Does Christmas Bring Out the Best in Us?

The psychology of our behavior at Christmas.

Posted Dec 18, 2019

Jan Levi / Shutterstock
Christmas singers
Source: Jan Levi / Shutterstock

As Christmas approaches, people begin to get excited.  But does Christmas itself cause us to change our behaviour?

In this article, we'll examine the psychology behind some of the ways we may behave at Christmas, looking at issues such as our responses to different types of gifts, the giving of cards, Christmas music and decorations, belief in Santa, and most importantly, how we can really enjoy and appreciate Christmas.

What does decorating your house say about you?

It is becoming more and more fashionable to decorate the outside of our houses at Christmas. Is there a psychological reason behind this? One theory is that we do this to communicate friendliness to neighbours. An interesting study assessed the degree to which strangers identified friendly householders and what aspects of the exterior decorations contributed to this impression. The study also proposed that people who had few friends might have been using their decorations as a signal communicating accessibility to their neighbours.  The findings revealed that decorations were a major cue to participant judges that householders were friendly and cohesive.  In fact, even in houses which otherwise had an appearance of low sociability, exterior decorations had the effect of making these houses appear more sociable (Werner et al., 1989).

Why do we send Christmas cards?

Christmas is a time when people traditionally send and receive cards.  Apart from tradition and the terrible thought that we might receive a card from someone to whom we have not sent a card ourselves, is there another reason we do this?  One study has revealed that most of us not only engage in the reciprocal sending and receiving of cards between friends and family, but we do this in an 'upwardly mobile' way.  What this means is that we tend to send more cards to the people we are trying to impress or those who we want to see us in a positive light (Johnson, 1971).  Another shocking finding revealed people are even willing to exchange Christmas cards with people they hardly know (Kunz, 2000). The findings of these studies suggest that we appear to send cards merely for the purpose of impressing other people.

Are we carried away by happy Christmas music?

Shopping at Christmas can sometimes be frustrating and stressful, especially if we are battling through crowds struggling to find the right gifts. Is it possible that store owners attempt to manipulate the atmosphere  in order to keep us shopping for longer? Can our perceptions of shops and shopping malls be made just that little bit more positive at Christmas time? If this is the case, one reason might be due to the Christmas music, which is played throughout most stores over Christmas.  Research has found that shoppers' evaluations of stores actually tend to be highest at the time of year when Christmas music is being played and this is especially true when the music played is paired with Christmas scent. This effect does not occur when Christmas scent is used on its own and when Christmas scent was paired with music other than Christmas music, shoppers' evaluations of stores were lowered (Spangenberg et al., 2005).

How do we react to undesirable gifts?

Christmas is a time for the giving and receiving of gifts. While our loved ones may try their best to select considerate gifts for us, we sometimes end up receiving gifts we really do not want. How do we react on receiving such undesirable gifts?  In one interesting study, participants were made to believe that a new opposite-sex romantic partner had selected for them either a desirable or an undesirable gift.  Before the experiment started, all participants told the researchers which type of gift they would like to receive, and a gift they would not like to receive. Then some participants were given a gift they would like and others a gift they would not like. After receiving their gift, participants then decided how much they felt similar to their new romantic partner. The results revealed that the male participants in this study reported less similarity to their new romantic partner after receiving an undesirable gift, whereas females responded more positively to receiving an undesirable gift (Dunn et al, 2008). This study illustrates that males tend to react less favourably to receiving gifts they do not want.

Rather than receiving an undesirable gift, would we rather take a monetary substitute?  This issue was investigated by Joel Waldfogel from Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota (Waldfogel, 1993).  He found that when participants were asked what kind of cash sum they would take if offered money in place of a gift, most reported that they would accept a sum considerably less than what the gift was worth.

When do we stop believing in Santa?

In most Western cultures young children believe in fantasy figures such as the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, with this belief diminishing as children grow older. It would seem logical to suppose that the duration and strength of this belief should be related to a child’s level of cognitive development, as by the age of five, most children can distinguish pretend actions from real ones.  However, research by Jacqueline Wise at the University of Texas in Austin has shown that children’s belief in Santa does not decline until the age of seven and about one-third of nine-year-olds still believing in Santa, suggesting that our belief in Santa is sustained longer than it is for other fantasy figures (Tullos and Woolley, 2009).   

So can you have a happy Christmas and if so how?

In view of all this, can we actually have a happy Christmas?  Fortunately, the evidence would suggest that we can. How can this be and what are the factors associated with a happy Christmas?

Can the answer be found in giving?  One study found that spending more of one's income on others produced greater happiness in people. Further, when the researchers randomly allocated people to groups assigned to spend money either on themselves or on other people, the group assigned to spend money on others reported greater happiness than the group assigned to spend money on themselves (Dunn et al., 2008).

Another study looked more closely at the types of things associated with Christmas holiday well-being.  Here, 117 people ranging in age from 18-80 were questioned about their satisfaction, stress and emotional state during the Christmas season. The study also asked questions regarding how people used their money and the types of things they consumed at Christmas.  It was found that Christmas happiness was associated with family and religious experiences and that lower happiness and well-being was more associated with receiving gifts and spending money (Kasser and Sheldon, 2002).

This article examined some of the psychological explanations behind our behaviour over Christmas looking at issues such as our responses to different types of gift, the giving of cards, Christmas music and decorations, belief in Santa, and most importantly, how we can really enjoy and appreciate Christmas. All in all, it appears that being generous and interacting family are the most important aspects to having a happy Christmas.


Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B. and Norton, M. I. (2008) ‘Spending money on others promotes happiness’ Science, 21, 5870, 1687-1688.

Dunn, E. W., Huntsinger, J., Lun, J., and Sinclair, S. (2008) ‘The gift of similarity: How god and bad gifts influence relationships’ Social Cognition, 26 (4), 469-481.

Johnson, S. K. (1971) Sociology of Christmas cards. Transaction, 8 (3), 27-29

Kasser, T. and Sheldon, K. M. (2002) ‘What makes for a Merry Christmas?’ Journal of Happiness Studies, 3 (4), 313-329.

Kunz, J. (2000) ‘Social class difference in response to Christmas cards’ Perceptual and motor skills, 90, 573-576.

Spangenberg, E. R., Grohmann, B., and Sprott, D. E. (2005) ‘It’s beginning to smell (and sound) a lot like Christmas: The interactive effects of ambient scent and music in a retail setting’ Journal of Business Research, 58 (11), 1583-1589.

Tullos, A.,and Woolley, J. D. (2009) ‘The development of children’s ability to use evidence to infer reality status’ Child Development, 80, (1), 101-104.

Waldfogel, J. (1993) ‘The deadweight loss of Christmas’ The Annual Economic Review, 12, (1), 1328-1336.

Werner, C. M., Peterson-Lewis, S., and Brown, B. B. (1989) ‘Inferences about homeowners’ sociability: Impact of Christmas decorations and other cues’  Journal of Environmental Psychology, 9, (4) 279-296.