Op-Ed: Christmas traditions are important for your health, happiness, and community

by Jacob Fuller

Lauren C. Moye, FISM News


Studies show that traditions — whether they are family rituals, cultural, or connected to a holiday — can lower stress, create a sense of belonging, improve health, and connect generations.

With that in mind, the benefits of strong Christmas traditions should not be overlooked.

In fact, research fellows from Copenhagen once mapped brain activity to identify the “Christmas spirit” network. Their research found that people who participate in Christmas traditions see higher brain activity when shown holiday pictures compared to those people who do not celebrate Christmas.

In other words, the limited study shows that traditions do make a lasting difference in a person’s brain.

While that study might be largely tongue-in-cheek in line with a festive mood, traditions are indeed the building block of both families and cultures. Holiday traditions, in particular, give shape to our year by acting as markers of time and infusing the season with meaning that might otherwise be missing.

So what does the research say about the benefits of traditions?

Adults who have read a lot of parenting books will understand the importance of a good routine to provide stability and dependability in a child’s life. It turns out that traditions act that way for us, too.

While the holidays can increase stress for 38% of people, the repetitive activities of traditions can also become a stress reliever as well. That’s because traditions are familiar and predictable. One knows exactly how to act and what to do when following a tradition, which means the stress hormone cortisol can actually decrease during those times.

Lower cortisol means fewer health problems. People who experience long-term high stress in their bodies can develop chronic diseases, experience sleep problems, or have an impaired immune system.

Meanwhile, traditions create a sense of belonging. Strong families are the ones that have traditions that bring them together. While that can be a designated board game night or recurring family dinner, holiday traditions can be particularly meaningful for how they connect the generations.

Most Americans (52%) recreate their own childhood traditions, most commonly seen in annual tree decorating or gift exchanges, which builds interconnectivity among families. Of course, large family parties and gift exchanges among extended family are also a hallmark of the holiday season.

Christmas traditions can range in complexity. It can be as simple as opening one present on Christmas Eve to complex game competitions across multiple days to declare the annual Reindeer Games champion.

Other popular traditions include decorating cookies, hosting a mischievous elf for the season, caroling, drinking hot chocolate or eggnog, playing Secret Santa, looking at Christmas light displays, or building gingerbread houses. But the traditions are not what’s special; it’s the people that join in that make them so meaningful.

A University of Chicago Press study found that families who spend Christmas together have more enjoyment during the holiday. However, the same study found that families who added a ritual to that visit had an even greater amount of joy.

As traditions move beyond the family unit, they become important parts of culture that increase belonging and build connections. For example, a neighborhood that exchanges Christmas trinkets and goodies will build rapport with one another that lasts throughout the year. A city that rallies around an annual Christmas tree lighting or parade will build the community as they share collective memories.

Finally, traditions are essential to telling stories. They signal what is collectively valued by a group.

So go watch your traditional Christmas day movie, enjoy singing Christmas hymns beside the fireplace, or go find one random act of kindness to do. You’re doing important work.

Just make sure you include reading the nativity story in your list of traditions, too!

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