That Christmas Spirit

In much of the Northern Hemisphere, the end of the year is the period following the harvest. Our ancestors would finally have time to visit with others and open their homes to guests. As it is also the darkest time of the year, we’re psychologically looking to others for warmth and comfort. Christmas happens bang in the middle of it.

One of the forms that the Christmas spirit takes is the putting up of Christmas decorations. The lights in our homes and outside drive away the imagery and meaning associated with the colder, longer days that mark the end of the growing season. Both figuratively and literally, on the darkest of days, people wish for light.

It is truly hard to believe that the second Christmas in the time of COVID-19 is only hours away. This past year has been full of ups and downs, and it is disappointing to think that many people have fallen ill or have lost dear ones to the virus.

Unfortunately, this pandemic is far from over and that definitely puts a damper on the Christmas season. However, that does not mean we cannot make the most of it.

It is truly hard to believe that the second Christmas in the time of COVID-19 is only hours away.

If cultural history is any guide, no holiday is more prepared to meet our muddle of frustration and worry at the arrival of a new variant of the virus. Christmas, a potent blend of secular and religious traditions, has long been a tangle of contradictions and a repository for some of our deepest cultural concerns.

The message of the Christmas spirit is derived from a few general experiences. One of them is an actual spectre. 

In the seasonal classic A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is confronted by several apparitions who force him to confront his miserly ways and open his heart. If there is anyone who does not embody the alleged Christmas spirit, it is truly Scrooge.

But even Scrooge has the means to do good, and the good he does, brings him joy as well: a tidy fable of philanthropy.  If A Christmas Carol centred on philanthropy, the tales that came after put sacrifice at the centre of Christmas, especially for those with little to give. 

In Little Women, written by Louisa May Alcott in the late 1860s, the March family gives up its Christmas breakfast to feed a much poorer family that lives nearby.  When they arrive home, they find an even bigger feast awaiting them, provided by a wealthy neighbour.

While the Marches do not go without, the family in O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, a Christmas short story from 1905, has no neighbour philanthropist on hand. So, the couple sell the things that matter most to them — the wife her hair, the husband his watch — to give a gift that will be treasured by the other: a now-useless set of combs and a watch chain, testaments to their sacrifice and love.

Save for the occasional Scrooge, most of us look forward to the holiday season.  But are we actually happier during the holidays or are we just dazzled by the décor? Some researchers and psychologists think there is proof that holiday cheer is real. 

Are we actually happier during the holidays or are we just dazzled by the décor?

In an experiment, Denmark researcher Brad Haddock showed two groups of people — those who celebrate Christmas and those who don’t — images of holiday themes as they underwent a brain scan. The front of the brain lit up for those who celebrated Christmas as the holiday images flashed before their eyes, showing that there is a “holiday spirit network” in the brain.

“Happiness is something that is definitely difficult to measure quantitatively,” says Haddock. “[But] the study does fit with the idea that thinking about something can elicit an associated response, because it was a response to images of Christmas, not really Christmas, that we used as a stimulus.”

Some stores try to tap into this innate happiness by playing Christmas music earlier and earlier in the year. The strategy is that if you hear the music while shopping, it will trigger positive emotions, prompting you to buy more. Likewise, there is proof that people who put up Christmas decorations early are happier than those who don’t. 

“In a world full of stress and anxiety people like to associate to things that make them happy, and Christmas decorations evoke those strong feelings of childhood,” according to psychoanalyst Steve McKeown.  

Apparently, holiday decorating brings up feelings of nostalgia, whether it be reliving childhood magic or compensating for past neglect.

Another psychologist, Canadian Patrick Keelan, says that the reason for cheerfulness around the holidays goes beyond just decorations and imagery. In fact, he said people feel happy because it’s a time that emphasises family bonding. 

“Holidays allow for many people to have more enjoyable social interactions with friends and family, and positive social interaction is a robust predictor of better happiness,” he says. Dr. Keelan goes on to explain that some also feel cheerful around the holidays because it’s a time to celebrate religion and spirituality. 

On the other hand, psychologist Dr. Pamela Rutledge counters that holiday cheer “isn’t a guarantee”. While most look forward to family time and gifts, others who don’t have a close family are often bogged down by what the holidays are “supposed” to look like. 

It’s a theme repeated in the Christmas movie classic It’s a Wonderful Life, whose main character George Bailey believes he’s worth more dead than alive, until an angel shows him how much his life has mattered to the people around him, who ultimately rally to his side to bail him out of financial trouble.

Deprivation has shaped many Christmas tales. In contrast, a worry over commercialism infused How the Grinch Stole Christmas, written by Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel. Dr. Seuss has his eye on the burgeoning consumerism of his time, worried that the crush of toys and post-war prosperity could corrode not just the meaning of Christmas, but a deeper sense of purpose and community in American life. That worry is still very much a feature of life today.

The story has its own Scrooge-like protagonist, one who attempts to upend the joyous holiday by stealing all its trappings, from the gifts to the stockings to the roast beast and all its trimmings — only to find his victims were perfectly happy gathering for a pared-down Christmas. The takeaway here is also a tidy one: “Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

Gifts are a traditional part of Christmas – but why do we give presents at all? Exchanging stuff – as gifts or economic transactions – and reciprocating those exchanges in a socially acceptable way – is a practice found in all human cultures.

Gifts are a traditional part of Christmas – but why do we give presents at all?

French anthropologist Marcel Mauss describes “archaic societies” in Melanesia, Polynesia and the north-west coast Native American peoples who practised ‘potlatch’, a ceremonial gift-giving and feasting ritual characterised by competitive shows of conspicuous giving and consumption.

These, Mauss says, are systems of gift-giving that aren’t just about gifts, but carry legal, economic, spiritual and moral significance that saturates the whole social fabric (he calls them “total prestations”). In these societies, items given as gifts take on the spiritual significance of the giver.

Fundamentally, Mauss says, giving gifts is neither voluntary nor altruistic. There’s an obligation to give, an obligation to receive and an obligation to repay. There are rules that determine how this is done correctly – with whom, when and how are all prescribed. One of those rules is to make it look voluntary and spontaneous, so the gift is “generously offered”. But actually, it’s a “formal pretence and social deception”. We’re all complicit, and pretending is part of the rules. If you don’t give – and receive – correctly, you risk losing honour, moral authority and wealth.

Thoughts like these crop up every year during the annual fund-raising by the Community Chest Fund, Dar tal-Provvidenza and other charities. Unless a new record is broken, people feel disappointed, as if this is a competition where there has to be a victor and a loser.

Ultimately, gift-giving is, as I see it, a means of affirming and strengthening the moral bonds between us. It may be strategic, competitive, and non-voluntary, but still it binds us close and reminds us that we’re not in this game alone. I am sure that neither the President of the Republic, nor Fr Martin Micallef or the Jesuits feel envy because one of them raises less money than the other. Neither do they think that those who give €200,000 are more meritorious than those who sms €5.

After all, the one who brought Christmas to the world, told his disciples, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41-44).

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