Christmas rituals can provide comfort during tough times, says BPS
With Christmas just around the corner and concerns about the cost of living and affordability of the festive season being a worry for many, the rituals associated with Christmas can still provide psychological comfort and joy, says the British Psychological Society.
From decorating the tree, to attending a carol service or listening to Christmas songs, the activities and milestones we associate with the festive period can help lift spirits and provide solace when times are tough.
“Christmas comes once a year, but it comes every year - that becomes a ritual in itself”, says chartered psychologist Dr Audrey Tang, in considering the psychological factors behind the rituals that can help bring the feel-good factor at Christmas. “We know Christmas can be a difficult and challenging time for people for many reasons, but for others, Christmas can evoke warmth and joy like no other time of year.”
Familiarity and nostalgia brings comfort
Nostalgia and looking back at something with affection can generate feelings of warmth and comfort.
“In uncertain times, like the cost of living crisis, people seek something they can predict or feel in control over – for example if we know a film has a happy ending or because we’ve done something before and we know we enjoy it”, says Dr Tang.
Psychological evidence has shown that people engaging in nostalgic emotion[i] report higher levels of feeling that they belong, and a higher continuity between their past and present, even describing their lives as more meaningful. This also correlated with higher levels of self-reported self-esteem and positive mood.
Christmas offers an element of hope and magic
Christmas films are effective at capturing an element of hope and magic with their storytelling, and watching them can often bring positive emotion to the surface.
“These feelings may also connect us with an experience we have loved in the past, or trigger exciting thoughts of what is to come”, says Dr Tang. “Sentiment enables us to focus on feelings rather than thoughts, and in a world that is often dominated with rationale and reason, it is healthy to have the opportunity to sit for a moment with our feelings.”
Christmas gives us permission to feel child-like
From switching on the Christmas tree lights to the glee of unwrapping presents, Christmas can unlock childlike feelings and give us permission to have fun and celebrate, just as we might have when we were young. For some, permission to start their Christmas rituals begins with external events:
“Where some people ask if November 6 is too early to put up the Christmas decorations, others will mark the start of the festive season by seeing the John Lewis ad on TV, almost as if it gives them permission to begin our celebrations”, says Dr Tang.
“The funny thing about human nature here is that we are seeking permission at all. These ‘rules’ are so ingrained into our upbringing, and while perhaps we can choose to mark our seasons by external events, we also need to remember that we are living our lives for ourselves not for the judgment of others.”
We see the people we love
Psychologists say relationships with others are as important to human existence as food and water.[ii] “At Christmas we get to see the people we care about. If we have been feeling lonely, we may also feel “skin hungry”, but know we will have an opportunity to give and receive a hug”, says Dr Tang.
We practice the “love language” of gifting
Gifts are a way of expressing and receiving love[iii]. However the cost of living crisis can make this expression of love fraught rather than feel-good.
“Giving and receiving gifts is a ritual that can bring joy, but it’s important to do so within your own means, and those of your loved ones. Perhaps set a limit on the amount everyone will spend, make presents or think of a different contribution you could make, like making a dish for a Christmas meal, or create something to entertain”, suggest Dr Tang.
“The act of being able to do something to make a difference to others is a huge contributing factor to wellbeing.”