The importance of Christmas for us all by Tim Boatswain 18 Dec 2020
The importance of Christmas for us all by Tim Boatswain
Every culture that anthropologists have ever studied has rituals, which at a basic level are just ‘ceremonies or actions performed in a customary manner’. As you might expect there have been plenty of arguments about the part they play both for society and in the life of the individual. However, there is a universal, understanding that rituals are connected to control and limiting the arbitrary nature of the future, both in terms of prediction and influence.
Rituals, therefore, serve important functions by providing tested and prescribed answers to human psychological issues, like anxiety and uncertainty, as well as social problems of cohesion and co-operation. Often associated with religion, rituals can provide a link to the metaphysical as well as the everyday necessity of engagement with the meaning of life.
I have been thinking about the importance of the rituals of Christmas. Primarily a religious festival it also has significant social and cultural functions, which go beyond Christian belief. The historical evidence suggests that Christianity in the late 4th century CE ‘borrowed’ the Roman festival of the winter solstice. This is the time of year when the sun is at it lowest for the northern hemisphere and for our ancestors it was a time of great anxiety: would the sun be ‘reborn’, would spring return, would famine be avoided, would life go on as before?
This point in winter can be a time of low morale for many of us: we northerners are all suffering from the lack of sunlight and, as we now know, vitamin D. The nights are long and the weather is generally miserable and we need what the French sociologist, Durkheim, described as ‘collective effervescence’ to raise our spirits. The rituals of Christmas bring families together and society shares a festive experience that makes us feel better individually while belonging to a greater whole. It is no accident that Christmas reinforces positive feelings of goodwill and creates acts of generosity and empathy. It also provides a terminus: the year comes to an end and we can look forward to a new year- an end and a new beginning.
The importance of the Christmas festivities this year should not be underestimated both for people of faith and those who have none. The misery and uncertainty associated with the Covid-19 pandemic have battered and depressed society. Rather, however, than downplaying Christmas, because of the restrictions, we need to embrace it more than ever, within the legal limits, as celebrations are important for our mental health because they provide structure and hope. You might fairly say, ‘what is there to celebrate this year?’ And it is true what with the losses that many have suffered, and the fact that many of the usual social rituals associated with Christmas, from parties, carol singing to religious services are being curtailed by Coronavirus, it may seem that festivities this year can only be a pale shadow of former times. However, life must go on and there is a sense among people that we need to mark this festival more than ever. This does seem to be happening whether consciously or unconsciously: Christmas decorations have gone up much earlier this year (I have never seen such a plethora of beautiful Christmas wreaths on doors).
We will all have childhood recollections associated with Christmas and New Year rituals and there is a lot of evidence that demonstrates these evoke positive feelings. We need those memories from the past but it is also important we look forward to a better future. It may not be our normal Christmas this year but don’t let that stop us celebrating with many of our usual rituals at home as they will make us all feel better. As I have that extra glass of fizz on Christmas Day it may not be good for my figure but I can tell myself it is great for my mental health!