What Makes Christmas So Special?

On Rituals, Relationships, and Belonging

A family shares Christmas dinner together, which for many is an important Christmas ritual that reaffirms social ties.
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Christmas is a beloved holiday, and for good reason. It's a time of parties, delicious seasonal beverages, feasting, gifts, and for many, a time of homecoming. But beneath the surface of festivity, there's quite a bit going on, sociologically speaking. What is it that makes Christmas such a good time for so many, and a let down for others?

Durkheim's Take on the Social Value of Rituals

Classical sociologist Émile Durkheim can help shed light on these questions.

Durkheim, as a functionalist, developed a still widely used theory for explaining what holds society and social groups together through his study of religion. Durkheim identified core aspects of religious structure and participation that sociologists today apply to society in general, including: the role of rituals in bringing people together around shared practices and values; the way participation in rituals reaffirms shared values, and thus reaffirms and strengthens the social bonds between people (he called this solidarity); and the experience of "collective effervescence," in which we share in feelings of excitement and are unified in the experience of participating in rituals together. As a result of these things, we feel connected to others, a sense of belonging, and the social order as it exists makes sense to us. We feel stable, comfortable, and secure.

The Social Value of the Secular Rituals of Christmas

Christmas, of course, is a Christian holiday, celebrated by many as a religious holiday with religious rituals, values, and relationships.

But, this schema for understanding what holds society together also applies to Christmas as a secular holiday.

Let's start by taking stock of the rituals involved in either form of celebration: decorating, often together with loved ones; using seasonal and holiday themed items; cooking meals and baking sweets; throwing and attending parties; exchanging gifts; wrapping and opening those gifts; bringing children to visit Santa Claus; watching for Santa on Christmas eve; leaving milk and cookies for him; singing Christmas carols; hanging stockings; watching Christmas movies and listening to Christmas music; performing in Christmas pageants; and attending church services.

Why do they matter? Why do we look forward to them with such fervor and anticipation? Because what they do is bring us together with the people we hold dear and give us an opportunity to reaffirm our  shared values. When we participate in rituals together, we call to the surface of interactions the values that underlie them. In this case, we can identify the values that underlie these rituals as the importance of family and friendship, togetherness, kindness, and generosity. These are the values that undergird the most beloved Christmas movies and songs, too. By coming together around these values through participation in Christmas rituals, we reaffirm and strengthen our social ties with those involved.

The Magic of Christmas is Social in Nature

This is the magic of Christmas: it performs a deeply important social function for us. It makes us feel like we are part of a collective, whether that be with kin or chosen family. And, as social beings, this is one of our fundamental human needs. Doing this is what makes it such a special time of year, and why, for some, if we don't achieve this at Christmastime, it can be a real downer.

It's easy to get wrapped up in the hunt for gifts, the desire for new goods, and the promise of letting loose and partying during this time of year.

So, it's important to remember that Christmas will be most enjoyable when it is designed to foster togetherness and the sharing and reaffirming of the positive values that bind us together. The material stuff is really quite incidental to these important social needs.