It’s that time of year again (at least for the 160 countries that celebrate Christmas). Carolers begin to appear on the streets (well, on the streets of the usual TV Christmas movies); holiday songs are played on the radio (non-stop, actually); and we attend parties with work colleagues. Christmas is, obviously, a season to be merry and merry.
However, while Christmas is a much-celebrated holiday season, it is also one that evokes mixed feelings. While celebrators are busy buying gifts and decorating homes, trees, and sometimes even rooftops and gardens, research from the 1950s noted that for some of us depression symptoms increase during that time; a phenomenon called the “holiday blues.”
In fact, recent surveys have shown that a quarter of those surveyed said the Christmas season can be stressful and take a toll on their mental health.
Given that context, research I conducted with colleagues from the Department of Psychology at the University of Limerick in Ireland, as well as the University of Liverpool, UK, sought to explore whether another Christmas behavior, sending Christmas cards, could tell us anything for the sender. Why do this? Perhaps for those who are already depressed, a Christmas season laden with these social behaviors is likely to be threatening due to a loss of motivation or enjoyment from their typical behavior—in this case, sending Christmas cards. Loss of pleasure and motivation are key features of depression.
In addition, we know that prosocial gestures, such as expressing gratitude with letters and cards, foster positive emotions in both the recipient and the sender. As such, it is likely that sending Christmas cards can be considered more than just an exchange of pleasantries and good wishes during the holiday season. We wanted to know if Christmas cards could shed some light on the mood of the senders. Moreover, given that Christmas is a Christian holiday, where sending cards and greetings is considered a traditional and normative behavior, we also tried to investigate whether this is evident among religious groups or only among Christians.
Since Henry Cole, the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum, sent the first Christmas card in 1843, billions of them have been sent to mark the festive season, with an estimated 1 billion sent each year in the UK alone. In addition, while the sending of letters by post is on the decline, Christmas 2020 saw an increase in the exchange of Christmas cards. As such, given the popularity of sending Christmas cards, we conducted this study to see if there was any association between sending Christmas cards and symptoms of depression.
What did the study find?
We found that roughly 55 percent of non-depressed people said they “always” sent Christmas cards, compared to 46 percent of those with depression. And when we took into account gender, ethnicity and religious affiliation, the study found that the reduced likelihood of sending cards was only apparent for Christians and no other religion.
Christmas cards and your mental health
Source: Brigette Thom/Pexels
How did we investigate this phenomenon?
We used data from more than 2,400 people who participated in the UK Wave 5 data set. We then extracted information about whether or not individuals sent Christmas cards with these categories: “always,” “sometimes,” “never,” and “don’t know what this is.” Participants also reported their depressive symptoms on a validated psychometric scale. On that scale, we categorized, based on well-established cut-off scores, people with and without depression. For our main analyzes (ie, regression and chi-square analyses), we also took into account their gender, education, monthly income, ethnicity, and Christian affiliation.
What does all this mean?
Our results suggest that sending Christmas cards may provide some insight into the behaviors exhibited by those with depression, particularly for Christians at this time. However, other religious groups may have an influence on festival-related behaviors that may reflect those cultural values. In addition, previous research has shown that the prosocial gesture of expressing gratitude with letters and cards fosters positive emotions in both the receiver and the sender, and here we found that it is more than just an exchange of pleasantries and good wishes during the holiday season.
These findings appear to offer evidence that shippers’ moods can influence their Christmas behavior. In terms of takeaway messages or how the findings can be used, while the study is cross-sectional and future work is needed, if you don’t hear from someone who regularly sends you a Christmas card, it might be worth checking in with them and spreading some Christmas cheer. Furthermore, we know that art therapy is often used for those experiencing depression, and perhaps making and sending such cards could be used as an activity in these settings.