazing time. While opinions on the holidays, your family, traditions and the food can differ greatly- some of us look forward to the holidays while others dread it, and some don’t celebrate them at all- research is showing that taking part in Christmas rituals with our loved ones can improve our general happiness.
Taking part in rituals increases our life satisfaction. A study by Paez et al (2011) assessing subjective well-being before and after Christmas and New Year holidays found low levels of stress and conflict amongst participants, with high levels of participation in rituals, and dominantly positive emotions. They found that taking part in rituals increased satisfaction with life, social well-being and positive family climate.
We feel a sense of connection and sacredness when taking part in activities with other people. A study was conducted on collective effervescence (feeling connection and meaning from collective events in groups) which is considered important during rare and intense events, such as football games, concerts or momentous historical events. They found however that collective effervescence is not just important at these rare events- it’s valuable in everyday activities in smaller groups, and the feeling of social connection and sacredness predicts wellbeing more significantly than other kinds of social connection.
Maintaining the same social groups is good for our social well being. Research on perceptions of collective continuity (perceiving our social groups as consistent over time) has a positive effect on our social well-being, which in turn has a positive effect on our well-being in general, whether this is family or even a close knit group of friends.
Reminiscing about holidays gone by makes us happier. Studies investigating relationships between reminiscence and emotional experience found that those who reminisce more often about happy memories report increased levels of happiness than those who do so less often.
Gratitude improves our mental health. Research was conducted on the effectiveness of a three-week gratitude intervention, assigning half of their participants to keep a daily gratitude journal for 21 days. They found that those who did had higher feelings of gratefulness compared to the control condition (who reported a reduction in wellbeing). Increased gratitude around Christmas time can therefore be improving our wellbeing.
What you can do during COVID-19 restrictions
At times like this, when it feels like the world has been at a standstill for so long, we’re likely to be feeling more isolated, lonely and restricted than ever before. And when traditions have to be altered or plans changed to keep safe, we feel further away from approaching normality. However, it’s important to hold on to the rituals and people that bring you joy this time each year, even with modifications:
- If you’re used to baking all together, organise an online bake night (and pray for the teenager in the family doing it on their own for the first time).
- Share pictures and memories and stories from previous years, tell each other funny and silly stories and catch up with those that you’re not in regular contact with.
- Organise a Netflix party for your favourite Christmas films.
And if you’re lucky enough to be physically close to your loved ones during these difficult times, savour the opportunity to do all these things with them in person.
And it never hurts to keep an eye on the door in case Hugh Grant comes a-knocking.
Gabriel, S., Naidu, E., Paravati, E., Morrison, C. D., & Gainey, K. (2020). Creating the sacred from the profane: Collective effervescence and everyday activities. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(1), 129–154. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2019.1689412
Lai, S. T. (2017). ‘The Three Good Things’ — The effects of gratitude practice on wellbeing: A randomised controlled trial. Health Psychology Update, 26, 10.
Páez, D., Bilbao, M. Á., Bobowik, M., Campos, M., & Basabe, N. (2011). Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! The impact of Christmas rituals on subjective well-being and family’s emotional climate. International Journal of Social Psychology, 26(3), 373–386. https://doi.org/10.1174/021347411797361347
Sani, F., Bowe, M., & Herrera, M. (2008). Perceived collective continuity and social well-being: Exploring the connections. European Journal of Social Psychology, 38(2), 365–374. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.461
Bryant, F. B., Smart, C. M., & King, S. P. (2005). Using the Past to Enhance the Present: Boosting Happiness Through Positive Reminiscence. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6(3), 227–260. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-005-3889-4