Is the holiday complete without traditional family celebrations and holiday rituals?
This is exactly what a team of Spanish and Chilean researchers attempted to evaluate in a 2011 study. Situating their research into an extensive tradition finding that ritual practices are important for personal happiness and family cohesion, Dr. Paez and his team examined what role holiday-specific traditions had on emotional well-being.
Importantly, past research found mixed results in the role of rituals and positive emotions, but there is a rich theoretical traditional that seeks to explain how rituals cultivate empathy and social cooperation. Anthropologists have seen them as critical in developing group bonds, for instance.
In studying Spanish students during the Christmas season, Dr. Paez and his team sought to test this theory. Not only does Christmas tend to consist of a relatively static set of universally practiced rituals, at least within a given culture, but many of these rituals are also particularly family-centric. This provides an effective case study for the role of ritual on emotions.
Overall, they hypothesized that the participation in family meals and holiday celebrations would generally boost positive affect and reports of life satisfaction. There should also be interpersonal benefits, they reasoned, in increasing attitudes of social support and what they call “collective emotions” or perceived family climate.
The study was primarily conducted by recruiting participants and asking them a series of Likert scale-style questions about positive/negative affect, life satisfaction, perceived social support, and social loneliness. These were applied shortly before Christmas, and then another series that specifically asked about these same measures was fielded post-holidays.
The vast majority of participants took place in ritual meals for Christmas, Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve/Day. They found largely significant results, with negative affect and social loneliness both dropping, while life satisfaction and perceived social support both increased.
They managed to conclude both that participation in holiday rituals tended to lead to greater well-being, and that most people studied did in fact participate in family rituals.
This generally supported theoretical expectations that rituals would result in such a boost in positive mental attitudes, but it may be important to consider exactly what these rituals consist of. As we wrote last week, people tend to celebrate Christmas with a variety of different levels of consumption or spiritual activity.
In that blog, we discussed how holiday traditions that focus on family or religious rituals tend to result in a much happier and low-stress period, while those based in consumption and financial exchange tended to be stressful and anxiety-provoking. Hopefully future research replicates Dr. Paez’s findings in that way!