The Americans might say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Happy Christmas” so as not to offend non-Christians yet Christmas festivities – religious, secular or indeed commercial – are being embraced by more and more countries around the world.
Brian Hughes, professor of psychology at NUI Galway and chartered psychologist has a particular fascination with traditions and practices around Christmas and is keen to point out that mid-winter festivals have been part of the human experience from time immemorial.
“Winter festivals emerged historically from the earliest days of humanity as people encountered the darkness with fear and foreboding. The basic human impulse of terror management underpins a lot of human behaviours and early humans worshipped the sun with rituals and sacrifices to bring the daylight back,” explains Prof Hughes.
In fact, Christians only began to celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25th from the third or fourth century. Previous to that, the Romans celebrated the rebirth of the year with the Saturnalia festival which celebrates the sun god. The sun was also worshipped in northern Europe and the Norse word for wheel, hjól symbolised the wheel of the seasons and gave us the word Yule. The Celts are believed to have started the tradition of the Yule log – lighting it up at the winter solstice to conquer the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring luck to the coming year. The word solstice itself comes from the Latin, Solstitium which means "sun stands still".
“Human societies create winter festivals to give us time off work, opportunities to eat well and look after each other,” says Prof Hughes. Yet celebrating Christmas at the darkest time of the year can be a mixed blessing for some people – whose natural inclination might be to sleep longer and wind down during the shortest days of the year.
“It’s important to say that humans – like animals – respond to the seasons and the daylight in a physical way and mental health is precipitated by hormone levels,” says Prof Hughes. So anyone who suffers from seasonal affective disorder is well advised to spend some active time outdoors in the daylight hours to alleviate depressive moods.
Many of the Christmas traditions (eg bringing an evergreen tree indoors to decorate) we have today date back to the 18th century. Prof Hughes warns people against becoming too immersed in a nostalgic desire for Christmases past. “Some people have an unrealistic view of what Christmases past were like and very often, the old ways weren’t the best. Nostalgia can be a form of cultural oppression if you think of Christmas as a time when mum does all the cooking and everyone else sits around. Women are often the emotional managers of families and sentimentalising Christmas can become a huge burden on them,” he says.
Prof Hughes suggests that everyone experiences Christmas in a different way. “Christmas continues to evolve. We create it as we go along. It is a therapeutic opportunity to bring people together – even to have those [non-explosive] quarrels that might be otherwise be avoided. Remembering those who have died and being sad is also a healthy part of grieving,” he says.
Prof Hughes – who gave the Psychological Society of Ireland public lecture on the psychology of Christmas in Trinity College earlier this month – says that most of the pressure around Christmas comes from social pressures to conform to the expectations of others. "People shouldn't be defined by a template of Christmas or tethered to a norm that they can't achieve. Keeping some level of control over activities is a key to enjoying Christmas most. It can be stressful having a lot of people in your home – and even lots of people asking how they can help you can be demanding – particularly for women who often have the greater burden of cooking at festive occasions."
Looking at research into people’s health around Christmas time, Prof Hughes says that cardiologists have found that heart attacks peak over Christmas – possibly due to the excess food, alcohol and those at risk being further from their usual healthcare provider. Contrary to this, some studies have found that people who are terminally ill – can often stay alive for festive occasions, almost holding on to see family members before they die.
However, the number of suicides on Christmas Day are more than 40 per cent lower than other days in December and early January.
Finally, Prof Hughes says that the European Social Survey in 2016 found that people enjoy Christmas more if they’ve managed to clear their desks before the holiday season. In fact, those who leave a lot of work to be done after Christmas are at risk of low mood for up to three months after they get back to work. So, you’ve been warned – meet those deadlines and you’ll enjoy Christmas more.