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21 December 2022

The psychology of why we celebrate Christmas

Nostalgia, hope and indulgence are key to human existence.

By Audrey Tang

Christmas comes but once a year… but it comes every year. Why is it important for those of us who aren’t Christian? Many would suggest it is entirely irrational to celebrate it (it is, for many, like a monarchy). It confers no obvious benefit for those who don’t believe in it. And it’s awfully expensive for something that’s purely sentimental.

Yet many of us recognise on an intuitive level that the psychological effects of Christmas are valuable for us in some way: why else do we rush home at this time of year to spend time with our families? Why else were mothers so upset when Covid restrictions meant Christmas plans had to be cancelled two years ago?

For one thing, even if we are not religious, there is an element of hope and magic that humans crave which we get from Christmas. Christmas lights, carols and the smell of mince pies inspire exciting thoughts of what is to come, or maybe they just make us feel “warm inside”. This should not be taken lightly: sentiment enables us to focus on feelings rather than thoughts, and in a world that is often dominated by rationale and reason, it is healthy to have the opportunity to sit for a moment with our feelings.

That sense of giving ourselves permission extends to us being allowed to feel childlike and indulge ourselves again – with excessive amounts of Advent calendar chocolate or a Christmas dinner. The funny thing about human nature here is that we often seek permission for such indulgences, so ingrained are rules into our upbringing. Christmas gives us a reason to let loose.

There is also the interpersonal benefits conferred by Christmas. On the whole in Britain, there is no other time of year where bank holidays are set aside primarily for friends and family (there is Easter, but it is not celebrated with nearly the same fanfare). The closeness we enjoy is important for us. One of the pioneers of the “Free Hugs” movement, Kory Floyd, used the term “skin hunger” to describe the feeling of touch deprivation and the human need for physical contact. While the “love language” of gifting has become the subject of mockery, in truth it is one of five very legitimate ways of expressing and receiving love – and there is no other time of year where it becomes so prevalent.

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Above all, the nostalgia of Christmas is important. The routine of seeing the Coca Cola truck and John Lewis adverts, and the questions around whether November is too early for Christmas decorations, bring a sense of familiarity. This, especially in such uncertain times with the cost-of-living crisis and various changing geopolitical dynamics, gives us comfort and predictability. Something we can predict or feel like we have control over. Something like a Hallmark film fits into this category, because we know it has a happy ending, or because we know we will enjoy it. A study of non-religious conceptions of nostalgia found that people engaging in nostalgic emotion reported higher levels of feeling that they belong; they even described their lives as more meaningful. This also correlated with higher levels of self-reported self-esteem and positive mood.

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There’s little reason to feel silly or guilty for throwing ourselves into Christmas this year – it’s important for our health.

[See also: This is how you don’t celebrate Christmas]

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