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The smell of pine trees, the twinkling lights, the gathering of families around a sumptuous dinner—these are just a few indicators that a holiday season is upon us. Holidays are a universal experience, yet the way we celebrate them can vary dramatically from person to person, culture to culture. But why do we engage in these annual traditions, and what do they signify both psychologically and socially?
In this article, we will delve into the various facets of holiday celebrations and examine the importance they hold in our lives.
From a psychological perspective, holidays serve multiple functions in enhancing emotional well-being. Celebrations often entail rituals—repeated, socially stipulated behaviors—which psychologists argue are a form of “temporal landmark.” Such landmarks act as mental accounting periods that allow us to reflect, recalibrate, and actuate our future selves.
Moreover, the concept of “collective effervescence,” initially proposed by sociologist Émile Durkheim, highlights how communal activities like holiday celebrations can produce a sense of emotional unity. This unity not only strengthens social bonds but also contributes to individual emotional stability. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) principles also imply that structured activities during holidays can serve as behavioral activation, potentially alleviating symptoms of depression or anxiety.
Holidays often function as a critical nexus for social interactions. The act of gift-giving, for example, is not merely a material exchange but a complex social and psychological activity. It strengthens social bonds and, in some cases, establishes a social hierarchy or equilibrium.
Holidays also offer a chance for inter-generational bonding. They serve as a platform for the transfer of traditions, values, and family lore from one generation to another. Such practices contribute to the continuation of a shared family identity.
In a diverse society, holidays can act as a window into the rich tapestry of various cultures and ethnicities. The traditions one follows during holidays may depend on various factors including geographic location, religious beliefs, and ethnic background. Whether it’s the Passover Seder, Diwali lights, or the Western concept of Christmas, each tradition carries its own set of rituals, folklore, and meanings.
In the modern world, holiday celebrations are not limited to traditional norms. Many people opt for non-traditional ways of celebration that align with their lifestyle, beliefs, or current life circumstances. For example, “Friendsgiving,” a celebration of Thanksgiving among friends rather than family, is increasingly popular among millennials.
Holidays can be particularly challenging for those who are dealing with loss or grief. The absence of a loved one can make the rituals and gatherings emotionally painful. In such instances, psychological techniques such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can be helpful. ACT promotes the acceptance of difficult emotions while committing to actions that improve life quality.
The way one celebrates a holiday can be deeply personal, influenced by a myriad of factors including psychological makeup, social network, cultural background, and personal beliefs. Yet, regardless of how one chooses to celebrate, it is undeniable that holidays serve a crucial role both as emotional landmarks and as social glue. They offer a momentary pause from the rigors of daily life and allow for a deeper connection with our inner selves and the people around us. Therefore, whether traditional or non-traditional, celebrating holidays enriches our lives in ways that are both psychologically rewarding and socially significant.
So, how do you celebrate holidays? The answer may be more meaningful than you think.
On a more personal note:
Ever since childhood, the holiday season has always been magical for me. From the warm glow of lights adorning the houses in my neighborhood to the joyous sounds of carols filling the air, everything about the holidays used to spell happiness. But that one year, the usual excitement was replaced by a hollow feeling, a gaping void left by the passing of my husband.
I’d catch myself almost mechanically reaching for his favorite brand of eggnog at the grocery store, only to realize he won’t be there to enjoy it. Every tradition we had crafted together over the years suddenly seemed like a reminder of his absence.
My daughter, who was just a toddler at the time, sensed my struggle. “Mom, are we not decorating the tree this year?” she asked, her voice tinged with concern.
It was then that I realized I had a choice. I could either sink deeper into my sorrow or find a way to cherish the holiday spirit anew, for both our sake.
“We’re decorating it, sweetheart, but how about we add a new twist this year?” I suggested.
Her eyes lit up, curious about the proposed change. We decided to replace our regular Christmas ornaments with a series of hand-painted ones, each capturing a fond memory or a dream for the future. And instead of the classic holiday songs that he used to love, we made a new playlist filled with tracks that reflected our current emotional landscape—songs of hope, resilience, and new beginnings.
Perhaps the most touching new ritual was what we did on Christmas Eve. We wrote letters to my husband, expressing everything we felt we couldn’t say out loud. We sealed them in envelopes and placed them in a small, beautifully crafted box that we sat under the tree. “To be opened someday,” we wrote on it.
As we went through these new traditions, I felt the weight of grief lifting, even if just a little. By shifting the way we celebrated, we weren’t erasing or forgetting the past; we were learning to embrace the present and make room for the future. Our new traditions honored both what we had lost and what still remained.
And so, under the soft glow of the Christmas tree lights, my baby and I found a new way to celebrate—our hearts a little lighter, our bonds a little stronger, and our outlook on future holidays a little brighter.