Christmas is an emotional time of year. Bringing family together to celebrate and perform countless traditional family rituals is bound to become associated with a host of emotions, both positive and negative. During an “orphans’ Christmas party” held at a friend’s house for those with no family in Taipei, we played a game that involved sharing best and worst Christmas stories. It was so interesting to see that people from all over the world have such strong emotional memories surrounding Christmas.
(Over) Analyzing Christmas
The Christmas season is full of stimuli (decorations, foods, music, smells) that have been consistently paired with a lifetime of experiences which can therefore trigger intense emotions (had to slip some ABA terms into the post). Spending a Christmas away from family and friends is an interesting psychological experiment because it provides an environment in which I am exposed to the same stimuli (there are Christmas decorations and music, although not as many), but without the events and activities that I usually experience with Christmas. Imagine I am one of Pavlov’s dogs hearing the bell chime, but not receiving the usual treat. It is easy to take emotions associated with symbols (in this case Christmas music, decorations, and food) for granted because usually our emotions are also party in preparation for an upcoming event. It is only when we are presented with the antecedent stimuli (Christmas stuff) without the consequential events (family gatherings, meals, gift giving) that we can separate the emotional associations one has with the holidays from the anticipation of specific future events.( I promise, if you have made it this far, no more behavioral terminology.)
I’m happy to report that the emotions that were brought forth by Christmas were all positive. This tells me that Christmas for me has been a genuinely enjoyable season in the past, which is no surprise to me because my family has always worked incredibly hard to ensure that everyone is happy. Despite the sometimes stressful nature of family gatherings, we enjoyed each other’s company and the joy always outweighed any strife. I know that having a positive relationship with Christmas is not true for everyone – Christmas can be an incredibly stressful time of year that is associated with anger and disappointment. Crime rates and domestic violence skyrocket during Christmas, probably the result of the added stress of purchasing gifts and dealing with extended family.
A Mindful Christmas
For several years I have been reflecting on what Christmas really means to me and this year’s “experiment” of a Christmas in a foreign land was the perfect opportunity to separate the valuable aspects of the holiday from the junk. Abel’s arrival also gives Jessica and me the opportunity to establish our own family traditions that reflect our unique values rather than mindlessly replicating mainstream rituals associated with Christmas.
What I like about Christmas: delicious food, family gatherings, time off work and out of regular routines, communicating with distant friends and family via phone calls and cards, giving and receiving thoughtful gifts that have meaning to the recipient and gift-giver.
What I want to avoid during Christmas: rushing around to make “appearances” at Christmas gatherings, spending more than I can afford for gifts, giving or receiving gifts that are based on how much they cost rather than their meaning, eating junk food for a week before and after Christmas.
Jessica and I missed our families a great deal this year, but we managed to have a very nice Christmas with Abel and our new friends. We exchanged simple gifts, ate loads of delicious and nourishing food, and had lots of time to relax and enjoy conversation. While this year was not an ideal Christmas due to our distance from family, it was beneficial in many ways. I have learned a lot about my emotional attachment to Christmas due to past experience and how I want Christmas to be celebrated by our family in the future. I am looking forward to many years of joyful Christmas celebrations with family.in the future.