– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

What Scrooge might have said but which Dickens wrote elsewhere (A Tale of Two Cities) seems to apply to the Christmas season for many of us: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us”.

The Christmas season is trans-sensory. The music, lights, aromas, tastes and new winter’s chill encourage heart-glow. Messages bloom about togetherness. The scent of love and goodwill mingles with mistletoe. People come together to celebrate their knowing of one another and the bounty of family and friendship.

Our culture has taught us since birth a felt sense of what is important for Christmas and the Holiday Season. But on the other hand, we have to be careful that what we actually do and get involved in and realize during this time of year is not unhealthy.

For many people the danger of hope is felt most acutely at this time of year. It’s a problem for people who feel separate, injured and remote from the happiness that others and the season itself prescribes.

A recent study found that non-celebrants (e.g., Sikhs, Buddhists) felt some decrease in well-being in the presence of Christmas decorations. A follow-up study found that reduced feelings of inclusion explained the change in well-being. Dominant cultural symbols in a culturally diverse society, even those that carol good-will toward everyone, may unintentionally serve to alienate and depress.

And from the ‘No surprises here file’ come the findings from a paper in which children’s letters to Santa were analyzed. They report that the majority of letters pleaded wants and desires, with a minimum of needs and hopes and dreams conveyed. The researchers concluded that “this implies that for children Christmas seems to be a rather unspiritual festival concerning having things rather than dreams coming true”. The spirit of post-modern consumption conditions the cradle-to-grave splurging that advertizers are shooting for, embodied in the U.S. Black Friday – but more than the Friday seems to be so blackened.

People spend money like there’s no tomorrow. The problem is that there is a tomorrow, Virginia, and it brings bills of Christmas past. Is there freedom and choice here? To spend more than we have or more than we can afford creates a stress that we all know too well. Being realistic is always a gift to our health, and particularly so with our finances at this time of year. If your children’s wish lists are beyond what is appropriate financially or otherwise, an opportunity presents itself to talk with them about money and the greater meanings in life.

Jolly Old Saint Cynic-less may not see the sad truths and cultural dramas that play out at this time of year. But the seasonal spirit and the hope it promotes undoubtedly nudge a prevailing positive shift. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find any recent research showing the healthfulness of Christmas but one. A large British study reported that people suffering family and partner relationship problems and social isolation commit deliberate self-harm less during the week of Christmas. But people who episodically used alcohol spiked a 250% increase in self-harm on New Year’s Day.

The heartfelt gift of the seasonal values of goodwill, love, compassion and generosity is the wisdom and light that can’t be bought. If only those values were avidly promoted year-round; a New Year’s resolution, anyone?