The psychology of Christmas: the most wonderful time of the year… and how to survive it

Anyone who has braved the last-minute dash around the shops on Christmas Eve will know that the term ‘festive madness’ wasn’t coined out of thin air.

Add overbearing in-laws, financial troubles and alcohol to the mix, and the effect that the festive season has on our psychological wellbeing becomes even more pronounced.

Chartered psychologist, Prof Brian Hughes agrees that the most wonderful time of the year can also be the most stressful, but there are many more psychological components to the silly season, he argues, and last week, at a free public lecture for the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI), he touched on quite a few of them.

“Christmas has been well studied by social scientists and behavioural scientists,” says Hughes, whose talk explored the “many and varied ways human beings perceive, experience, and suffer through this annual hiatus”.

“As a truly global festival, it involves social behaviour and family and relationships. It involves [people’s] sense of optimism and wellbeing.

“And the fact that millions, if not billions, of people participate in some form of Christmas activities gives us kind of a laboratory for researching all of these aspects of psychology.”

Christmas is undoubtedly a stressful period, explains Hughes, who points to data from the European Social Survey, which suggests that people report lower emotional wellbeing at Christmas.

Family dynamics are another flash point. Overcrowding and “loss of usual levels of privacy” is very stressful, he explains, and “adult children often regress to childhood behaviour patterns when they spend long periods of time in their childhood homes”.

“It can be stressful because it accentuates the stress of daily life, particularly family relationships,” he says. “As well as that, without doubt, there is an alcohol dimension that can contribute to flash points.”

The inherent stresses and strains of Christmas can have an impact on physical health, says Hughes, who cites large-scale US research which found that Christmas Day is associated with a peak in heart attacks and deaths, “as people seem to take more health risks such as ignoring symptoms”.

However, the impact that Christmas has on mental health issues – or the idea that it can be a trigger for anxiety and depression – isn’t wholly substantiated by the research. “It used to be thought that Christmas was a particular risk for suicide,” he explains. “In actual fact, the data increasingly shows quite clearly that the opposite is the case: suicide rates decline at Christmas. And there may be practical reasons for that – people are being monitored with greater attention than other times of the year when they are not in the family home or what have you.”

The festive season is nonetheless a “pressurised situation”, says the psychologist, who’s quick to add that women tend to experience this pressure differently. “Nearly half of women report greater stress at Christmas, compared to just a third of men. They’re also twice as likely to cook, shop, or clean up, compared to men.

“When it comes down to the nuts and bolts, all the surveys show that women end up carrying most of the logistical and domestic chores of Christmas. The buying of the gifts, the wrapping of the gifts, the thinking through of what gifts to get and then, of course, the cooking and the cleaning.

“All the New Man language that people use – and the beliefs that they hold – are not borne out by the statistical studies,” says Hughes. “Throughout the normal calendar year, Time Use studies show that women – even women with full-time jobs – spend half of their free time doing house work. Whereas men spend less than 20pc of their free time doing house work. And when Christmas comes along, all of that gets accentuated for various reasons.”

This isn’t the only aspect of Christmas that men and women experience differently. Studies suggest that women have different attitudes towards gift-giving too. Around a third of women are willing to buy expensive gifts for a ‘friend’ (non-family member), whereas only 10pc of men are willing to do so. Women also tend to ‘interpret’ gifts more, and attribute more meaning to a gift from a romantic partner.

“This is based on trends,” adds Hughes. “It’s not true that all women do this and all men do that. But nonetheless, the studies tend to be consistent that women tend towards interpreting gifts more and are more likely to see the gift as some kind of comment on the state of the relationship, whereas men are far more likely to see the gift in utilitarian terms.

“The common sense advice is don’t put yourself in financial trouble at Christmas time,” he adds. “However, as a society, there are serious questions to be asked about why the financial burden of Christmas falls on women. There is a great insecurity around being seen to be lacking in generosity. And that is felt more for women than men.”

Gender inequities can often be the cause of Christmas quarrels, says Hughes. The festive season can also be a sensitive time for the recently bereaved, he adds.

“It’s true that Christmas is nostalgic and emotional and, therefore, if there is sadness in the family then this can be a particularly sad time, especially if a bereavement happened during the year. The first Christmas can be very tough for people.

“But it is healthy to be sad as part of a grieving process, and Christmas gives an opportunity for people to process some of that and to move on maybe. People who go straight back to work and don’t take holidays don’t always resolve their grief properly and can carry it with them, and that can lead to mental health problems of their own.

“So there is a therapeutic side to the fact that Christmas is forced upon us every year. It may be a reboot concept or a cathartic concept or a mindfulness concept even. Whatever it is, it is certainly healthy for us to have that convention in society and I don’t doubt why that is one of the reasons that cultures all over the world have created this type of winter festival. This type of opportunity to take stock.”

Christmastime can also provide an opportunity to process issues, says Hughes. “People are basically sequestered in the family home and they have to have conversations with each other and even though that can be very challenging and difficult they can also be very constructive because the hectic work life and family life that people carry throughout the year can often be used as a sort of crutch against having to deal with problems.”

But if the festive season is an opportunity to reflect and relax, why then do so many of us get caught up in the hype and pressure of it?

“The pressures of Christmas come from the sense that there is an ideal that has to be conformed to,” says Hughes. “The people who talk about the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ don’t realise that they are enforcing pressure on other people to have the type of Christmas that they want rather than the type of Christmas that people want themselves.

“The insight from researching Christmas is that, actually, it is diverse, flexible and adaptable, and that people shape Christmas a lot more than they realise.

“And the sense of being able to shape your own Christmas is actually quite liberating,” he adds. “It’s not something that we should be controlled by. It’s something that we should control by recognising that it is actually quite a flexible festival. And once you recognise that fact, then you should have the freedom to relax.”

Professor Brian Hughes is a chartered psychologist and a member of The Psychological Society of Ireland. He works at NUI Galway. His latest book is Psychology in Crisis (Palgrave).

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