Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas and Research

Searching the web for “Christmas” and “research” (Why would I do that?), as I drink some Christmas tea and munch on Christmas cookies. The search evinces some very disparate types of connections between the two terms. So, I bring you these tidings*:

Tim Kasser and Kennon Sheldon, in their 2002 article “What Makes for Merry Christmas?”, in the Journal of Happiness Studies (yes, that’s a, peer-reviewed social science journal) wrote: “Despite the prominent and recurring place that Christmas holds in many people’s lives, there is surprisingly little empirical research about the season. Consumer research has provided interesting analyses of its myths, movies, and media messages…, sociology has examined gift-giving rituals…, and anthropology has investigated meanings of the holiday in various cultures. Within the field of psychology, what literature exists on Christmas mostly concerns whether psychiatric admissions… and suicide rates… increase during the season. Surprisingly, we were unable to find any quantitative empirical studies that have endeavored to understand the experiences and qualities which are associated with happiness during Christmas.”

One of their conclusions, based on a review of the studies they could find: “the materialistic aspects of modern Christmas celebrations may undermine well-being, while family and spiritual activities may help people to feel more satisfied.” Good news, I suppose for those who celebrate Christmas.

They also stated something else about the history of Christmas in America, which, if true, surprised me (and doesn’t it have to be true if it appears in a scientific journal?): “The Christmas holiday has evolved from an event banned in some American colonies to one that dominates the month of December.” (I hadn’t realized that some early colonists banned Christmas.)

The search brought up Penn State University as the third item – fortunately, for something other than the sex abuse scandal there: “The Schatz Center has a large Christmas tree tissue culture research program that benefits from access to walk in environmental growth rooms designed specifically for plant tissue culture in the Biotechnology Institute.” Seriously, the preeminence of football can sometimes cause us to forget that, as the NCAA reminds us in their advertising, “most college atheletes enter careers other than sports.”

Actually, Christmas tree research is a much bigger deal than I ever knew.  At New Mexico State University, "The Christmas Tree Research Program is the longest running program at the (Mora Research) Center. In addition to screening provenances of many native and non-native commercial Christmas tree species, this program played an instrumental role in introducing eldarica pine (Pinus brutia var. eldarica)to New Mexico. Work on both genetics and plantation management has resulted in the shortening of rotation ages of many Christmas tree species in some cases by more than 50%.” Good news for the Christmas tree industry, I suppose.

Abramitzky and colleagues, in The Economic Journal (2010), assessed: “Is Hanukkah Responsive to Christmas?” They state: “We use individual-level survey and county-level expenditure data to examine the extent to which Hanukkah celebrations among US Jews are driven by the presence of Christmas. We document that Jews with young children are more likely to celebrate Hanukkah, that this effect is greater for reform Jews and for strongly-identified Jews, and that Jewish-related expenditure on Hanukkah is higher in counties with lower shares of Jews. All these findings are consistent with the hypothesis that celebration of religious holidays is designed not only for worship and enjoyment but also to provide a counterbalance for children against competing cultural influences.”

Unfortunately, researchers at New York University (my alma mater) reported problems with an evaluation study of something called the “Christmas Gifts Aid Program”, such as: “Lack of Rigorous Methodology: Regrettably, this evaluation had to proceed without the required Randomized Controlled Trial on Christmas Gifts, which failed to be completed as planned. Project managers did a poor job explaining the advantages of RCT participation to the Control Group. Lack of Targeting: The Christmas Gifts aid program was not sufficiently well-targeted to the poor.  Recipients of Christmas Gifts indiscriminately included well-off regions, groups, genders, and individuals. Lack of Net Flows: Evaluators found Christmas Gift recipients engaged in behavior that frustrated the aid program, with Recipients acting as Donors to their own Donors, reducing their own net aid intake. They explained their counterproductive behavior with non-standard concepts such as “Tis more bless’d to give than to receive.”" I’m not sure I fully understand what that means, but it is sad, isn’t it?

Emory University’s Theology Library has a resource page: “In response to annual requests for information about the origin and celebration of Christmas, we've compiled this resource page. The works cited range from scholarly folklore studies to popular commentaries on modern observances.” A worthwhile reference, if you seek that information. Similarly, the Baylor University library web site “Provides some links to traditions, food, and crafts; international in focus.”

Sam Houston University is planning new research efforts in the Christmas Mountains. No relation to the holiday, of course, but if their research on climate change pays off, it might be a present for all of us.

In any case, I’ll continue to eat my cookies, drink tea, wear my Charlie Brown Santa Claus tie, and enjoy the season. Merry Christmas to you; enjoy the holidays!

*The Merriam-Webster Dictionary “word of the day” for December 25, 2011, meaning “news”.

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