December is a month filled with joy and celebrations for Christmas and New Year. For most individuals, this period is associated with happiness and other positive feelings. But as we delve deeper, there is also a darker side.
Christmas has been celebrated in the modern Western world for centuries. This tradition has been shaped by large multinational companies emphasising profitability, creating typical icons such as the red-suited, white-bearded Santa Claus. Such creation and continuation of traditions have been driven by a mix of social learning and punishment avoidance, as we tend to refer to others and gauge the most appropriate way to act situationally. This behaviour has given rise to most cognitive biases in our lives, ranging from the development of social practices to innovation adoption.
Given the differences across cultures and regions, Christmas and New Year celebrations vary subtly. As we learn from role models and observe others to determine the appropriate behaviours, traditions with moral lessons have been created. For instance, we may put our shoes out for Sinterklaas (Netherlands) or Père Noël (France), put our stockings out for Santa (US and UK), or light candles for Hanukkah (Jewish). In Europe, individuals are used to enjoying the atmosphere by decorating Christmas trees and gathering around Christmas markets to buy gifts. In Greece particularly, individuals decorate Christmas ships instead and have a variety of Christmas foods. For example, "melomakarona” is a beloved festive cookie made of flour and honey. Carols are also sung by kids in every neighbourhood.
There are fewer Christianity believers in Asia compared with the rest of the world, so the celebrations are more symbolic than religious. Although Christmas banners, lights and ornaments can be seen everywhere, Christmas is often perceived as another occasion to spend time with beloved ones. Children in Asia may not ordinarily leave cookies and milk for Santa or jot down their wish list, but some unique traditions have emerged instead. In China, colourful, cellophane-wrapped apples are special Christmas gifts that symbolise peace. Whilst in Japan, Christmas cakes are made with strawberries instead, with strawberries representing Santa Claus and whipped cream representing the winter snow. Also, given that Christmas may be viewed differently in Asia, it is worth noting that Christmas is not a public holiday in some Asian countries.
Christmas comes towards the beginning of the summer holidays in Australia, leading to starkly different ways of celebrating. The youth would have summer holidays from mid-December to early February, so they may celebrate Christmas by having camping trips. The majority of Australians would have a cold Christmas dinner or a barbecue with seafood such as prawns and lobsters. On Christmas Eve, markets would be packed with customers yearning for fresh seafood. With Australia’s great biodiversity, depending on which part of Australia one is in, varied species of native trees would be decorated for Christmas. Moreover, when Santa travels to Australia, he might use kangaroos instead of reindeers and wear clothes that help him adapt to the hot weather.
Similarly, Christmas celebrations in South Africa can differ from western traditions. For many South Africans, the festive season is for quality family time. Some would even get married around Christmas, as others would be on holiday and have the time to celebrate. Typical celebrations would include buying new clothes for children, getting new hairstyles, and more importantly feasting throughout the day with one’s family.
Traditionally, a box of assorted biscuits would be opened on Christmas mornings. Then, a special Christmas 7 colours meal with rice, meat and colourful sides would be served for lunch. Others may also keep the Christmas meal simple by having an intimate braai (barbecue) lunch.
Some South African youth may celebrate Christmas by having photoshoots and partying. Christmas photoshoots have been a recent trend due to the widespread use of social media. Individuals would pose for photos of them wearing the festive green, red or white attires in front of Christmas decorations. At the same time, local and national parties would line up over the festive season for young people to enjoy their holidays.
On New Year's Eve, the majority of the South African youth would gather in clubs or local music concerts for the countdown. For those who prefer staying at home, they would have braai at home and light fireworks to welcome the New Year.
Christmas can often bring happiness as we enjoy moments with our friends and family. Some have even coined this mood change as “Christmas spirit”. A way to get into the Christmas spirit is to purchase gifts for ourselves or those around us. Interestingly, many feel happier spending money on others than themselves (Dunn et al., 2008). As we receive presents from others, the pleasure and sense of connectedness we experience can be addictive for our brains. In particular, these gifts may stir up feelings of nostalgia when we recall unforgettable moments with the gifter or the best Christmases we may have had. Research has shown that nostalgia allows us to revisit previous positive experiences, enhancing social connectedness and self-esteem (Cheung et al., 2013). Cheung et al. (2013) also highlighted that nostalgia causes us to evaluate the future positively, as we may predict the future to be as pleasant as the past.
Stores are exceptionally aware of how Christmas can induce nostalgia and thus implement various strategies to prime us into shopping. As soon as December approaches, shops would be covered with festive decorations, permeated by familiar scents, and filled with Christmas songs. Spangenberg et al. (2005) found that customers rate stores with holiday smell and music more positively regarding the brand, its products and the store environment, when compared with stores with none or only one of these elements. To explain this, presence of familiar scents creates an attraction effect that draws customers to the source of that scent (Spangenberg et al., 1996). Also, music tempo affects customers’ perception of time (Droit-Volet et al., 2013) and spending (Milliman, 1982).
Nonetheless, the festive season is not necessarily delightful for everyone, especially for disadvantaged families or individuals. They may not be able to afford decent Christmas celebrations, inducing a strong fear of missing out (Milyavskaya et al., 2018) as they compare themselves to others. Additionally, individuals may celebrate the festive season without their lost loved ones for the first time, bringing about difficult feelings or traumatic memories. For instance, an estimated 13 million adults had to cope with grief in the recent Christmas period in the UK (Co-op Funeralcare, 2022). Moreover, just as how pleasant Christmas memories induce sense of connectedness, those in distressing, isolating circumstances can feel even more depressed, anxious, or irritated.
Even if one is accompanied by their loved ones, they can still be stressed out and nervous. Those particularly scared of life changes, or even with anxiety disorders (e.g., separation anxiety, an excessive fear of being away from home or loved ones; Ehrenreich et al., 2008), may be especially vulnerable to emotional distress. For example, they may feel anxious about the new year, regret that they did not achieve their goals in the previous years, or even put themselves on a guilt trip.
The value of Christmas, if not religious, is psychological for all. No matter how we perceive the festive season, it is essential that we make the most out of the holidays and enjoy a well deserved break. Regardless of whether we celebrate Christmas, who we spend the time with, and how we spend this time, our choices are valid and personal. As we begin 2023, we hope that you have had a peaceful Christmas and we wish you a New Year with vitality.
Cheung, W.-Y., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Hepper, E. G., Arndt, J., & Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M. (2013). Back to the future: Nostalgia increases optimism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(11), 1484–1496. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167213499187
Co-op Funeralcare. (2022, December 15). Silent grief: Supporting the 13 million struggling after bereavement as grief leads to poor mental wellbeing and loneliness this Christmas. https://www.co-operative.coop/media/news-releases/silent-grief-supporting-the-13-million-struggling-after-bereavement-as-grief
Droit-Volet, S., Ramos, D., Bueno, J. L., & Bigand, E. (2013). Music, emotion, and time perception: The influence of subjective emotional valence and arousal?. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 417. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00417
Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687–1688
Ehrenreich, J. T., Santucci, L. C., & Weiner, C. L. (2008). Separation Anxiety Disorder in youth: Phenomenology, assessment, and treatment. Psicologia Conductual, 16(3), 389–412. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1150952
Milliman, R. E. (1982). Using background music to affect the behavior of supermarket shoppers. Journal of Marketing, 46(3), 86–91. https://doi.org/10.2307/1251706
Milyavskaya, M., Saffran, M., Hope, N., & Koestner, R. (2018). Fear of missing out: Prevalence, dynamics, and consequences of experiencing FOMO. Motivation and Emotion, 42(5), 725–737. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-018-9683-5
Spangenberg, E. R., Crowley, A. E., & Henderson, P. W. (1996). Improving the store environment: Do olfactory cues affect evaluations and behaviors? Journal of Marketing, 60(2), 67–80. https://doi.org/10.2307/1251931
Spangenberg, E. R., Grohmann, B., & Sprott, D. E. (2005). It's beginning to smell (and sound) a lot like Christmas: The interactive effects of ambient scent and music in a retail setting. Journal of Business Research, 58(11), 1583–1589. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2004.09.005
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