Merry Christmas!! Or, at least, that’s the way it is supposed to be. But does it always work out that way? Read on and we’ll tell you why it might — or it might not!

Christmas is a time for coming together as a family and celebrating. Right? While lots of people probably have very merry Christmases, many will also find the holiday season stressful and difficult. Having a merry Christmas as a couple doesn’t happen automatically— you have to be aware of a few things and work together at it.

Do Most People Have a Happy Christmas?

Turns out that 75% of people are generally satisfied with their Christmas experience[i]. I don’t know if it’s the skeptic in me but I wonder if that is overstated. Perhaps the data was collected by a guy in a green suit.

Less than 10% of people report significant levels of anger and sadness. That’s good to hear. And about half of people report some level of stress during Christmas.

Not too bad. But there’s some pretty interesting facts to learn as we go through this that are good to think about as we come up to this holiday.

A study in 2002[ii] interviewed 117 individuals to determine the specific factors that contributed to making Christmas holidays stressful or enjoyable. Here’s what they found:

    1. Emphasizing family and spending time together was linked to greater happiness
    2. Emphasizing religious beliefs was linked to greater happiness
    3. Lower happiness and greater stress was reported when spending money and receiving gifts were the most important aspect of the holiday.
    4. Giving gifts and consuming in a way that was environmentally friendly was linked to higher happiness
    5. Men generally reported being happier and less stressed at Christmas than women- possibly because much of the responsibility for the shopping/cooking Christmas dinner etc falls to the woman.

This quote sums up their findings nicely: “In sum, the materialistic aspects of modern Christmas celebrations may undermine well-being, while family and spiritual activities may help people to feel more satisfied[iii]

Christmas Gifts

Obviously this is starting to highlight what we already know: that gifts and materialistic expressions should not be the main focus of Christmas.

But what is really interesting is if you try to limit the amount of money you spend and you limit your gift giving, this is also linked to lower happiness over Christmas[iv]. In fact, another study in 2008[v] found that spending a higher proportion of your income on others than yourself predicted higher levels of happiness.

This, of course, gives evidence to the truth claim of Scripture that it is more blessed to give than receive (Acts 20:35).

So it shouldn’t be the main focus of the season, but gift giving can be a great way to show love and have fun together. Gift giving should be[vi]:

    1. An expression of love
    2. Valuable- not necessarily in terms of cost but in the thought and effort that went into the gift
    3. Altruistic and not focussed on obligation or creating a feeling on indebtedness in the receiver
    4. Ideally contain some symbolic meaning, such as giving someone a gift to indicate that they are part of the family or giving a gift that will have special meaning to the receiver
    5. Tailored to who the receiver is, not based on your own preferences. So no giving your wife a gift that you secretly want for yourself!

How does the present buying process break down in a typical marriage? Women normally spend more time on gift shopping than men and often take overall responsibility for the first buying process, seeing it as “work”. Men often take less of an active role in this and feel the need to buy presents for fewer people or see it as “woman’s work”[vii].

So husbands, you could definitely make the holiday season less stressful for your wives by being more willing to be involved in the gift buying, by starting buying gifts earlier (rather than leaving it till Christmas eve!) and by getting gifts for more people rather than just close family.

Planning Your Happy Holidays

This week we have a planning guide for our patrons. You’ve got a few days to Christmas and no doubt a lot to do. This guide will open up the conversation about what lies ahead, the work that needs done, the fair division of labour and all that good stuff. It’ll help you make Christmas a calmer, mutually enjoyable experience. Why be stressed? There’s so much difficulty in life— wouldn’t it be great if this could be a time of peace and calm in your marriage. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.

 

Christmas Traditions

Traditions during holidays and occasions like Christmas are a form of “family ritual”. We talked about the important place rituals have in the family in our episode on blended families. The unique way your family does things at Christmas takes on a symbolic meaning for the family and “contributes significantly to the establishment and preservation of a family’s collective sense of itself[viii]“.

Rituals and Christmas traditions should be[ix]:

    1. Repeated regularly
    2. Involving actions and doing things: not just thoughts or words
    3. Involving special or stylized behavior, where actions are given a different meaning to their daily norm
    4. Evocative: featuring an emphasis on presentation to create something that the entire family can be attentive to. Just taking the time for those little details like the decorations on the tree to give everyone a sense of joint accomplishment.

Rituals at Christmas are unique to individual families, helping them feel connected to each other and develop a sense of family identity, but there are also some common aspects to the way most people celebrate Christmas, like the turkey, the tree, the pudding and so on. Getting on board with these common symbols helps the family feel connected to their wider society at large and feel like they have a place in their culture and heritage[x].

You can see this comes back to creating a sense of belonging. Let’s talk about three key features of Christmas traditions: stability, meaning and agreement.

Stability

Repeating Christmas traditions year after year helps create stability in the family: there’s predictability and that sense of common bonding there. It gives the whole family something specific to look forward to.

At the same time, rituals should not become too “rigid” or set in stone and need to be flexible to accommodate changes. For example they should be able to adapt to include new family members[xi]. Rituals should also not be so strict or rigid as to feel imposed or followed out of obligation: to be successful they need to be voluntarily acted out and enjoyed by the whole family[xii].

I think a good rule of thumb here is the rituals should serve the family and not vice versa. They are special but not necessarily sacred. Except that Christmas pudding Verlynda makes for me every year with that lemon sauce…that is definitely sacred.

Spiritual Meaning

Christmas is, first and foremost, a Christian holiday. Remembering that can help everyone enjoy the season more deeply. A study from 2001[xiii] interviewed 120 married couples who had been married for 9 years on average, and found a strong link between marital satisfaction and the spiritual meaning attributed to their family rituals.

Incorporating faith traditions into family rituals helped couples (and families) affirm and strengthen their relationships and connect their values to their actions.

When you attach spiritual meaning to holidays and act based on this, it increases marital satisfaction over and above simply having faith. It is the idea of enacting faith here: not just being hearers but doers also. So make sure the real meaning doesn’t get lost amid the presents and the chaos.

Agreement

Typically, the Christmas traditions you create as a married couple are determined by how you did things in your family of origin.

Couples who come from similar backgrounds may think that they will do Christmas in similar ways and then end up in conflict over all the little details they do differently. Silly little things like when you open presents, or how you open them— all at once or in turn— can become a reason to feel like your traditions aren’t being respected. Couples should therefore discuss their plans in advance to avoid this uncertainty.

There was one funny quote around this… you can hear the frustration I think. One woman who participated in one of the original studies on rituals[xiv] stated that “people should not be allowed to get married until they’ve discussed Christmas.”

Why You Need To Get Christmas Traditions Right

Successful rituals and traditions have positive effects for married couples in that they can protect the couple’s marital satisfaction against the effects of stress and difficulty[xv]. So long as you get that perfect Christmas pudding it can be worth all the stress, right?

High participation in ritualized family celebrations led to increased well being, satisfaction with life and “family climate” or overall mood within the family.  And investment in creating positive traditions which the whole family can participate in leads to stronger attachment bonds for married couples and greater closeness and relationship quality within the family[xvi].

Positive traditions also have benefits for the children: A study in 2002[xvii] found that participation in family traditions increased satisfaction with the family for teenagers, which in turn protected them from mental health difficulties and behavior problems later in life.

So you can really see that a lot of good can come from learning to make Christmas merry.

Now we need to end on a strongly positive note so let’s talk about in-laws!!

Family of Origin vs In-Laws

Each family has their own way of doing things at Christmas, so conflict can arise when new couples have to figure out how they want to do things, or when spending Christmas with one spouse’s family. Even little things like what you eat for dinner can create feelings of “disloyalty” to your family if you do them differently when with your in-laws[xviii].

Of course, conflict can arise over which family to spend Christmas with, especially if both spouses have positive memories of Christmas with the family. This requires you as a couple to demonstrate flexibility and give-and-take.

If one spouse does not have happy memories of Christmas from growing up, this can create internal guilt or tension at not wanting to spend time with their family. But that distress does not have to be all bad. Here’s an interesting quote: “When spouses have good communication and are empathic allies with each other, the pain about families of origin can bring them closer. However, if the couple lacks good understanding and they are not being supportive of each other, old feelings create new tension.[xix]“.

So we are back to open, honest, vulnerable communication. It is great to be able to start the discussion with really talking about what happened in your family of origin and then your spouse’s. Talk about memories, feelings, experiences, family dynamics. All that good stuff. If you can take this attitude, have each other’s back and become “allies” with each other in this matter, then I think you can have yourselves a merry Christmas no matter the circumstances.


References:

[i] Tim Kasser and Kennon M. Sheldon, ‘What Makes for a Merry Christmas?’, Journal of Happiness Studies, 3.4 (2002), 313–29.

[ii] Kasser and Sheldon.

[iii] Kasser and Sheldon.

[iv] Kasser and Sheldon.

[v] Elizabeth W. Dunn, Lara B. Aknin, and Michael I. Norton, ‘Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness’, Science (New York, N.Y.), 319.5870 (2008), 1687–88 <https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1150952>.

[vi] Mary Finley Wolfinbarger, ‘Motivations and Symbolism in Gift-Giving Behavior’, ACR North American Advances, 1990.

[vii] Eileen Fischer and Stephen J. Arnold, ‘More than a Labor of Love: Gender Roles and Christmas Gift Shopping’, Journal of Consumer Research, 17.3 (1990), 333–45.

[viii] Steven J. Wolin and Linda A. Bennett, ‘Family Rituals’, Family Process, 23.3 (1984), 401–20.

[ix] Grace M. Viere, ‘Examining Family Rituals’, The Family Journal, 9.3 (2001), 285–88.

[x] Wolin and Bennett.

[xi] E. Compañ and others, ‘Doing Things Together: Adolescent Health and Family Rituals’, Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 56.2 (2002), 89–94 <https://doi.org/10.1136/jech.56.2.89>.

[xii] Dawn O. Braithwaite, Leslie A. Baxter, and Anneliese M. Harper, ‘The Role of Rituals in the Management of the Dialectical Tension of “Old” and “New” in Blended Families’, Communication Studies, 49.2 (1998), 101–20.

[xiii] Barbara H. Fiese and Thomas J. Tomcho, ‘Finding Meaning in Religious Practices: The Relation between Religious Holiday Rituals and Marital Satisfaction.’, Journal of Family Psychology, 15.4 (2001), 597.

[xiv] Wolin and Bennett.

[xv] Barbara H. Fiese and others, ‘Family Rituals in the Early Stages of Parenthood’, Journal of Marriage and Family, 55.3 (1993), 633–42 <https://doi.org/10.2307/353344>.

[xvi] Carla Crespo and others, ‘Family Rituals in Married Couples: Links with Attachment, Relationship Quality, and Closeness’, Personal Relationships, 15.2 (2008), 191–203 <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.2008.00193.x>.

[xvii] Compañ and others.

[xviii] Judith L. Silverstein, ‘The Problem with In-Laws’, Journal of Family Therapy, 14.4 (1992), 399–412 <https://doi.org/10.1046/j..1992.00469.x>.

[xix] Silverstein.