X-Mas is BS, and I can Prove It Scientifically!
Unwrapping the Harsh Realities of Christmas
Though only 32% of the world's population lives in Christian-majority countries, and a sizable chunk of this demographic identifies as atheist or agnostic, Christmas has become an omnipresent and inescapable global phenomenon, making it one of the most powerful social constructs ever conceived. In vast parts of the world, this holiday impacts everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof.
Yet, the way we typically celebrate Christmas today is far from harmless. It's a season that takes a significant toll — on our environment, our health, and our social fabric. Digging into the data reveals the holiday's darker side, and it becomes clear that the real three ghosts of Christmas are consumerism, carbon emissions, and a worrying decline in both mental and physical health.
This article is your guide to the science behind the growing distaste for Christmas.
Capitalism's Annual Orgasm
From the frenzy of Black Friday deals to the last-minute sales rush, the holiday season has become a high point for consumer spending. This phenomenon is not just a cultural trend but a necessity for the capitalist machine, which craves the peak in turnover like a junky craves a shot. Christmas has been inseparably entwined with consumerism ever since Coca-Cola popularized the modern image of Santa Claus. Today, everything from Christmas lights to presents, festive foods, greeting cards, and even the journey home, culminates into a predicable upturn in the yearly economic cycle, the annual orgasm of capitalism.
Although alternative (i.e. less consumerist) ways of celebrating Christmas exist, for many households it’s a game of “who can buy the most crap?”. This year, the average American is set to spend $1,530 on Christmas, including gifts and travel — a notable 7% increase from the previous year. The financial strain is evident, with over 20% of Americans and 10% of Europeans diving into debt to finance their holiday expenses.
Amidst this spending spree, the harsh reality of economic inequality becomes even more pronounced. In the U.S., supplemental poverty measures have jumped from 7.8% to 12.4% within a year, according to Census.gov. In Europe, the situation is similar, with 21.6% of the population now at risk of poverty — up from 16.8% the previous year. Tragically, this Christmas, over half a million Americans and nearly a million Europeans will find themselves without a home, a condition that persists well beyond the holiday season. But isn’t Christmas the season to reflect on such glaring inequality? Apparently not. Think about how many news pieces you saw recently that address the skyrocketing rise of poverty in the U.S. and Europe. Then think about how many times you’ve heard or seen the phrase “Black Friday deal” over the last couple of weeks. This makes it clear, where the priorities of Christmas lie today.
How could you explain it, how could you tell them that Santa Claus only visited the rich, that he didn’t know about the good?
— from John Cheever's Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor
In essence, Christmas has become a largely consumer-driven event, often overshadowing the increasing economic disparities it could help highlight. The pursuit of holiday perfection, marked by excessive spending, not only deepens social inequalities but also leads to significant environmental degradation. The more we indulge in consumerism, the larger the piles of waste become, signaling an urgent need to address how Christmas impacts the planet.
Lovely Christmas traditions around the world: In the United States and other consumer-driven societies, people traditionally welcome the start of the Christmas season by fighting over bargains on Black Friday.
Why You Shouldn’t Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day: 6.7x Higher CO² Emissions
The spirit of Christmas comes with a hefty environmental price tag. The season's deep-rooted consumerism isn't just a drain on wallets but also a major burden on our planet. During the holidays, food waste surges by about 30%. But the environmental impact doesn't stop at leftovers. The mountains of presents, decorative items, and other seasonal paraphernalia contribute significantly to waste generation. In the UK alone, this includes 365,000 kilometers of wrapping paper, 1 billion greeting cards, 2 million uneaten turkeys, and 17.2 million Brussels sprouts every year. Additionally, around 12 million Christmas sweaters, many potentially produced in a sweatshop under unethical labor conditions, end up neglected in closets. Not to mention the roughly 90 million trees cut down annually in the US and Europe as Christmas trees.
The Stockholm Environment Institute estimates that the carbon footprint for food, travel, decorations, and presents, just over the three days of Christmas, amounts to approximately 650 kg of CO2 per person. This figure represents a staggering 5.5% of the average annual carbon footprint. When put into perspective, given that Christmas constitutes only about 0.82% of the year, the carbon emissions during the holiday season are 6.7 times higher than the rest of the year.
This data paints a grim picture, especially in light of current climate change predictions. Considering this, Wizzard apparently wished us rapid doom when they sang “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday”. The environmental cost of Christmas is a stark reminder of the need for more sustainable holiday practices. But it's not just the planet that bears the burden — our mental well-being is also at stake. The pressure to maintain Christmas traditions can take a significant psychological toll, leading to more hidden costs of the holiday season.
Lovely Christmas traditions around the world: In Austria and southern Germany, Krampus hits naughty children with a rod and threatens to kidnap them to the forest.
naughty children with a rod and threatens to kidnap them to the forest.
The Hidden Cost of Christmas: Stress, Loneliness, and Despair
The festive season, often depicted as a time of joy and togetherness, harbors a less talked about reality — psychological strain. While exchanging gifts and reuniting with family can be sources of joy, these activities also bring their share of stress, especially when done amidst the crowd and chaos that characterize the holiday season. Crowded shopping malls, congested airports, and traffic jams have become as synonymous with Christmas as candy canes and mistletoe. Time and again, surveys have shown that a majority find the holiday season more stressful than relaxing.
Beyond the general hustle, Christmas can amplify deeper psychological issues. Loneliness, anxiety, and depression often intensify during this period. More than a quarter of individuals report that their mental health deteriorates over the holiday season, and the societal expectation to be surrounded by loved ones can exacerbate feelings of isolation. Polls show that between 20% to 50% of people feel lonely during the holidays, even if they are not physically alone. Data indicates that a third of individuals are too embarrassed to admit their loneliness during this supposedly festive time.
This combination of stress, anxiety, loneliness, and societal pressure can lead to severe consequences. While the belief that suicide rates peak during the holidays is a myth (with the highest rates actually occurring in spring), the pressure of the season is nonetheless real. Surveys reveal that over a third (36%) of people with mental health issues have resorted to self-harm to cope with the stress of Christmas, and 45% have contemplated suicide.
Average daily suicides in the U.S. per month. Source & Graphic: Annenberg Public Policy Center.
The holiday season also sees a spike in other distressing trends. Drug overdoses increase by more than a fifth. Domestic violence incidents surge alarmingly — in the US, police interventions related to domestic violence rise by 20% in December. The UK's national domestic violence helpline experiences a 66% increase in calls compared to other months. Notably, these figures nearly doubled in 2020, highlighting the exacerbating effects of the pandemic and its management on mental health. Moreover, these psychological stresses are paralleled by serious physical health concerns, further intensifying the holiday season's toll on our well-being.
The Health Hazards of Holiday Indulgence
For many, the holiday season is synonymous with indulgence — lavish dinners, an abundance of cookies, and more than a fair share of alcohol. These festive practices, while sometimes psychologically soothing, have a less favorable side: a spike in health issues. The statistics are startling – heart attacks increase by 40% in the week between Christmas and New Year's, with Christmas Day itself witnessing more heart attacks than any other day of the year. This alarming trend isn’t limited to cardiac issues: there’s also a noticeable rise in respiratory illnesses, gout attacks, and in many regions, an increase in fatal road accidents, often linked to drunk driving.
The impact of these seasonal excesses extends beyond individual health to strain entire healthcare systems. While exact figures are hard to pin down, it's reasonable to infer that in countries with socialized healthcare systems, a significant portion of annual healthcare spending goes towards addressing the consequences of holiday indulgences. This places a considerable burden on public resources, effectively turning Christmas into an even more anti-social event than it might seem. It's a period where billions are funneled into the coffers of large corporations, fueled by consumer spending, while simultaneously ramping up the healthcare costs borne by the average taxpayer. This economic paradox underscores the need for a more balanced and responsible approach to our holiday traditions.
Lovely Christmas traditions around the world: In Catalonia, the festive Caga Tió ('pooping log') is fed by children, who eagerly await its 'pooping' of presents on Christmas Eve. Photo Source: Slastic.
A Call for Conscious Celebration
As we reach the end of our Christmas reality check, the cynical contradictions of Christmas stand glaringly exposed. Despite its image as a season of joy and giving, Christmas in its current form is fraught with issues that extend far beyond its religious and cultural roots. The holiday's deeply ingrained consumerism not only exacerbates economic disparities but also contributes to environmental degradation on a massive scale. Beyond the tangible impacts, Christmas exerts a considerable psychological toll, amplifying stress, loneliness, and mental health challenges. The physical health of individuals and the strain on public health systems can't be ignored either, with marked increases in health emergencies and lifestyle-related ailments during this period.
In light of these revelations, it's clear that a reevaluation of how we celebrate Christmas is overdue. Like it or not, the situation affords it to reconsider traditions that rely on cutting down trees. This isn't a call to abandon the holiday but an invitation to embrace it in a way that's mindful of its impacts on everyone.
So, as we wrap up this article and perhaps unwrap our presents, let's also unwrap our preconceptions about Christmas. Happy holidays and a joyous New Year to all — and remember, as you light up those fireworks (possibly produced in less-than-ideal conditions), the real sparkle of the season comes from making thoughtful choices that benefit yourself, the people around you, and the planet.