When I was an ankle-biter in a different land at different times, an old uncle told me to place my shoes in the chimney on Christmas Eve if I wanted a gift from Santa Claus. I’m still angry with the white-bearded, big-bellied man for not bringing me a gift. That was my first encounter with Christmas in a non-Christian family. You may not be a Christian but you may find it hard to get away from Christmas rituals at this time of the year.

Christmas rituals, religious or otherwise, can be exciting for children, but they also give them a sense of security, stability and affection. And they also improve psychological health and wellbeing of adults. Christmas cards, carols and crackers might seem like lively traditions; however, a review of 50 years of research on rituals suggests that they involve symbolic communication and convey “this is what we are” as a group.

The review by Barbara H. Fiese and her colleagues at Syracuse University suggests that family rituals provide continuity in meaning across generations. “Also, there is often an emotional imprint where once the act is completed, the individual may replay it in memory to recapture some of the positive experience,” she says.

While knocking on wood might not ward off evil spirits, but many everyday rituals are surprisingly effective. We can trace the reason for real benefits to rituals in our evolutionary history. Before the development of languages, humans related to each other via “symbols”. US anthropologist Terrence W. Deacon argues in his book, The Symbolic Species, that these symbols would have been made up of extended, effortful and complex sequences of behaviours performed in groups – in other words, rituals. Rituals, he says, connected human groups and enables them to ensure that they had a shared understanding of how the group worked.

Numerous studies show that family rituals – of any shape or form –  really help people to get closer to one another. Kathleen Vohs, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, who is involved in a large-scale online study of rituals, says that rituals help people to share an experience without feeling awkward or forced. What can be a better-shared experience than sharing a meal with others? Well, we don’t need psychologists to tell us that the family that eats dinner together stays together.

On the matter of warm feelings of giving and being given to Christmas gifts, UK philosopher Robert Rowland Smith weighs in: “To be rewarded with a gift is to be subtly told that someone loves you, and we love nothing better than to be loved.”

For your wellbeing, unpack your gifts and say thank you to the givers, clink your glasses and share plum pudding (which might not contain any plums) with your family and friends. Merry Christmas!

© Surendra Verma 2018

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