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You Don't Need Christmas Gifts to Be Happy

Charles Dickens inspired holiday traditions—but gifts don't make people happier.

Key points

  • From turkey to plum pudding, Dickens can be said to have inspired many modern Western traditions surrounding the Christmas holiday.
  • Dickens' novel "A Christmas Carol" may have also inspired the emphasis that Western society has on giving gifts at Christmas.
  • However, research shows that receiving gifts over Christmas does not make people happier; it can actually correspond with negative emotions.
  • Research shows that the religious and family-oriented aspects of Christmas are associated with greater happiness.

Once, I was on my way to a conference abroad when I stopped at the bookshop in the airport to browse novels that might be interesting to read during my flight. I came across The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens and thought I would give it a try because I had somewhat liked The Old Curiosity Shop.

The Pickwick Papers is a brilliant novel about travelling and Dickens regales the reader with satirical scenes interspersed with captivating discussions about food. It is quite funny and is one of my favourite novels. I think it's a shame that it is less well known than, say, A Christmas Carol, which has inspired more interest to the extent of being turned into theatre. I watched a play about it in a bitterly cold, unheated, ancient building one snowy winter, and as I sat there freezing, I wondered whether Dickens had indeed influenced the way that people celebrate Christmas in many countries.

It is commonly thought that modern Western traditions of roasting turkeys, eating Christmas puddings, and exchanging presents were inspired by Dickens. But do these actually make people happy during the season—and if they don't, what does?

What Makes People Happy During Christmas?

A study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies [1] asked: “What makes for a merry Christmas?” The study asked people what they liked about the season, and found that for study participants, what corresponded most closely with being happy during the Christmas season were religious experiences and being close to family. Religious experiences during the season could include going to church, singing Christmas carols, and celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.

The study found that taking part in the religious aspect of the Christmas season was positively correlated with how satisfied the study participants felt with life, and how much well-being they felt during the season, and it was negatively correlated with negative emotions. That meant that the more people took part in the religious aspects, the less pronounced their negative emotions were. The study also found that the more people had the opportunity to spend time with their family over the Christmas season, the better their well-being.

Christmas Gifts Don't Make People Happy

In Dickens' novel, one moral of the story is that sharing gifts with others during Christmas can be heart-warming. Yet the same study found evidence that modern society can probably do without the gift-focused element of modern western Christmas traditions which Dickens might have inspired.

The study found that spending money over the Christmas season was associated with people being more stressed, and was negatively associated with people having a sense of well-being during the Christmas season. The study also found that receiving “really nice” gifts was associated with people having more negative emotions and having less of a sense of well-being over the season. It was also associated with people feeling less satisfied with life.

Scrooge’s problem, therefore, in Dickens’ novel, might have been less about being stingy and more about not realizing the essence of the Christmas season—which is, for many people, the religious and/or people-oriented aspect of it. In many countries around the world, giving or receiving gifts is not a common tradition during Christmas. That might be a good thing.

What About Food?

The study did not shed light on whether food-related traditions corresponded with people feeling happier, but it is plausible that what matters is that people eat what they construe as festive food, no matter what it is.

In the UK, the home of Dickens, popular Christmas dinners involve roast meat with stuffing, roast potatoes, vegetables, gravy, “pigs in blankets,” and Yorkshire pudding, often with additional flourishes such as cranberry sauce. However, the idea that the vast majority of people eat turkey—an idea that Dickens’ novel might have popularised—appears to be an illusion.

One survey [2] found that only 54 percent of people in the UK cook turkey for Christmas, and there was variation in what people ate. In many other countries, turkey is a rarity; instead, popular Christmas meals might include fish or barbequed food. What seems to matter most is that people eat the food that they cherish and spend time with others.

Remember What Christmas is About

The message from the research is that people who celebrate Christmas may benefit from placing less emphasis on giving or receiving gifts and instead focusing more on what Christmas really is about: its people-oriented aspects, which could include participating in religious ceremonies, spending time with others, giving to local communities, or taking part in group activities. People are unlikely to remember you because of the presents you buy—but rather because you are there for and with them.


[1] What makes for a merry Christmas?

[2] What do Britons have for their Christmas dinner?

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