The unexpected reason holidays matter

Yearning for ritual and repetition

Christmas celebrations2

The holidays are coming, as they do every year, and those celebrating are preparing for a series of rituals more or less the same as every other year. But far from being a cause of existential ennui, this repetition is key to what makes the holidays so special.  Humans crave regularity and predictability, and the holidays give us a sense of security that alleviates stress and anxiety, argues Dimitris Xygalatas. 

 

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, at least if we are to believe the famous lyrics. Yet, to an observer unfamiliar with holiday celebrations –perhaps the proverbial anthropologist from Mars– they can seem rather monotonous.

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Year after year, we gather with the same people to enact the same rituals, eat the same food, put up the same decorations, and sing the same songs. Fiddle with the TV remote control and chances are you can catch Home Alone or the Grinch – again. Walk into a shopping mall and you will hear familiar music playlists on a loop as you recognize the smell of pumpkin spice from last year, and the year before.

 

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Rather than being a bug, repetition is a key feature behind the appeal of holiday celebrations.

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All this can make the holiday season feel like Groundhog Day. Doesn’t reliving the same events year in, year out become a nuisance? As it turns out, it doesn’t. Rather than being a bug, repetition is a key feature behind the appeal of holiday celebrations.

 

 

Since ancient times, human cultures around the world have used rituals to mark important seasonal changes. The North American tradition of Thanksgiving was a celebration of the annual bounties of the harvest. In India, the colourful Holi festival announced the arrival of spring. And in many parts of the world, summer and winter solstice rituals often go back thousands of years.

 

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Human beings crave control —over their environment, over their lives, over themselves. This is why unpredictable situations are stressful.

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In pre-industrial societies, where most people depended on the land for their livelihood, those natural cycles of renewal were crucial to their survival. The regularity of the observances provided a sense of stability and control over their unpredictable environment. Today, even as most of us live in very different environments, these celebrations still serve similar functions.

 

Human beings crave control —over their environment, over their lives, over themselves. This is why unpredictable situations are stressful. The regularity of seasonal rites provides an anchor in the storm that is our world. We may not know what lies ahead in our distant future, but we can count on our annual holiday get-together. The reliability of ritual is comforting –so much that changes to it may feel disturbing.

 

As an anthropologist, I have often heard people claim that their rituals have always been the same. In reality, those rituals may change over the generations, but to their practitioners they seem written in stone: not merely unchanged, but in fact unchangeable.

 

In a study conducted in the USA, researchers asked people how they would feel if the government decided to make alterations to some public holiday –for example, moving Thanksgiving celebrations by a week. This has actually happened before: in 1939, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving one week earlier so that consumers would spend more money during the prolonged Christmas shopping period. Although this is as American an idea as it gets, the public was livid. Politicians compared Roosevelt to Hitler, and most state governors refused to enforce the decree, which became pejoratively known as Franksgiving.

 

Almost a century later, most Americans haven’t heard of Franksgiving. But respondents in the survey expressed similar condemnation at the thought of such alterations. They did not merely consider the intervention inconvenient –they found it morally appalling, and expressed anger at the suggestion.

 

The comforting effects of repetition apply not only to the macro but also to the micro level. Rituals, that is, are performed routinely, but they also involve internal repetition. Think of decorating the Christmas tree with numerous ornaments, taking turns to exchange presents with everyone, and listening to carols non-stop. To our brain, this kind of repetition can feel soothing.

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It might seem reasonable that special occasions are marked by recurrent rituals. But in fact it may be the other way around: repetition, routinization, and ritualization make these occasions special.

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In a series of experiments, my colleagues and I found that when people are stressed they spontaneously tend to behave in more ritualized ways. Their movements become more patterned and repetitive, and this can in fact help them alleviate anxiety: when participants made repetitive movements or utterances, their electrodermal activity (a measure of stress) dropped, compared to those who engaged in less patterned behaviours. And this is not just in the lab. We also found similar calming effects in real-life rituals. After performing a repetitive ceremony in a Hindu temple, people had increased heart rate variability, suggesting that they were better able to cope with stress.

 

It might seem reasonable that special occasions are marked by recurrent rituals. But in fact it may be the other way around: repetition, routinization, and ritualization make these occasions special. They create meaningful experiences, validated by the cloak of tradition and the weight of decorum. And as those experiences are shared with other people, they also help strengthen bonds and produce a sense of community.

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Above all, holiday rituals make us feel good. They help us put our everyday worries aside and set aside time to spend with our loved ones. And the repetition helps create feelings of nostalgia that compel us to reminisce and look forward to more of the same. The same delicious food, cheesy songs, and even those presents we will eventually return or regift.

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