It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
Christmas is a time for sharing the joy of the festive season with friends and
loved ones. An excessive amount of food is consumed, gifts are exchanged and
fond memories are shared.
What exactly is it about this time of year that makes us feel the festive cheer?
There doesn’t appear to be much research out there looking into the specific
effects of Christmas cheer, but the traditions that we take part in can each have a
Spending time with loved ones
When you spend time with the people you love, it has been found that the
hormone oxytocin is produced, also known as the ‘cuddle hormone’. This has
been associated with the love of a mother and her child, but also with anyone
who brings you comfort and a sense of social wellbeing.
Jokes are shared, no matter how terrible, and comedy can act as a social glue that
allows people to bond. According to scientific research, the thing that makes a
joke so funny is the element of surprise or the ‘kick of discovery’ where a joke
leads us one way, but then surprises us the next. It seems that laughter may be
associated with the psychological process of discovery.
Laughter isn’t just something that we do when we are happy and find something
hilarious, but it is also a behavior that we exhibit in times of tragedy or serious
injury, therefore laughing can be a coping mechanism and a way that we can let
out our emotions. Many a guffaw is expressed over Christmas and it appears that
laughter is a universal language that can bring people together.
Christmas always involves a sense of nostalgia where we reminisce on
Christmases gone by and the memories that resurface as a result.
The limbic system is an area of our brain involved in emotion and long-term
memory, and consists of many different brain areas including the hippocampus
and the amygdala.
The hippocampus is involved in cognition and memory and combines the ‘when’,
‘what’ and ‘where’ of the information that we process. The amygdala is
responsible for episodic autobiographical memory, which basically means the
memories that are related to events that affect us personally. These events are of
a particular emotional significance to an individual, such as the memories that
we create over Christmas and when recalled, can trigger a wave of emotions
related to that memory. Even listening to Christmas music can trigger an
emotional response linked to our memories.
Some memories may not always be pleasant, which is what makes nostalgia such
a complicated emotion. Christmas can be a difficult time where we remember
loved ones who we miss spending Christmas with, but we cherish the memories
we have made.
Christmas cheer isn’t only a build up to the day itself, but the tradition of singing
Auld Lang Syne meaning ‘times long past’ on new year’s eve is all about
remembering old friends- if you’ve ever seen When Harry Met Sally (if you
haven’t, shame on you), you will know just how confusing a song it is!
"Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something.
Anyway, it's about old friends."
The act of exchanging gifts contributes to our feelings of festive cheer. Whilst the
financial stress can sometimes dampen our Christmas spirit, it’s important not to
forget why we buy gifts in the first place: making other people happy makes us
There is a certain feeling of selflessness that comes with buying a gift for
someone, as we see the smile on their face as they realize that we notice the
unique quirks of their personality.
The happiness that a gift can bring may seem materialistic to some, but often
even the small things can be of great value, when given to us by someone who
has put a great amount of thought into the gift.
There is some debate about whether the type of gift influences the perceived
strength of a particular friendship and it has been suggested that giving the gift
of an experience is often more profound than a material gift. The experience
itself creates more memories with that particular person which can be recalled
for years to come. This is not to say that material gifts aren’t great, I for one will
always be ecstatic to receive a new mug or three.
Giving gifts can strengthen friendship bonds and make us appreciate those who
know us the most even more, which is just one of the many ways that Christmas
brings us joy.
Finally, the food we consume over the festive period can add to our merriment.
When we eat, endorphins can be released, which are the body’s natural
painkillers, which can leave us feeling content. The act of eating is reinforcing
behaviour that can make us feel satisfied and sugar can trigger the dopaminergic
reward pathways of the brain, which further reinforces this feeling of satiety. It’s
important to note that overeating and drinking more than we can handle can
have negative effects and leave us feeling as grouchy as the Grinch, but
everything in moderation is the key to having a holly jolly Christmas!
The build up to Christmas and the day itself is an opportunity to make those that
matter to us feel loved, whether it is by exchanging gifts and memories or
catching up over a festive feast. All of the little things that we do during this time
of year mean a lot to the people that we spend it with.
Have a very merry Christmas!