Can we have a Happy Christmas?

Martin Graff takes a 'bah humbug' look at some of the relevant research. Add your own views in the comments!

Why do people get excited at Christmas when much research tells us that Christmas seems to bring out the worst in us?

For instance, despite the fact that our loved ones might try hard to select considerate Christmas gifts for us, we often receive gifts we really do not want. So how do we react on receiving such undesirable gifts? In one study, participants were made to believe that a new opposite-sex romantic partner had selected an undesirable gift for them. The results revealed that males as opposed to females reported less similarity to their new romantic partner after receiving an undesirable gift, suggesting that males are more likely to react unfavourably to receiving gifts they do not want (Dunn et al., 2008).

As if such ingratitude is not bad enough, shopping for these gifts at Christmas can sometimes be stressful, especially if we are battling through busy crowds. Therefore, is it possible that store owners attempt to manipulate the atmosphere in order to make us feel festive and keep shopping for longer? Research has found that shoppers’ evaluations of stores tend to be highest at the time of year when Christmas music is being played, with this effect enhanced when the music played is paired with Christmas scent (Spangenberg et al., 2005), implying that our Christmas shopping endeavours are motivated more by artificial means than a willingness to please others.

As well as tradition, is there another reason we send cards at Christmas? Johnson (1971) revealed that most of us not only engage in the reciprocal sending and receiving of cards between friends and family, but we do this in an ‘upwardly mobile’ way meaning that we tend to send more cards to the people we are trying to impress. A rather more shocking finding by Kunz (2000) has suggested that people were willing to exchange Christmas cards even with those they hardly knew.

Apart from sending cards to improve our social standing and increase the number of friends we have, can Christmas be used in other ways to achieve these things?
One piece of research has suggested that people who have few friends can use exterior Christmas decorations as a signal to communicate accessibility and friendliness to their neighbours (Werner et al., 1989). This study also revealed that exterior decorations were a major cue to participant judges that householders were friendly, and even in houses that were judged to have an appearance of what they termed ‘low sociability’, exterior decorations had the effect of making these houses and the occupants appear more neighbourly.

Finally, in most Western cultures young children believe in fantasy figures such as the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. Our knowledge of children’s cognitive development would lead us to predict that the duration and strength of this belief should disappear at around the ages of five to six, when most children can distinguish pretend actions from real ones. However, one study has shown that children’s belief in Santa does not decline until around age seven with about one third of nine-year-olds still believing in Santa (Tullos & Woolley, 2009).

Therefore, in view of the fact that half of us are ungrateful at receiving unwanted gifts, and those who buy them have to be artificially motivated to do so, and the fact that we use Christmas cards and decorations to make friends and really only pretend that Santa exists, can we actually have a happy Christmas?
Martin Graff
University of South Wales

Dunn, E.W., Huntsinger, J., Lun, J. & Sinclair, S. (2008). The gift of similarity: How good and bad gifts influence relationships. Social Cognition, 26(4), 469–481.
Johnson, S.K. (1971). Sociology of Christmas cards. Transaction, 8(3), 27–29.
Kunz, J. (2000). Social class difference in response to Christmas cards. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 90, 573–576.
Spangenberg, E.R., Grohmann, B. & Sprott, D.E. (2005). It’s beginning to smell (and sound) a lot like Christmas: The interactive effects of ambient scent and music in a retail setting. Journal of Business Research, 58(11), 1583–1589.
Tullos, A. & Woolley, J.D. (2009). The development of children’s ability to use evidence to infer reality status. Child Development, 80(1), 101–104.
Werner, C.M., Peterson-Lewis, S. & Brown, B.B. (1989). Inferences about homeowners’ sociability: Impact of Christmas decorations and other cues. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 9(4), 279–296.

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