The Heart of Christmas

Christmas is an emotional time of year, but what are the exact psychological elements that make up this time of year. Here’s a quick guide to the emotional rollercoaster that the next few weeks will bring.

Images of happiness are everywhere at Christmas, from Santa’s laughter to the smiling faces of children, but the happiness of Christmas is of a very special kind.

We’re not talking about merely being content. That’s a passive kind of happiness. Christmas joy is a much more active emotion, something that surges from within and which we feel an urge to express.

It’s a feeling that arises from hope. Christmas takes place at the time of year when winter turns the corner, the days start getting longer and spring and summer are once more on the way. And of course, in a religious sense it also arises from the simple joy of celebrating the birth of a child, and all the hope that goes along with that.

Cheer is a slightly different type of joy that is also known as conviviality. And that word, which comes from the Latin word for “living together” shows the difference. Cheer is something that we share with others.

To understand this feeling further, ask yourself why the word “merry” is saved for this time of year. Christmas is a time for celebration, and celebration is something we do with one another. It’s a social happiness that involves eating, drinking, singing and laughing.

Gratitude is a strange emotion, but one that has a very special place at this time of year. Even though we’ll be saying plenty of “thank-you’s” and telling kids to write letters to Auntie Mary, it’s far more than a question of simple politeness -it’s also about feeling it deeply.
Most of are luckier than we ever admit. We live in a world of plenty, with advantages that previous generations could only have dreamed of. At midwinter, we come together and feel thankful for another year, another new start, and the simple fact of what we have.

Sadness is an essential part of Christmas. Why else do we weep at Christmas films, love beautiful, sad carols and pause to remember absent friends? Perhaps the reason is that endless happiness means nothing without contrast, the ups are meaningless without the downs. But there are also perfectly good reasons to feel sad at this time of year, when we gather together and remember faces and voices that are no longer with us, let nostalgia take over for a while and spare a thought for those who aren’t as lucky as us.

We all know there’s a depth to Christmas that doesn’t exist at other celebrations. Shallow fun and socialising are all part of the season, but they mean nothing if we don’t take a moment to examine our feelings and what the time of year means to us. In the most popular Christmas film of all time, It’s A Wonderful Life, James Stewart gets the chance to see what the world would have been like without him and what his life has been worth. Perhaps we should all take a moment at Christmas to do the same.

Forgiveness is one of the most important things we’ll feel at Christmas, the very essence of the peace that reigns. It’s a time to overlook the faults and misdemeanours of others and wipe the slate clean; a time for tolerance and understanding. There’ll be plenty of time for anger, bitterness and blame in the future, but just for this moment, let’s try and live together.