- "Holiday blues" is a term often used to describe the increased reporting of depressive symptoms during Christmas time.
- Depression is linked to low motivation and loss of interest in social behaviours.
- We found that people with depression were less likely to send Christmas cards.
It’s that time of year again (for the 160 countries that celebrate Christmas, at least). Carollers are beginning to appear on the street (well, on the streets of the usual Christmas movies on telly); festive songs are being played on the radio (incessantly, in fact); and we are attending parties with work colleagues. Christmas is, apparently, the season to be merry and jolly.
However, although Christmas is a much-celebrated festive season, it is also one that elicits mixed feelings. While the celebrators busy themselves with the purchasing of gifts and the decorating of homes, trees, and sometimes even roofs and gardens, research since the 1950s has noted that, for some of us, depressive symptoms increase during this time; a phenomenon termed the "holiday blues."
In fact, recent polls have found that a quarter of those surveyed reported that the Christmas season can be stressful and makes their mental health worse.
Given that context, research that I conducted with colleagues from the Department of Psychology at the University of Limerick in Ireland, as well as at the University of Liverpool, UK, sought to investigate if another Christmas behavior, sending Christmas cards, could tell us something about the sender. Why do this? It might be that for those who are already depressed, a Christmas season laden with these social behaviors is likely to be threatening due to loss of motivation or not getting pleasure from their typical behaviors—in this case, sending Christmas cards. Loss of pleasure and motivation are key features of depression.
Moreover, we know that prosocial gestures like expressing gratitude in letters and cards have been found to boost positive emotions in both the receiver and sender. As such, it is likely that sending Christmas cards could be considered more than just the exchange of pleasantries and good wishes over the festive season. We wanted to know whether Christmas cards could shed some light on the senders’ mood. Moreover, given that Christmas is a Christian holiday, where sending cards and greetings are seen as traditional and normative behaviors, we also sought to explore if this was evident across religious groups or in Christians only.
Ever since Henry Cole, 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 United Kingdom alone. Moreover, while sending letters by post has been in decline, in Christmas 2020, the exchange of Christmas cards increased. As such, given the popularity of sending Christmas cards, we conducted this study sought to see if there was any association between the sending of Christmas cards and depressive symptoms.
What Did the Study Find?
We found that approximately 55 percent of nondepressed people reported "always" sending Christmas cards, compared to 46 percent of those with depression. And, when we accounted for gender, ethnicity, and religious affiliation, the study showed that the decreased likelihood of sending cards was evident only for Christians and no other religions.
We used data from more than 2,400 people who took part in the United Kingdom’s Wave 5 data set. We then extracted the information regarding whether individuals sent Christmas cards or not with these categories: "always," "sometimes," "never," and "don’t know what this is." The participants also reported their symptoms of depression 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 analyses (i.e., regression and chi-squared analyses), we also accounted for their gender, education, monthly income, ethnicity, and Christian affiliation.
What Does This All Mean?
Our results suggest that sending Christmas cards may give some insight as a behavior displayed by those with depression, especially for Christians at this period. However, other religious groups may have festival-related behaviors affected that may reflect those cultural values. Moreover, prior research has found that the prosocial gesture of expressing gratitude in letters and cards has been found to boost positive emotions in both the receiver and sender, and here we found that it was more than just the exchange of pleasantries and good wishes over the festive season.
These findings seem to offer evidence that it is the senders’ mood that may influence their Christmas behaviors. In terms of takeaway messages or how the findings can be used, while the study is cross-sectional in nature and future work is needed, if you do not hear from someone who regularly sends you a Christmas card, it might be worth checking in with them and spreading some Christmas cheer. Further, 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.
Stephen Gallagher, Siobhan Howard, Jennifer McMahon & Carlo Palmieri (2023) Christmas cards: are senders full of joy and good cheer?, Cogent Psychology, 10:1, DOI: 10.1080/23311908.2022.2151727