The Role Holiday Traditions Play In Mental Health

Photo: Jonathan Caramanus

It’s no coincidence that the coldest and darkest month, December, is graced with celebrations of light, miracles, and tradition.

"Tradition! Tradition!!" Such are the lyrics of Broadway’s famous musical Fiddler on the Roof, about Tevye, the father of five daughters, and his desperate attempts to maintain his Jewish traditions as outside influences encroach upon the family's lives.

The age-old struggle to maintain tradition is ubiquitous among all cultures and people. Traditions maintain historical continuity, solidify community, and strengthen ethnic, cultural, and religious identity. When we are feeling lost, confused, or alienated from ourselves, traditions can function like navigational stars in the proverbial sky. They connect us to the generations past and present, providing a road map forward when we are temporarily unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

As a psychiatrist, my interest in traditions comes from their effect on mental health. While the stress of winter holidays can worsen people’s mood, suicides and self-harm behaviors actually go down during Christmas. Studies have shown that traditions and rituals promote a sense of well-being and belonging, strengthen people’s sense of history and rootedness, and reduce feelings of loneliness. In addition, they foster mental stability in times of stress and transition, create opportunities for family togetherness, and allow for the transmission of values, rituals, and beliefs across generations.

A time to celebrate life's miracles.

While all holidays are grounded in one tradition or another, the winter holidays of Christmas and Hanukkah have a special and unusual focus: miracles. From a scientific standpoint, a miracle is anything that is statistically improbable. Miracles are the opposite of traditions. Traditions are predictable and repetitive, something you can count on with certainty year after year. In contrast, miracles are unpredictable, unexpected, and unanticipated. The more unlikely an event, the more miraculous. In this way, a tradition of miracles is an oxymoron.

When somebody spontaneously heals from a terminal illness, it’s a miracle. The miracle of Hanukkah celebrates the fact that when the Jews reclaimed the Second Temple, there was only enough oil for one day, yet it miraculously lasted for eight. Christmas commemorates the birth date of one of the world’s greatest miracle-makers, Jesus Christ, whose saintly acts included raising the dead, healing the sick, walking on water, and turning water into wine.

How do we make sense of these miracles? Are they literal or figurative? Real or fantasy? Random coincidences or divinely preordained events? Miracles often defy logical and rational explanation precisely because their occurrence is not something that can be reproduced, scientifically studied, or fully understood. Yet during the winter holidays, we celebrate the miracles, welcome the magic of the season, and yearn to believe in Santa Claus.

The most widely reprinted editorial in any English-language newspaper appeared on September 21, 1897, in the New York Sun. Written by war correspondent Francis P. Church, the editorial was a response to a letter he received from a little girl named Virginia O’Hanlon:

Dear Editor: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, "If you see it in The Sun, it’s so." Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

Addressing issues of hope, faith, and idealism, Church’s thoughtful response rose way above Virginia’s innocent question:

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age…They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little…as compared to the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capacity of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy…You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart…It is all real! Ah, Virginia, in all this world, there is nothing else real and abiding.

May your holiday season be filled with the tradition of miracles!

Looking to incorporate more rituals into your life year-round? Here are a few that will leave you feeling restored.

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