Many people love holiday time, but there are also many people hate them. If you're in the latter group, you may be tempted to spend the day holed up at home, bingeing Netflix or playing video games. You may want to treat December 25, (or whatever winter holiday is your family tradition) like just another ho-hum day on the calendar.
Don't give in to that temptation. Anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas of the Unversity of Connecticut just explained in a Big Think post exactly why holiday traditions are important for all people. You may hate the holidays because of difficult childhood memories, because you're estranged from your family, because you've recently lost a loved one or ended a relationship, or because the people you'd like to celebrate with are very far away. But whoever you are and whatever your mood, you should still celebrate the season in some way. Here's why you should, and how to do it.
1. You need a ritual.
We all do. It's hard-wired into human nature and literally goes back to our cave-dwelling ancestors. If you have a ritual that you enjoy, do it, whatever it is. If you had a ritual that you skipped last year because of Covid, revive it or start a new one now, taking into account what's safe in your community given the prevalence of the Omicron variant.
Why are rituals so important? "From reciting blessings to raising a glass to make a toast, holiday traditions are replete with rituals," Xygalatas writes. "Laboratory experiments and field studies show that the structured and repetitive actions involved in such rituals can act as a buffer against anxiety by making our world a more predictable place." In 2021, anything that reduces your anxiety and makes the world feel more predictable is likely to be a good thing.
2. You need connection to other people.
According to Xygalatas, research shows that holiday rituals strengthen family bonds. It's easy to see why--many of us have some family members that we only see once a year during family gatherings, unless there happens to be a wedding or funeral that year.
Even if that doesn't describe you and even if you have no family, or no contact with your family at all, you still need community and connection to other humans. I mean "need" in the most literal sense because research has shown that isolation will actually shorten your life. To live a happy, healthy, long life, you need to spend lots of time with other people.
If you have children, spending time with other family members or among members of your community is highly important for children, and their association with their peers, Xygalatas says. You might feel like spending the holidays alone with your kids but again, don't give in to that temptation.
3. You need to give and receive gifts.
I know, I know. Is there anything so pointless as the endless exchanges of gift cards, useless doodads, and clothing items that the recipient will never wear? It's no wonder many people want to skip this tradition, especially considering the effect that waste has on our environment and clutter has on our own well-being.
Not so fast, Xygalatas says. "Anthropologists have noted that among many societies ritualized gift-giving plays a crucial role in maintaining social ties by creating networks of reciprocal relationships."
How do you create those valuable networks without adding to unnecessary over-consumption or clutter? Xygalatas is a believer in people telling their loved ones what gifts they would like. "The brilliance of this system lies precisely in the fact that most people end up getting what they would buy anyway--the money gets recycled but everyone still enjoys the satisfaction of giving and receiving gifts," he writes.
That approach can work well, and there are a few others. If everyone has children, the adults can agree to give gifts to each other's children but not each other. There's also the secret Santa system for both families and workplaces--everyone in the secret Santa group becomes part of the network and it's often possible to give a single recipient a better, costlier present than you can if you're giving gifts to a whole group.
Another tactic, which my husband and I often use is to give gift cards. This year, to make the gift cards feel less impersonal, we boxed them up with a variety of regional treats and sent them off in big packages to our family members far away.
4. You need to remember the good times.
This may be the most important benefit of creating rituals and celebrations at holiday time. Xygalatas cites research that shows that we tend to remember the best moments and the last moments of any event, such as a holiday gathering. This means it's worth the effort to find or create a holiday celebration that has as many fun moments for you as it can. Do it right, and you may wind up with happy holiday memories for the whole year to come.