Why do we celebrate Christmas?

Psychology Hour
Dr. Leli
Leliana Valentina Pârvulescu – Psychologist Responsible Gaming program
within the Responsible Gaming Association

Why do we celebrate Christmas? Because on December 25 is a celebration of the birth of Jesus. In fact, the month of December presents a coincidence of events, also of an astronomical nature. For example, it marks the winter solstice, the time when the sun reaches its maximum angular distance from the plane of the Earth’s equator. This phenomenon conditions the time of sunset, the winter solstice is, in fact, the shortest day of the year.

From a psychological point of view, during this period people can face a very special depressive symptomatology, described even in the clinical bible of psychologists, DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Don’t worry, it’s a very common disorder that occurs with a moderate change in mood that parallels the change of seasons: winter blues (around winter), summer blues (around summer). The period of winter holidays favors the appearance of seasonal affective disorder and can have brief manifestations – as long as the holidays last – of depression or anxiety.

But what emotions arise during this period? And how can they be translated into what psychology calls defense mechanisms? We meet with depression, as I stated above, with omnipotence, with self-centeredness. Let’s take as a reference a defense mechanism that we all use from childhood: omnipotent control. The newborn struggling for the first time with the problems of the outside world (cold, heat, noise) has no power, in which case a mother figure intervenes to save him, giving him everything he needs. In the little one, a conscious separation between himself and the outside world has not yet been determined, but he is convinced that he is the one who, as if by magic, solved all his problems. Piaget (1937) called it primary egocentrism. The feeling of being able to influence the world, to produce a certain effect is found even in the wishes we make at Christmas. The magic and mystery of these ritual phrases “Merry Christmas”, Peaceful Holidays”, etc… suggest a psychological safety that we unconsciously need to fill those ancient fears that our ancestors felt when they saw the days suddenly shorten and how darkness will soon come in the season of winter.

Even the three wise men, who came from afar following a star, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, have a soothing function. Thus, the gifts we exchange under the tree, the cookies, the chocolates, which make us so fat at this time of the year, make us feel appreciated and reassured by the fact that we have reference persons we can always rely on.

Leliana Valentina Parvulescu

The sense of omnipotence as we grow up changes, we go through a process of maturation, but we still remain big children. Despite the beautiful Christmas stories, gifts and well wishes, for some people this holiday is actually a sad time. A very interesting experiment by Hougaard, Lindberg, Arngrim and colleagues (2015) located by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) the emotional and functional centers in the human brain that are activated in the Christmas spirit. During the viewing, study participants underwent functional cervical scans. After the scan, participants answered a questionnaire about their Christmas traditions and associations they have with Christmas. The results showed that there is a brain response when people see these specific images and there are significant differences in this response. In the subjects who liked Christmas there was greater activation in several areas of the brain.

Recalling happy emotions and pleasant behaviors shared with loved ones would be likely to elicit activation of happy emotions and pleasant behaviors shared with loved ones. Why are there some people who love Christmas so much and others, like the Grinch, who would need a sedative to deal with the holiday nightmare? Well, individual differences depend on so many factors that it is difficult to generalize.
It sounds a bit hard to believe, but in this case, Bowlby (1973) might suggest defining internal operating models. Our mental representations of others and the environment around us depend primarily on our childhood experiences. For those who had fond memories of Christmas, characterized by the constant and affectionate presence of their reference figures, who probably satisfied their requests, such as dad putting the toy that the child really wanted under the tree, mom she prepared very good food, Christmas is a wonderful holiday. For those who have not experienced such emotional emotions, Christmas is sad and is especially doubled by the inability to live and share the joy of others.

As Freud (1938) said, it is essential to satisfy the physiological needs from which we derive the pleasure of being with other members of our species. Harlow and then Bowlby, on the other hand, showed us how the presence of a close relationship not only with the main attachment figure, but also with a joyful and positive family network can be at the origin of love and the formation of positive memories of the self and about others.

On the contrary, some have experienced what it means to be inaccessible and the absence of an attachment figure, not necessarily in the long term, but also with reference to a certain period of time, such as holidays that are traditionally celebrated in the family. It sounds strange, but in many family groups there is a kind of transgenerational transmission of values, beliefs, customs; the same attitude of indifference towards Christmas can be subjected to this. The inevitable family reunions that result from holy days are perceived as a formal imposition rather than a moment of fraternal union. These individual and group dynamics transform Christmas from a time of joy to a time when anxiety hangs in the air, which over time leads to the creation in memory of cold emotional memories of the holidays that will solidify for years to come. following, unless something or someone intervenes to change them positively, with the warmth of a hug or a caress. So, these people suffer from the Grinch syndrome consciously, while those who enjoy this holiday use the moments to love each other, enjoy and live intensely all that the Christmas holidays mean.

Merry Christmas!

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