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Is Christmas good for you? 

By Dr Lucia Gannon - 16th Dec 2022


Research has shown that certain aspects of the festive season offer opportunities to boost positivity

Walking along Grafton Street on a mild mid-November evening, I felt the first stirrings of the Christmas spirit. Above the bustling crowd, thousands of individual golden bulbs hung in columns, strings, and chandelier-style configurations. On both sides of the street, shop fronts displayed
perfectly parceled presents, giant hanging snowflakes, and much more. 

While I could never be accused of suffering from bah-humbug syndrome, this positive reaction to the early signs of Christmas surprised me. Long ago, when I was a child, Christmas was a restrained affair. Moreover, every good thing came with a reminder to consider those less fortunate than yourself. I was never quite sure who the less fortunate people were, or how they could benefit from my thinking about them. As a result, I became ambivalent about Christmas. An ambivalence that I now attribute to the dissonance created by co-existing feelings of happiness and sadness. I still feel this dissonance when I hear the surge of charities reminding us of poverty, homelessness, and war, while pleading for extra-generous donations at this time of year. 

On the occasion of my walk on Grafton Street I welcomed the unencumbered feeling of wellbeing and slowed my pace to savour the carefully created displays of sparkly baubles, twinkling fairy lights, and winter wonderlands. Christmas is, after all, the season to be jolly, a time of goodwill. But is Christmas good for us? Does it cause more stress than happiness? Is it better to embrace it, decorating our homes before the last pumpkin has landed in the compost bin, or simply hide away until it is all over? Or does it actually matter? Apparently, our attitude to Christmas does matter, and the season can be good for us, depending on how we manage it. 

Research has shown that certain aspects of the festive season offer opportunities to boost positivity. Decorating our homes is associated with a rise in dopamine, a feel-good hormone, and this rise is more marked if the decorations include artificial lighting. Obviously, those who adorn their homes in November rather than waiting until just before Santa arrives experience this boost for longer. I have always been a late decorator, partly because I never believe in doing anything until I must, but also because of the misguided belief that I would just get tired looking at them. This year I will conduct my own research. 

Watching Christmas-themed movies has also been shown to lift our mood. This is not only true at Christmas time, but all year around. These movies, with their happy-ever-after endings evoke feelings of generosity, connection, and faith in humanity. An easy dose of dopamine on days when daylight is short and the weather may not be conducive to outdoor activities. 

Over a hundred years ago, a French sociologist, Émile Durkheim, coined the term collective effervescence. Collective effervescence is the feeling of energy and harmony we get when people are engaged in a shared experience. The feeling one gets when the crowd roars in celebration of a winning goal, or the audience applauds as musicians return to the stage for an encore. Christmas offers many opportunities to experience collective effervescence; carol singing, religious ceremonies, concerts, and pantomimes. In the past few years, these moments have been in short supply. For those still anxious about large gatherings the experience can be created through smaller gatherings of family and friends. Shared activities cultivate connection and give meaning and purpose to our lives. 

For those who have painful memories of Christmas, it may be helpful to start a new tradition. This could be as simple as taking a family walk on Christmas Day, baking a Christmas cake, or making an excursion to choose a Christmas tree. Whatever it is, it should be easy to repeat year-on-year. Gradually, new behaviours create fresh memories to replace the old. Unhelpful thinking patterns are erased and gradually Christmas becomes associated with positive rather than negative feelings.

Researchers in Denmark have demonstrated a ‘Christmas Spirit Network’ in the brains of people who celebrate Christmas with positive associations, compared to people who have no Christmas traditions. This network comprises several cortical areas that became activated when the participants viewed images with yuletide themes. Those who did not demonstrate this network were diagnosed with bah-humbug syndrome. It is possible to activate this network by choosing to think positively about Christmas.

It may have been the lights, the crowded street, the mild November evening, or a mixture of all three that sparked a little joy in my heart that evening on Grafton Street. Whatever it was, I am grateful for the opportunity to embrace yet another Christmas and must go and decorate that tree, bake some mince pies, and knit some stockings. And not an elf in sight. 

Nollaig Shona agus Athbhliain faoi Mhaise Daoibh go léir.

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