#36: The Modern Spirit
Or, the influence of the ghost of Christmas past.
In a small two-bedroom apartment on Charlotte Street, across from the Admiral Beatty and next door to Trinity Anglican Church, a feast is laid out.
It was the night before Christmas, and in the low yet warm light of the apartment, fifteen or so people milled about. Next to the tiny living room, a dining room table showed no scrap of tablecloth for the dishes laid out: chocolate cheesecake, mincemeat tarts topped with pastry embellishments and dusted with icing sugar, lemon tarts, a Christmas cake covered in marzipan and topped with wooden figurines in some sort of a scene, shortbreads with icing and candied cherries, cookies with those tooth-cracking silver balls, and cheese and crackers of every variety. All made from scratch - even the sausage rolls.
In the background of the meal, the church bells would chime every quarter hour. Some had already heard the cold stone archways of the 200-year-old church swell with joyous carols, while others were waiting for the midnight mass. Everyone dressed up, laughing, and buzzing ever so slightly with the anticipation of the next morning.
With my grandfather recently passing away, my grandmother began that tradition of hosting a Christmas Eve spread for the family. It carried on for a few years until life inevitably changed. Moves. Divorces. New marriages. But I’ve since loved Christmas Eve the most, partly because of the anticipation, but mainly because of these few nights in particular.
Is there such a thing as “Christmas spirit”?
One anthropologist’s1 analysis of the literature reveals multiple definitions of the Christmas spirit: Dickensian apparitions, legends based on real men from generations gone by, our collective drive to pursue light on the darkest nights of the year. To that last point, another article2 argues for early decoration for the season, as it makes you happier. (While sounding reasonable, it unfortunately confounds correlation - being around decorations = better mood - with causation. Maybe happier people indulge in early decorating?) In the British Medical Journal’s infamous Christmas issues, there was a slightly serious look at how Christmas images affect our brains3. Specifically, the investigators used fMRI to compare small groups of people (Christmas celebrators since youth versus not), and found there was more brain activity in certain regions for the holiday revellers when seeing festive images. (But, as they put, in their own words, “Although merry and intriguing, these findings should be interpreted with caution.”)
So, nothing conclusive about the mysterious entity known as “Christmas spirit”.
The funny thing about memories as you get older is that they tend to get more positive.4 Any rough edges are burnished by time and more experience with which to compare. Our worlds now as adults are considerably wider, and we’re more aware of the world’s problems. (Like Alison mentioned the other day, we spend our days researching all the ways we get sick and die.) We also forget how time dragged on in December, fidgeting in classroom seats, counting the minutes to midnight.
So using my grandmother’s Christmas Eve gatherings as a Christmas spirit high watermark is just asking for a headache. Because, and despite our society imploring us on a nigh-daily basis to find and participate in activities that put us in the Christmas spirit (as soon as the first pumpkin spice is released into the wild), it’s hard to capture that same essence as an adult. I enjoy seeing the kids get excited, but it’s more subdued for me; just as warming and fuelled by sugar, mind you, but not as overtly manic.
Last Friday night, the rain pounded the sides of the house. Inside, though, I was cozy: candle lit, infusing the room with the smell of cranberries and pine. A decorated hearth - stockings, Yule log, garland. Busying myself on homemade gifts, I listened to Christmas cartoons with interludes of holiday jazz.
It was just lovely, a warm oatmeal bath to relieve the holiday itch. I loved spending my evening that way. So where the feeling now is so subdued, though not any less positive or joyful, spirit seems too much of a word.
Maybe our operational definition and concept of feeling “Christmas-y” is too narrow to capture reality.
Or maybe I just need more shortbread.
Either way, it’s a win.
D’Costa K. What is Christmas Spirit? Scientific American; 21 Dec 2016.
Richards A. People who put up Christmas decorations early are happier, according to experts. Evening Standard; 3 Sep 2019.
Hougaard A, Lindberg U, Arngrim N, Larsson HBW, Olesen J, Amin FM, Ashina M. Evidence of a Christmas spirit network in the brain: functional MRI study. BMJ 2015;351:h6266.
Mather M. Why memories may become more positive as people age. In B. Uttl, N. Ohta, & A. L. Siegenthaler (Eds.), Memory and emotion: Interdisciplinary perspectives (pp. 135–158). Blackwell Publishing.