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The Essence of the Christmas Spirit is More than Gingerbread and Peppermint

It’s that time of the year. Movies with sometimes romantic plots, sometimes silly stories, and sometimes both, are watched and rewatched countless times. Red and Green with a sparkle of Golden and White fill the city’s panorama. Lights flicker with a life of their own hugging trees and buildings day and night. They dance in the rhythm of the jingle of the bells heard on the holiday songs. Radios play the same hits of December past. Ballet companies tend to present The Nutcracker more often. Bakeries, coffee shops, home decor stores, supermarkets sell the taste and scent of sweets and treats. Gingerbread, Peppermint, Cinnamon, Fruitcake, Panettone, Hot Cocoa, Chocolate Cookie, Candy Cane; they are pleasant flavors to the eyes, mouth, and nose. Charming is also the trees and mistletoes, ornaments, stockings, Santas, and reindeers speckled inside houses and around public spaces. Sometimes it may feel as if it snows during the Brazilian Spring/Summer seasonal swap. “Deck the Halls, even they are large open spaces subjugated to the scorching sun and the rambunctious rain,” they say. No matter what, it is December, we are in Christmas month, and its spirit is vividly felt everywhere.


At its core, Christmas is a religious holiday marking the birth of Jesus, and there are several similar religious and cultural end-of-the-year celebrations. The Judaism Chanukah (or Hanukkah) commemorating the reclaiming of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem by a small Jewish army led by Judah against the Greeks; the African-American Kwanzaa formed by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor at California State University, combining aspects of Zulu, Ashanti, and other African celebrations to praise the Pan-African culture; and the Hindu Pancha Ganapati honoring Ganesha, the Hindu god of fortune and new beginnings and patron of arts and sciences, are some examples. And yet, the economic and cultural phenomenon that became Christmas transcends that original core.


The effect of Christmas in the consumerist trends of US citizens and Brazilians buying gifts and decorations is very apparent. For Americans, a 2019 forecasting conducted by the National Retail Federation expects a growth in sales of between 3.8% and 4.2% from 2018, which results in approximately $727.9 billion to $730.7 billion in revenue, a relatively moderate fraction of the $5.5 trillion in total sales this year; around 13%. In turn, for Brazil, 2019 estimations conducted by the “Confederação Nacional do Comércio” expect a growth in sales of 4.6% from 2018, translated into R$35.9 billion, a smaller fraction of the $1.1 trillion (R$4.7 trillion in today’s dollar conversion value), which in comparison with the US fraction is not a lot, but still shows an increase in the amount of money spent by Brazilian during Christmas. And to analyze how the American culture affects the Brazilian expression of Christmas, observing the Christmas songs in the radio, the Christmas movies on Globo, SBT, Netflix and Disney Channel, the characterization of “Papai Noel” as the fat jolly man wearing red and white, and some of the sweets listed in the first paragraph is enough. Well, there is even going to be an ice skating rink at Largo São Bento in Downtown São Paulo in the middle of a mildly hot Southern Hemisphere season. In a nutshell, there is a consumer aspect to Christmas that defines it superficially, a façade of mostly global trends, often set by the US, that determine the sensory feelings of the holiday.


Árvore de Natal no Parque Ibirapuera

However, putting the aesthetic facet of Christmas aside, the aspect that makes it unique, and it is something it shares with the other holiday celebrations mentioned prior, is the holiday’s message of spreading joy to others. It is something that can be practiced by anyone from any background. The idea of gift-giving is a representation of an action that spreads happiness. Who does not love to get that beautiful scarf or that toy action figure so yearned for from a loved one? Who does not like to feel amazing when someone special or unexpected thinks about you and gifts you with something from their heart? And yet, the spirit of generosity of the giver is also many times more potent to them than the good feelings of the receiver. Two reward systems in the brain are stimulated together when gifts are given: the mesolimbic dopamine reward system that begins with the activation of dopaminergic neurons of the ventral tegmental area by endorphin release typically during pleasure-filled activities related to intercourse, social situations and food, and the subgenual area of the brain triggered during affective experiences, excited by the release of oxytocin. University of British Columbia professor Elizabeth Dunn also suggests in her report Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness that “spending money on other people may have a more positive impact on happiness than spending money on oneself.” So, the brain of the person giving a present is wired to provide a “helper’s high,” a charitable rush of good feelings because of the tender positive emotional response of the receiver to the action of giving and the gift itself, bringing joy to both parties. That is what the spirit of Christmas is about.


Other ways the holidays engender happiness relates to spending time with friends and family. Our lives can be very stressful and sometimes, we don’t have enough time to care about ourselves, much less some of the people who surround us. Work and school responsibilities pile up, unpredicted misgivings may bring a lot of anguish, and an overload of activities to do fill up our minds regularly. The message of Christmas became an antidote for those troubles. Christmas day should be like hitting a pause in all that anxiety. Gifts are plentiful. Families reunite for a big feast. People who had no time to talk to their relatives during the year will interact with them. Friends spend more time with each other outside of work and school. Social interactions between loved ones result in more bonding experiences. Joy abounds. The Christmas holiday is about coming together and being together. Its spirit is seen vividly through the cheer of company and the earnest commitment to the ones we love and appreciate. It is a moment of light in the turbulent and dark lives of many. Therefore, as social beings, merely having the merriment of the company of others is a requisite for psychological welfare, and what better time to have it than during Christmas.


Finally, the Christmas spirit brings about positivity. All the presents, the bonding, the togetherness, the eating, and the imagery of light inspire particular morals and virtues that are hopeful at their essence. Compassion, generosity, faith, and love are such values, ones that bring forth the best of humanity. One of the most notable holiday carols, a song that many people chant for both strangers and friends alike, says: “We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” It is a carol that provides a positive message as the act of genuinely wishing good things for a friend, or a stranger is a small act of kindness to them. We don’t need to be jolly only towards our acquaintances. Moreover, the expression “Merry Christmas” translated to “Feliz Navidad,” “Feliz Natal,” and “Joyeux Noel” in Spanish, Portuguese, and French respectively, is supremely used during the holidays globally as an introduction or a farewell exchanged between any two parties, and I mean anyone really. There is no other holiday or event in life where so many people you do not know wish good things to you. Even if saying “Merry Christmas” becomes automatic, it creates the same positive outcomes and passes the same message as if it was deeply meant; it becomes part of a shared spirit. Lastly, positivity can exceed the little acts of kindness and become something more direct through volunteer work. Homeless shelters, soup kitchens, Church-run charities, and nursing homes are commonplaces for volunteers to offer aid and gift their time to people in need. Thus, the Christmas spirit also permeates the interactions between individuals in large public spaces and becomes a community-driven feeling that makes society a little less cold for a month.


In the end, the meaning of the holiday spirit can be found in two different sections, which combined creates the right sort of ambiance that defines the current essence of Christmas. On one side, the media, the consumer market, and the aesthetic features of the holiday seen through the various colors, decorations, flavors, and smells that furnishes a city, partially influenced by US culture, provides a certain kind of appearance that quick-starts the introduction of people into a Christmas vibe. They are the superficial details that tell anyone that it’s that time of the year. But on the other side, although you feel like it is Christmas because of the decorations and all that jazz, you act like it is Christmas because of the virtues and messages carved into its name. Giving gifts and receiving presents and feeling amazing about it, spending time with the loved ones bonding over the comfort of a company, feeling an atmosphere of positivity everywhere you go and engendering that benevolence through volunteer work, and most importantly, spreading joy. So, indeed, one may say the essence of the Christmas Spirit is a little bit more than only gingerbread and peppermint.

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