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It’s only natural to find Christmas rituals to be irresistible. We do not simply participate and marvel at their splendour, we end up playing an an active role in creating them

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Illustrations by Wenting Li

Dimitris Xygalatas is an anthropologist and cognitive scientist who runs the Experimental Anthropology Lab at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living.

Christmas is a time for family and cheerfulness. A time to look forward to, enjoy and then reminisce about. It’s also a time for rituals – lots of them. From attending midnight mass to playing Secret Santa, no other time of the year is as packed with ceremony.

Why do we find all this fanfare so enticing, and how exactly does it contribute to the magic of Christmas? To understand this, we need to take a look at the psychology of ritual.

Special actions make special times

Unlike ordinary actions, which have clear instrumental goals, ritual actions are arbitrary. Cleaning one’s hands can be achieved by using soap and water, but a purification ceremony may involve sprinkling salt, burning incense, blowing in the wind or some other symbolic deed. As a result, ritual actions stand out, and people intuitively perceive them as special. The mere presence of ritual marks something of value.

The French sociologist Émile Durkheim argued that life in human societies oscillates between two different spheres of activity. He called them the “sacred” and the “profane.”

By profane he meant all the mundane stuff of our daily life. We spend most of our time engaged in earthly pursuits: We strive to make a living, run errands, do the dishes – we get by.

But every now and then, people get together to engage in actions that feel more exciting and meaningful. They involve things such as dancing, chanting, feasting and other emotional celebrations that allow them to set their daily worries aside and be transported, even if temporarily, to a different state. This is the realm of the sacred. It is about all those moments that we consider special. In all cultures, those occasions are marked by rituals.

Not all rituals, however, are created equal. One of the factors behind the allure of Christmas traditions is their ability to stimulate all our senses. They are bursting with lights and colourful decorations, cheerful songs and scented candles, tasty meals and warm beverages. All this glamour activates psychological processes related to how we appraise things and situations. When we attend an event loaded with pageantry, it is as if a little voice inside our head is saying: “Pay attention, because something important and meaningful is going down.”

But Christmas rituals do not simply allow us to marvel at their splendour: They invite us to play an active role in creating it. By decorating the tree, hanging up the stockings, wrapping presents and preparing those special meals, we get a sense of agency as we become actors rather than mere spectators in this theatrical holiday extravaganza. Indeed, anthropological research shows that the more effort people put into their rituals, the more meaningful they feel.

Another key element of Christmas traditions is repetition. Seasonal celebrations divide the year into more manageable chunks, offering something to look forward to and creating feelings of nostalgia. In a world that is constantly changing, stability can be comforting. Besides, ritual actions themselves are highly structured and repetitive – think of hanging the ornaments on the tree or singing the lyrics to a carol. Laboratory and field studies show that these types of repetitive rituals are soothing, because they provide a sense of predictability and control.

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A recipe for community

Special moments are even more meaningful when they are shared. Anthropologists have long noted that collective rituals function to bring people closer together. But how is this achieved?

Starting with the obvious, these traditions bring people closer in a literal sense. More people travel during the holidays than any other part of the year. While we could visit our relatives any time, custom offers the motivation to co-ordinate these visits and reunite as a family. But a different, less visible path to building togetherness relies on a series of psychological effects of ritual.

As social creatures, humans are constantly on the lookout for cues of connection. As a result, even the most superficial similarities are often perceived as meaningful. Have a group of people wear the same colour shirts, and they begin to feel more similar. Many rituals foster this sense of similarity by co-ordinating participants’ appearances. During the Christmas holidays, for example, people may wear the same Santa hats, ugly sweaters or matching pyjamas.

Beyond appearances, rituals also motivate people to co-ordinate their behaviours. Singing carols, dancing and raising our glasses to make a toast require participants to synchronize their actions. Studies show that people who move in tandem experience more rapport. When we act like one, we feel like one.

Unsurprisingly, then, rituals also bring our emotions in alignment. Across various contexts, my colleagues and I have found that when people attend emotional ceremonies, their heart rates become synchronized. The greater this emotional synchrony, the more bonded people feel and the more meaningful their experience. These fuzzy feelings are reinforced by traditions such as kissing under the mistletoe or exchanging presents.

Gift-giving may seem like a pointless recycling of resources. But it is in fact an efficient way to create networks of reciprocal relationships and to elicit feelings of gratitude all around. Besides, gifting simply feels good – and not only for those on the receiving end. In fact, people may feel happier when they spend money on others rather than on themselves.

Sharing food is equally important. Humans eat not only for nourishment but also for community. Gathering around a campfire to partake in a feast would have helped early humans to smooth tensions and create social bonds, much like it does for us today. Sharing a meal is an intimate act, typically reserved for friends and family. Eating together therefore symbolizes unity and creates fondness. As a Spanish expression goes, “a family that eats together stays together.” As it turns out, this folk wisdom is indeed wise: Studies show that those who share food are seen as more friendly and intimate, and eating together makes people more co-operative toward one another.

The spirit of community forged by Christmas rituals extends beyond those who are present. Sending Christmas cards helps people maintain their bonds with kith and kin, even those they might not see all too often. And simple acts such as saying “merry Christmas” to your barista help spread the love even among strangers.

The weight of tradition

Christmas rituals have been enacted throughout the ages, and this gives them gravitas. When you think about it, this may seem bizarre. If someone tried to sell you a 50-year-old bicycle, you would be unimpressed. But unlike material technologies, cultural technologies are time-honoured. Like fine wine, they only improve with age. An ancient ritual is one that has withstood the test of time and has served people well. Continuity is important.

Performing a ritual that has been passed down through generations provides a sense of membership in an unbroken community that transcends place and time. This is why the mere suggestion of altering traditional rituals may cause offence.

In 2020, a group of researchers in the United States examined how people would react if the government decided to make changes to various public holidays, for instance, moving the celebrations by a week. Asked about holidays such as Labour Day or President’s Day, which are not particularly ceremonial, participants appeared nonchalant. But when it came to holiday rituals such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, they expressed anger and found the idea morally appalling.

Ultimately, though, change is inevitable – as well as useful. Holiday rituals are often adapted to suit each family’s own practical circumstances and backgrounds. Perhaps one year you went shopping too late and the supermarket was out of turkeys, so you bought a duck instead, and that became a family tradition from then on. Or maybe you live in a multicultural household and decided to borrow elements from more than one tradition to create your own unique blend. Those adjustments help create a sense of ownership: This is how our family does it.

A cultural success story

If it sounds as if Christmas rituals have been designed to be as psychologically compelling as possible, it is because they have been. Not by any particular designer, but by the forces of cultural selection. As these rituals have been enacted for centuries, their most compelling features have been retained and the less successful ones dropped, while new ones have been added – mostly borrowed from other traditions. The Christmas tree dates back to 16th-century Germany; Christmas cards were born in 1843; and leaving milk and cookies for Santa is an even more recent novelty.

As a result, the Christmas rituals observed today are precisely those customs that were more psychologically appealing and culturally successful – those that were better at providing comfort, creating meaning and forging connection. So, if you find Christmas rituals irresistible, you are, historically speaking, in good company.

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