Christmas Spirit vs. New Year’s Resolution: Which brings us more comfort & joy?

Christmas spirit gets a very good rap this time of year. It’s credited with everything from increased heart size to more holistic financial planning, and its effects are oft considered to be the by-products of a miracle. But what about the world beyond the TV screen — a world in which Christmas has experienced severe backlash due to its ever-expanding ubiquity and unchecked commercialism? What kind of sway does Christmas spirit really hold over lines full of angry shoppers, haggard retail employees, and the invisible populations of people for whom Christmas is not the focal winter holiday?

As a child, the arrival of a new year always paled in comparison to Christmas’ glittering merry & bright promise of unusual extravagance. But as I’ve grown older, the appeal of a new start looms larger and larger in my festive feelings.

For Auld Lang Syne, widely thought to be the most popular (or only) New Year’s song, hearkens back to old friendships, encouraging singers to come together once again before the year is through, for old times’ sake. It’s a hopeful song, focused primarily on the past, with a very trusting attitude towards the future. Its iconic line, “we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne” (roughly translated, for old long since) indicates that while we may know not what the future may bring, and whether it will see us together again, we will savor the time we have left and accept whatever comes next. In recent years, however, our collective reflection on the past has not seemed so hopeful. Rather than a desire to see the old year off well, social media tells a story of wishing to jettison 2018 as far and fast as possible — to share the same fate met by 2016, and 2017.

New Year’s resolutions are January’s answer to Christmas’ ambient theorem of peace on earth and goodwill towards men. However, while Christmas cheer focuses primarily on behavior toward others, most New Year’s resolutions are intended to operate on a scale affecting few people beyond oneself. Intrinsic in the rhetoric behind either is the self-improvement ideal of New Years, versus the pay-it-forward aspect of Christmas. But when examining the list of most common resolutions made by Americans at the turn of the year, they range greatly from self-conscious concerns of health & physical appearance to the desire to spend more time with family and friends (accompanied by the awareness that You Only Live Once), to resolving to expand one’s horizons through reading, travel, or learning a new skill. And while the most personal resolutions may be destined to have a limited impact, the implications of meaningful emotional or mental self-improvement can spread far beyond one’s immediate circle or friends or relatives. That being said, the statistical standing of kept New Year’s resolutions is depressingly low — usually slightly below ten percent. Still, better odds than an atmosphere of holly jollity that occurs during only one month out of the year.

Another important consideration for comparison between the two is the regulation of holiday spirit in both camps. As Charles Dickens so famously taught us, even in the 1800s it was impossible to be a Scrooge and get away with it. Regardless of religious affiliation, some measure of Christmas spirit is expected in modern-day America, and its absence will be punished — or at least, remarked upon. Also observable in A Christmas Carol, the holiday has long stood occasion for a kind of reckoning. As the 1934 classic Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town warns: “You better not shout / You better not cry / You better not pout; I’m tellin’ you why…”. In this less ominous version of the story, good behavior at this critical juncture will reap reward, and the worst that can happen is coal in your stocking. Santa’s darker counterparts, who punish children who have not been good with anything from beatings to evisceration, stem from many traditions but have largely been bred out of modern American tidings of comfort and joy. Whether by specters, Santa, Krampus or the sermons of the neighborhood gossip, Christmas spirit is largely externally regulated. It’s also somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy; when the atmosphere around you is conducive to good cheer, one is more likely to be cheerful. In the same vein, when one is cheerful and expected to be more kind, generous, charitable, and forgiving towards others, one is more likely to become so.

New Year’s resolutions, on the other hand, are entirely self-regulated. As we’ve all heard, the first step to real change is acceptance of the trait or habit to be altered. Research shows time and time again that individuals resolving to change an aspect of themselves for external reasons (family, significant others, court mandate) struggle to achieve lasting results. Accordingly, owning an aspect of oneself which one considers to be “bad” and truly desiring to change it is a deeply personal process. How many of us have wished for some tool or device that would “make” us stick to our guns, or even considered asking someone else to be the enforcer? The fact is, if it were easy to quit the behavior, we likely wouldn’t be doing it at all. Habit experts say that our negative habits operate on a cue, routine, reward basis. Bad habits are triggered by a desire to avoid something unpleasant using a method that provides instant gratification, rather than choosing a course that may be more difficult in the moment, but better for us in the long run. The bits of ourselves that we wish to change are essentially hedonistic, requiring our ego and superego to provide an even greater reward in order to change the routine triggered by the cue. The peer-pressure stimulus of Christmas spirit can apply to New Year’s resolutions as well: public accountability can help to stay strong when motivation levels sink. However, studies have also shown that external pressure and an excess of unsolicited advice can have a reverse-psychology effect.

When it comes down to it, the beneficiaries of the positive energy generated by either Christmas or New Year’s are, at least on the surface, fundamentally different. Christmas spirit is officially intended to affect others; while New Year’s resolutions revolve around the only person we can reasonably hope to change: ourselves. Digging deeper, the only true difference in the spirit of the seasons is its trigger. Christmas spirit is derived from an atmosphere that is socially, religiously, and physically constructed, while resolving to make a significant change (and actually taking steps to do so) ultimately stems from within. That the individual making the resolution will be the first to feel its effects does not minimize their potential to exponentiate.

Just as in the self-perpetuating cycle of Christmas cheer, feeling positively towards oneself puts one in a mental atmosphere more conducive to behaving positively towards others. And when we’re kind to others, more often than not, that kindness will be passed along. It may not come in as shiny of a package, but there’s something to be said for New Year’s spirit. The sense of accomplishment you feel about doing good for others versus doing good for yourself is most likely very similar, but really, how often do most of us take the time to do good things for ourselves? The science behind the most successful New Year’s resolutions supports a very healthy relationship with the self: according to multiple studies conducted on the subject, belief in one’s ability to make the intended change is essential to doing so. Research also recommends encouraging yourself towards the completion of a goal in the same way you would a child. When you fail to achieve exactly the intended result, “You wouldn’t say ‘that’s because you’re an idiot.’ You would say ‘come on, you can do it!’” (Pauline Wallin, Taming Your Inner Brat). Being kind and forgiving to yourself can not only help you attain your New Year’s goals, but also makes you more likely to behave that way towards others.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the holiday cheer historically associated with the Christmas season just as much as the next person. But considering that New Year’s resolutions are typically about habit-building, they may have more potential staying power than the 26–32 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas (even considering the Christmas creep occasionally preceding Halloween’s arrival onto the retail scene). Which one makes us better people? Nobody can say. But for anyone feeling a bit flat now that the holidays are over and winter seems bleak, mourn not Christmas cheer — for New Year’s is here.

For any recent resolvers in search of tips & tricks on how to make a New Year’s resolution stick, this article was the best I came across in my research for this post.

Reader, writer, novelist, living statue, poet, chocolatier, jewelry designer, and sometime human being determined to believe in a better world.

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