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Joy for some, a time to forget for others: The many emotions of Christmas

Illustration of Christmas | Freepik

Case study by Ufuoma Onemu

It's the most wonderful time of the year! Or is it? Ufuoma Onemu explores the reasons why Christmas can be very different experiences for all of us.

From the signature Christmas colours (red, green and gold) adorning everything the eyes can see, to amazing discounts, delicious treats and a chance to unwind with friends and family; it's easy to see why Christmas is the happiest time of the year for many of us.

Although Christmas isn’t celebrated by everyone in the world, research carried out by Matt Killingsworth (creator of revealed that most people consider Christmas day to be the happiest day of the year.

Why can Christmas bring feelings of happiness?

Several factors increase our happiness at Christmas, but the most significant positive predictor of our happiness is spending more time with family and friends. At Christmas, people make the most effort to see their loved ones. We have all watched those movies where the protagonist must get on the last train, horse, bus, or ship to ensure they spend Christmas with their loved ones. This translates to reality as well! We may not walk a hundred miles to see our friends and family on Christmas day, but we make the effort to ensure that at least a part of the holidays is spent with our loved ones.

The memories, smells, and emotions we associate with Christmas play an equally significant role. Many of us have things we associate with Christmas time, from foods like jollof rice and figgy pudding, to sounds like fireworks and sleigh bells, to events like caroling and decorating. Most of the time, those memories are positive and happy, so these reminders make us feel extra happy too.

Christmas cheer is so powerful that a simple act like decorating early for Christmas can lift your mood! According to Psychologist Deborah Serani, getting our Christmas decorations up early can stimulate a neurological shift that can produce feelings of happiness. Whenever we come across any of these things, our brains immediately associate it with Christmas. This creates a neurological shift where dopamine is released, causing a positive lift in mood. This shift is triggered by performing actions different from our daily routine, and if our brains determine this shift to be pleasurable, it increases dopamine levels.

Chromotherapy or colour psychology also helps to explain why this happens. Serani says the signature Christmas colours and bright lights help to increase our energy levels and boost our mood.

A big part of our warm feelings towards Christmas stems from happy memories we created in our childhood. People who have happy Christmas memories are more likely to experience nostalgia which may stir up the urge to recreate the feeling by decorating early, celebrating more, and joining in with festivities.

Even the mere sight of Christmas themed images can trigger up happy feelings. In 2015, Brad Haddock, a Danish researcher, conducted a study on how the brain is affected when people are presented with Christmas images. These pictures were shown to two groups of people: people who celebrate Christmas and people who don’t. When the images were shown, the frontal lobe (the area of the brain which, among many responsibilities, plays a role in our mood) of the brain lit up for people who celebrated Christmas. Basically, just thinking about Christmas or seeing holidays themed pictures and decorations had a positive impact on emotions.


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Why we might not feel happy at Christmas

Although research has shown that feeling unhappy at Christmas is the exception rather than the norm, there are several possible reasons why you might feel this way.

Unrealistic expectations: Christmas planning often focuses on all the fun we are going to have. The people we are going to see and spend it with. And how bright, colourful, and merry everything is going to be. Often, we try to recreate the magic and emotions experienced during Christmases past. We are so focused on these that we overlook the stress, failed plans, burnt food, lost luggage, annoying family members, inevitable fights, and conflicting schedules. When things don’t go as we planned, our emotions about the whole day tend to be affected.

Present life events: we might have recently moved away from home, this might be our first Christmas dealing with the absence of a loved one, finances might be tighter this Christmas, we might have to work overtime, or we are overwhelmed by social obligations to fulfill. It's normal that we don't feel as excited as everyone else because we are stressed out about so many other things.

The Christmas season can also magnify problems within our home or relationships. Each smiling ad is filling with loved ones sharing intimate moments together. But we remember that we haven't spoken to our parents in two years, our spouse was unfaithful, our friends are going on a trip we can't afford, and our kids don't want to come home for Christmas. These situations can lead to high stress levels, low mood, and mental exhaustion leaving little or no room for celebration. Additionally, if we live in a place where terrorist attacks or civil unrest is present, the fear and uncertainty may overwhelm any desire we have to celebrate.

Conclusions about the year: At the end of the year, we often feel the need to reflect on all we have achieved during the year. Did the year go as expected? Did we exceed our set goals? How many resolutions were we able to conquer? The results of these reflections can leave us feeling great about the festivities, or down because we feel we have nothing to celebrate.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Low mood at Christmas can also be the result of seasonal affective disorder. SAD is also known as winter depression or seasonal depression and it's a form of depression triggered by a transition in seasons. SAD tends to start (beginning of autumn/winter) and end (the start of spring) at the same time each year. A dawn simulator or phototherapy (light therapy) can bring positive results. Frequent exercise, sufficient sleep, and a balanced diet also help alleviate symptoms.

Building new memories

How we feel about Christmas often boils down to the memories we associate with it. And for some, experiences of grief, abuse, or loneliness can give Christmas an entirely different feel to what we see in adverts.

If this is what Christmas is like for you, attempting to reprogramme how you think about this time of year will not be easy. It will likely be a complicated task that will take time. But this isn’t to say that Christmas can never be a joyous time for you. Taking the approach of trying to create new memories and traditions that bring us happiness could help. This of course is much easier said than done, but if this is the case for you, here are tips to help you along:

  • Try joining a volunteer group that helps with a cause that's meaningful to you.

  • Try to get involved in community events or societies that are specific to Christmas, like the local carol group.

  • Take time to reflect on all the things that went right this year, physically noting them down so that you have real-life evidence.

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