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Why we need a little Christmas

POSTED December 3, 2016 9:49 p.m.
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Ignore all the moaning about weight gain, shopping and stress. Christmas is good for you — even more so if you profess a strong faith in God.

While some grinches call Christmas a stressor on par with getting a speeding ticket, a 2015 study found that religious people are largely immune to the season's negatives. And the observance of Christmas offers a wealth of benefits to our health and well-being — some as obvious as a red-nosed reindeer, others as subtle as the hint of nutmeg in a glass of eggnog.

In short, the popular song from the musical "Mame" is right: We need a little Christmas.

This is, in part, because the season is so starkly different from the rest of the year, so much so that in some denominations, the rest of the year (sans Easter) is called "Ordinary Time." That makes Christmastime extraordinary, a point that Wisconsin author and editor Christopher Hill makes in his book "Holidays and Holy Nights."

Reminiscing about Christmas in childhood, Hill wrote, "As for a lot of us, that's when I first experienced a time that carried a special charge and stood apart from the rest of time — time that had something enormous looming behind it."

Likewise, the evangelist Larry Sparks calls Christmas an "unusual, otherworldly season" that radiates power because of the "unusual agreement" between people of faith at this time of year. As evidence, he points to the perplexity of secular radio stations playing what is essentially "praise music" in December, in addition to secular carols like the one from Mame.

That song advocates holly, fruitcake and candles in the window for what ails us. It's a start.

But, to paraphrase Scrooge's nephew in "A Christmas Carol," Christmas can do us good and will do us good if we focus on the rituals and traditions that meet our deepest needs. And the season is rich with them — not only for Christians celebrating Jesus' birth, but for families who celebrate Hanukkah (this year, Dec. 24-Jan. 1), Kwanzaa (Dec. 26-Jan. 1) and even the winter solstice (Dec. 21).

We need a little giving

On the classic Holmes and Rahe scale that ranks the stress of life events, "the approach of Christmas" doesn't trouble us nearly as much as divorce or a job loss, but it ranks ahead of traffic tickets. This is why, when studying the impact of Christmas on psychological well-being, German researcher Michael Mutz spoke of Christmas being a "critical life event."

But in his research, Mutz found that "life satisfaction" among non-believers declined markedly in December, while religious people suffered no loss of contentment. "It can be assumed that these individuals are less prone to get absorbed by the consumerism that precedes the holidays," he wrote.

Bill McKibben, leader of the environmental advocacy group 350.org, was trying to improve his own experience of Christmas when he reduced it to a "hundred dollar holiday" nearly 20 years ago. A Methodist who lives in Vermont, McKibben wrote a book about the experience and how it made Christmas more joyful.

But while McKibben drastically cut back on spending, gift-giving is still part of his Christmas. One year, he made cranberry bagels for his friends; another year, spicy chicken sausage; another year, soap. This enables McKibben to tap into the happiness human beings experience when they give to others or volunteer, the so-called "helper's high."

When we give, we're rewarded, not only by the gratitude of the recipients, but by the feel-good hormones that flood our physical bodies. One study at Harvard University showed people who spent $100 on another person were happier than people who spent the money on themselves. Sociologists at Notre Dame found that the more people give, the more likely they are to be healthy. They also had lower rates of depression.

We need a little family

Despite the travel, the occasional argument and sibling rivalry, Christmas offers families a reliable check-in time every year, a reason to gather and to reap the benefits of being part of a tribe. According to one 2015 survey, 84 percent of Americans planned to spend Christmas with family members, and more than half of those travelers will go more than 250 miles to be with them. And it's not just because it makes their mothers happy.

Having a strong social network that lasts a long time is an important component of mental health, and for most people, that network is their family, since the average American worker stays in a job for less than 5 years.

People with strong social ties have better blood pressure, live longer, and are less likely to catch a cold, among other health benefits. And if they have siblings, all the better: A good relationship with them, nurtured over time spent together during the holidays, improves mental and physical health, as well as life satisfaction, according to an NPR report.

“The cool thing about Christmas is it’s fixed on the calendar, you can’t postpone it,” said Fred Bryant, a psychology professor at Loyola University in Chicago. “We set aside time from our normal, everyday life to spend with our family and experience a very different way of living. It feeds our souls much more than going to work. And it really strengthens our bonds with our loved ones."

We need a little reverence

Although fewer Americans belong to a church than in decades past, more than 60 percent of us go a Christmas service, which adds meaning to the holiday observance. For some people, worship at Christmas may be their only brush with the sacred in the year, said Hill, a father of two and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.

He defines sacred time as when timeless things — "the sacred, the holy, sacred stories, myths" — intersect with the ordinary world, "when the experience of participating in a larger and mysterious reality can actually be felt and experienced by ordinary, non-mystically inclined people."

"Experiencing sacred time is very good for people. It’s a basic human need, like nutrition or sex or companionship," he said. "People in the contemporary Western world are starved for this, and when there isn’t a social structure that provides it, they’ll create it for themselves. That’s why people so stubbornly refuse to let go of Christmas."

We need a little storytelling

Christmas is full of stories: from those told by Matthew and Luke in the New Testament about a newborn wrapped in swaddling clothes, to those written by Clement Clarke Moore, O. Henry and Theodor Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss.

Christmas also offers families the time and setting to share their own stories, and this is not just for entertainment. The amount of information children absorb about their ancestors appears to correlate to how well they fare throughout their own lives.

Two professors at Emory University in Atlanta devised a scale that tested children on how well they know their family stories, such as how their parents met and where their grandparents grew up. They found that the children who knew the most about their family history were the most resilient and emotionally healthy because they had developed what the researchers called an "intergenerational self."

"They know they belong to something bigger than themselves," Bruce Feiler, author of "Secrets of Happy Families," wrote for The New York Times.

Other research suggests that telling stories, and listening to them, can improve blood pressure as well as medicine.

We need a little music

Like no other holiday, Christmas has a soundtrack — hundreds of beloved songs, sacred and secular, that emerge in some radio markets as early as October. At no other time is it socially acceptable to gather on a neighbor's front porch and belt out a song, but the centuries-old tradition of caroling persists and is as good for our health as sing-along "Messiah" presentations and Christmas concerts at schools.

Listening to music is so beneficial to physical health and well-being that some hospitals are incorporating music programs to soothe visitors and help patients recover.

We need a little tradition

For many families, Christmas is steeped in tradition — whether it's a special meal when decorating the tree or reading the story of the Nativity on Christmas Eve. Traditions act as an adhesive that bonds a family together; they are also an important part of helping children grow up feeling safe and loved.

According to Mex Cox, author of "The New Book of Family Traditions," rituals impart identity, teach values, create happy memories, remind us of departed family members and help us deal with change and transition.

Children are more likely to have warm memories of traditions than of gifts, Cox says. One of her own family rituals is to sit in the dark on the winter solstice and talk about the importance of light and darkness and then go outside with candles.

McKibben also has a tradition that involves darkness: "We live in a place with a dark sky, and on Christmas Eve, usually on the way home from midnight services, we like to stand in that darkness and look up at the stars, perhaps imagining we're the shepherds there on the hillside."

Rituals also help us remember and honor family members who have died — by continuing their traditions, and remembering their roles in Christmases past.

“Remembered Christmases can really warm our hearts; that’s one of the beautiful things about Christmas, that it connects us with our past,” Bryant, of Loyola University, said.

We need a little hope

High levels of hope are associated with emotional well-being, recovery from illness and even better academic and athletic performance, according to an Australian study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology.

Christmas delivers hope in the form of a baby, and it reminds us not only of that baby's potential, but our own, said the Rev. Susan Sparks, pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City.

"For 364 days of the year, we are bombarded by news of the inhumanity of the world: the violence, racism, hatred and callous disregard. On this one day, we are reminded that in addition to the inhumanity, we as a people carry a spark of hope and joy," she said.

"These are gifts bestowed at birth, but often forgotten as life attempts to beat them out of us. Like the balsam tree needles we find six months later behind the couch, Christmas drops a hint of hope on our hearts — a hint that is hard to brush away."

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