DR PEMBERTON: Now, more than ever, we must keep our Christmas rituals

DR MAX PEMBERTON: Now, more than ever, we must keep our Christmas rituals

  • Research claims depression is linked to greater risk of heart disease in later life 
  • Dr Max Pemberton says traditions root us historically and give us meaning 
  • Explains festive rituals are important for cheering us up and avoiding depression

A few days before Christmas when I was 16, I had some earth-shattering news. I was studying A-level RE and it was the last lesson of Biblical Scripture before school broke up for the holidays.

The teacher, Sister Mary Stephen, had decided it would be apposite to reflect on the Christmas story in the Bible — the so-called ‘birth narratives’.

Everything had been very interesting until she said, almost flippantly, that there was no donkey at the birth of Christ.

Has this woman lost her mind, I thought to myself. Of course there was a donkey. Hasn’t she heard the Little Donkey carol? What about all those Christmas cards with donkeys on them?

Dr Max Pemberton explains the importance of celebrating Christmas traditions to stave off depression, as studies reveals a link between depression and a greater risk of heart disease in later life (file image)

She smiled angelically at me and persevered. ‘Most scholars agree that, given Mary and Joseph’s social and economic position, it’s unlikely they would ever have travelled on a donkey. And, of course, there’s no scriptural evidence to support the idea that there was a donkey.’

I scoffed at her ignorance. She might be a nun, but se clearly hadn’t read the Bible. There was a donkey in there. Somewhere.

So I reached for a Bible as she waited patiently. I looked at Sister Mary Stephen in her habit, gently shaking her head at me. ‘It doesn’t matter that there wasn’t a donkey,’ she said calmly. The earth-shattering news was that she was correct — there was no donkey in the Bible.

I was irrationally furious with her. Can it still be Christmas without a donkey? Didn’t tradition mean anything to her? The truth is, Sister Mary Stephen didn’t need the donkey, because she knew what the Christmas story was really about.

The Christmas story is essentially one of celebration and love, but its value and importance also operates on the level of tradition; the rituals and objects we associate with it.

Psychologically, we hold on to these because they root us historically and give us meaning. They develop and are incorporated into our internal world as a way of defending ourselves from the chaos of the world outside. Turkey, carols, Christmas trees and so on are comforting, familiar objects and are often seen as the important aspect of Christmas.

It’s interesting that so many of these ‘old’ traditions are actually only a few generations old — if that.

Go back a few hundred years and the Christmas traditions would be very different. But traditions are important because they bring us together with a sense of belonging.

Dr Max Pemberton (pictured) said creating and nurturing your own traditions with family can help to bring you together 

We are social animals and we need to feel connected to one another, and doing this through what we believe is a shared past binds us.

We create a mythology around key events such as Christmas to give us a sense of common ancestry even though this is, in itself often a myth.

I’m a great believer in this power of ritual, and knowing that most tradition is invented can be quite liberating. It means we are free to create our own. This is something I often discuss with my patients and encourage them to try themselves.

As families become increasingly fragmented and atomised, I think realising that you create and nurture your own traditions, and that consciously doing so can help to bring you together, is incredibly important.

However your Christmas is shaping up — and let’s be honest, for many of us it’s not what we would have planned — it is still important to celebrate Christmas and to foster your traditions in order to cheer yourself up and stave off depression.

We already know depression blights lives, but this week, a new study linked it to a greater risk of heart disease or strokes in later life.

Researchers analysed data on the mental health of more than 400,000 people in the UK over a decade and found those with the most severe depression were a third more likely to suffer physical health issues.

Indulging in traditions and treats that root us and connect us to one another are even more important when we’re faced with upheaval and uncertainty.

Many of us will be unable to visit family and friends this year, but even if that’s the case, we should still uphold family traditions. Rituals have great power to impact on our mood, even more so over Christmas.

even if you’re on our own, or in a smaller group than usual, put up your tree, wear your Christmas jumper, watch the Queen’s speech, eat a proper dinner with your Christmas tablecloth and posh glasses —whatever it is you and your family normally do.

Every Christmas my mum puts out a papier-mâché snowman I made when I was five. We call it the Mafia Snowman because it looks like it’s wearing sunglasses like a gangster.

I can’t see my mum this year, but she still phoned me last week to say she’d unpacked Mafia Snowman and had out it on top of the tree.

It’s traditions like this that help remind us of different, perhaps brighter times.

And most of all? Pick up the phone — call those you would normally see — and anyone who you know will be alone this year. It’s never been more important to feel connected to one another.

Kids suffer if school doors close

Last week the Government decided some secondary school pupils will learn remotely for the first week of next term. Scientists insist if this doesn’t happen, cases of Covid-19 will sky-rocket.

I worry these scientists — and many of the politicians pushing for children to stay at home — have no experience of the lives some young people have. It makes me weep to think of schools shutting.

The poorest, most vulnerable children are already at a disadvantage and were knocked back by school closures earlier this year. Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman has said the first schools closure created a ‘legacy of abuse and neglect’. How can we even entertain doing this again?

Schools provide more than just lessons — they provide safety, calm, order, discipline and food. For the sake of the most deprived children, we must resist the call to shut them again.

Dr Max argues school provide more than just lessons, there is a need to resist shutting them again for the sake of the most deprived children (file image)

  • I was interested to read about the side-effects experienced by some participants in the Pfizer vaccine trial. Fatigue, chills, vomiting and diarrhoea. It sounds worrying, doesn’t it? Actually, this was all reported by those who received the placebo, not the real vaccine. It just goes to show how powerful the placebo effect is. In fact, we know it tends to be stronger with injections, because people believe they are ‘stronger’.

We know placebo injections are more effective than pills when people are told they are painkillers.

Isn’t the mind fascinating?

Dr Max prescribes…booking a 2021 treat

This year hasn’t been much fun, let’s be honest. I really needed something to look forward to in the New Year and wanted to support the UK economy, so I’ve booked myself and my partner into the Buxton Crescent Spa in Derbyshire, which has just opened to rave reviews. I feel so much better now I’ve finally got something to look forward to. I suggest you book something special, too.

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