When I was growing up, “Merry Christmas” (or “Wesolych Swiat Bozego Narodzenia” in Polish, where I am from), was the traditional way of sharing festive wishes, in the unity of a joint celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth (Poland is a catholic country).
As a grown-up, and a scientist at that, I more often find myself wishing others “Happy holidays” and I join others in the tradition to celebrate…hmm, celebrate what?
I am a mental health scientist, and, in this blog, I will talk about the psychology of rituals and traditions in the context of the Christmas/winter holidays.
History of Christmas celebrations
Christmas falls on the winter solstice (well, near it)— the shortest day and the longest night of the year which falls on the night of 21st -22nd December in the Northern Hemisphere. The tradition of celebrating winter solstice falls long before (and beyond) Christianity, and it was brought about to celebrate the “re-birth of the sun” in anticipation of the days getting longer.
Ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia — a pagan celebration of Saturn, the God of farming and time. The rituals involved various festivities including wreaths, gift exchanging, candles and time spent together with others eating, drinking, and generally enjoying the time off work. Ancient Romans believed that the winter solstice was on the 25th of December. The date was then adopted by Christians who believed that the Annunciation of Jesus Christ’s birth was on the 25th of March which meant that he would have been born on the 25th of December.
Ancient Norse celebrated Yule which, amongst family gatherings, cooking, and baking, involved a ritual of burning logs which symbolised life in the darkest days, and welcoming the sun returning in the morning — the end and the beginning.
In the Southern hemisphere, where the winter solstice celebration falls in June, ancient Incas celebrated Inti Raymi — the Sun festival in the worship of the God of Sun. The rituals included sacrificing animals which was believed to bring good harvest, dancing, and feasts. Inti Raymi is still celebrated in Peru where people get together, share food, wear colourful clothes and participate in cultural events.
The need for social connection
We are social beings, and we need human interaction to develop and thrive. And this process starts from the day we are born.
Developmental psychologists and psychiatrists including Melanie Klein and John Bowlby talked about the importance of interactions between a baby and its caregiver in the first years of life, to foster the baby’s development. The need to bond with others continues throughout life and helps us live more satisfactorily.
For example, social belongingness theory suggests that the inner motivation to bond with others is evolutionary and promotes well-being and psychological adjustment. Perhaps, the most commonly known theory of human motivation is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory which includes belonging and love as part of basic human needs which ought to be met before we can “grow”, or in other words self-actualize, as a person.
As much as our developmental needs can be met by our caregivers when we are infants, as we grow older, we venture out to connect with others to develop, and one way of doing it is by being part of a group.
Rituals help us belong, thrive and feel comfortable
As Hobson described in his article on the psychology of rituals, engaging in traditions and rituals as part of a larger group creates a feeling of connection with others, develops trust and loyalty, and enhances cooperation and a sense of social support. For example, scientists have shown that collective singing and dancing increase cooperative behaviours in particular when the group members work together to synchronise their performance.
In 1915, a sociologist, Emile Durkheim proposed a term of collective effervescence, whereby he observed that people who gathered together to engage in collective rituals, such as Christmas celebrations, experienced collective emotional excitement and joy. It allowed them to feel part of the community.
Being part of the community also means adhering to certain cultural and social norms expressed and respected amongst the community members, and we learn these through observing and participating in their rituals and traditions. Through this kind of social learning, we strengthen our connection with the social group we are part of, contributing to developing social identity. Research has found that identifying with a social group can improve our well-being, boost our self-esteem, and even make us live longer.
We also form a habit, and habits make us feel comfortable. As early as in 1960s, psychologists found that being simply exposed to something repeatedly made people like it more. Christmas is all about familiarity and habits. The marketing specialists know all too well how to entice our senses, every December, with familiar music, food, drinks, and smells.
Rituals as coping mechanisms
Rituals and traditions can be also helpful tools in dealing with trauma. Indeed, perceived social support and group cohesion help to cope with life adversities and traumatic events. For example, one study has shown that participating in peace demonstrations following the train bombing in Madrid in 2004 increased perceived social support, made people feel more positive, and helped them cope with the trauma better.
Ceremonies and rituals have been also used as part of the therapeutic process for post-traumatic stress disorder, which is an anxiety condition that can develop due to being exposed to extremely frightening events such as fighting in a war. Ceremonies in the context of therapy aim to help individuals experience and share their emotions, anxieties, and fears in the community. The purpose of this is to help the person to rely on social support as opposed to cope with the distress on their own, thus strengthening the social bonds. Ceremonies can have different themes which aim at processing emotions associated with this specific theme such as expressing forgiveness or celebrating the return from the war.
Bringing it back Christmas/winter holidays, I celebrate the return of the longer days, and whatever you choose to celebrate is just fine because any reason — religious, pagan, spiritual or therapeutic — underneath, it serves a universal human need that we all have, social belonging.
And whether it is from an evolutionary, developmental, or social psychology perspective, we find reasons to keep traditions and rituals alive.