Shortly after Thanksgiving, I was walking through my Queens, N.Y. neighborhood when a truck stacked with Christmas trees drove by. Within seconds, the sweet smell of pine filled my nose, bringing with it a confirmation that Christmas had arrived, along with all the madness that is the holiday season.

Christmas is my favorite time of year. For as long as I can remember, it’s been filled with good memories. My family is small — I have two sisters, my dad, two aunts, and my mom and her husband — but not entirely close, since we’re all busy living our own separate lives. Christmas is one of the rare times that we can come together to show each other love, revel in each other’s life stories, and show that no matter what we go through, we’ll be there for each other at the end of the year (with food and gifts, too).

Here’s the thing, though: I attended a Pentecostal Christian church from about 6 to 10 years old, and then began practicing reform Judaism, even having a bar mitzvah at 13. I’m mixed race; my father’s from San Salvador, El Salvador, and my mom is from Liverpool, England, so this afforded me with a unique upbringing in which I was able to explore religions — I ultimately decided I didn’t like practicing either. But the traditions that came with these religions stuck. Christmas, especially, stuck like the sap from a Christmas tree.

The Health Benefits Of A Secular Christmas

I’ve found myself wondering over the past five or six years whether I have a right to celebrate Christmas. I haven’t attended church or synagogue (not that jews really celebrate Christmas) since I was 14, I don’t believe in Jesus Christ being our Lord and savior, and I don’t even know if I believe in God.

What I do believe in is the power of family and community — friends, colleagues, etc. — to shape our well-being, and especially our mental health. These communities can be a small circle of friends or a larger network, including an extended family and neighbors. Either way, belonging to one creates a social support network in which we can express our emotions to someone who cares, be supported instrumentally (financially, or by doing favors like dogsitting), and exchange ideas on how to improve each other’s lives.

It’s for this reason that over the years I’ve come to believe a secular Christmas is just as beneficial to the human body as a religious one. A 2008 Canadian study, for example, found that a sense of community belongingness was associated with a higher level of perceived mental and general health. Out of the more than 100,000 participants, those who reported a strong sense of community belonging were about twice as likely to report excellent or very good general health, and more than twice as likely to report excellent or very good mental health.

Around this time of year, adults, but especially the elderly, are susceptible to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of winter-onset depression. While some may turn to light therapy, being surrounded by members of your community may prove just as beneficial. A study that followed participants from 1983 to 2003 found that those who lived in happy communities were likely to feel the happiness rub off on them, even if it came from a friend to the third degree  (a friend of a friend of a friend) —  an effect called emotional contagion.

Being with family and friends on Christmas is what's important. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

During Christmas, then, I don’t believe it’s necessary to subscribe to a religion just to observe the holiday. Simply being with friends and family during this time strengthens bonds and builds that social support system. In my home, it’s a reunion of both the Christian and Jewish sides of my family. There is no mention of our respective faiths, and the overall atmosphere is one of inclusion.

It’s easy to see how all of this creates both indirect and direct ways of stimulating happiness. But Christmas takes these benefits a step further, with the act of gift giving, which has also been found to improve mental health. One study in which these benefits were found involved a group of adults aged 55 and older. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, discovered adults who volunteered for two or more organizations were 44 percent less likely to die over a five-year period than those who didn’t. Another study from the National Institutes of Health found through brain scans that people who gave to charities showed more activity in the mesolimbic pathway, the reward center of the brain. These people experienced what the researchers called a “helper’s high,” as giving facilitated the release of endorphins. They also found the feelings were addictive.

I’m sure anyone who has given gifts, or helped a family member, can attest to the happy feeling that emerges from seeing the joy on that person’s face. But with a 10-year-old sister, it feels as if these feelings are amplified — although it could just be my love for her.  

Anyway, the benefits that giving and community belongingness bring to mental health, then, create a domino effect extending to physical health. Studies have shown they lower high blood pressure and stress levels, and normalize heart rate, meaning that the risk of heart disease (the number one cause of death in the U.S.) drops. That risk of death, then, also drops. This could be seen in research from 2010, which showed that people with poorer social ties had a 50 percent higher chance of early death.

Keeping Christ In Christmas

Many of the 77 percent of Americans who are Christian, however, would probably disagree with the idea that one need not be religious to celebrate Christmas and reap the benefits of belonging to a community. They might, in fact, say this idea goes against the entire meaning of Christmas. “Truth is, Christmas isn’t about stockings and gifts, trees and yuletide joy, or even Santa Claus,” Ben Gosden wrote in an opinion piece for the Savannah Morning News this month. “As a Christian, I am supposed to mark the day as a day when God was born as a baby to an unmarried peasant girl who, with her baby and not-yet husband, would soon become an immigrant family.” He argues that our society is “reducing Christmas down to a bland, innocuous notion of ‘Happy Holidays.’”

Gosden isn’t alone. In Piedmont, Ala., an atheist group was successful in convincing officials to drop the theme, “Keep Christ in Christmas,” from its annual holiday parade. City residents, however, weren’t having it; one store handed out 70 “Keep Christ in Christmas” t-shirts, while others held signs with the slogan. “They thought they were going to ruin our Christmas parade, but they wound up making it better than ever,” the city’s Mayor Bill Baker told The Anniston Star. “I am so proud and thankful that we had people willing to stand up for their Christianity.”

How About We Keep Christ Out Of Christmas

The thing about Christmas, however, is that its roots, and how we know it today, barely come from Christianity or acknowledging Jesus. You’ll find that the Bible doesn’t mention a birthdate for Jesus — some believe it was actually in the spring — and that a lot of today’s Christmas traditions are derived from paganism. Christmas trees and Santa Claus were both examples of this; the tree was a 17th-century German tradition, born from the pagan practice of bringing greenery indoors during the winter. Meanwhile, the idea of Santa Claus was a rendition of England’s Father Christmas, a variation of pagan beliefs that spirits travel the winter skies. And it was during the Victorian era that gift-giving shifted from New Year’s to Christmas.

This is what we know Christmas to be about today. Christmas today is less about Christ’s birth and more in line with the theme from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge transforms from a selfish, greedy, and cold miser to a kinder, gentler, and more generous person.

Santa Claus was a rendition of England’s Father Christmas, a variation of pagan beliefs that spirits travel the winter skies. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

A ‘Social Glue,’ For Better Or For Worse  

Today’s Christmas is about giving, spreading kindness, love, and forgiveness — being with family and friends, and embracing community. Those who celebrate Christmas by acknowledging Jesus Christ also have their own communities, and research has even shown that those aforementioned values tend to be instilled more efficiently in a religious society. But that doesn’t mean you have to practice; you just have to be exposed.

In a report from Yale University, Paul Bloom from the Department of Psychology wrote, “Religion exerts many of its effects, good and bad, through its force as a social glue: To belong to a religion is to belong to a social group whose members are close to one another, who share rituals and meet regularly, and hence are more likely to be generous toward each other and less likely to cheat each other.” He notes that these characteristics also make these people more likely to be “nasty” to others outside of the community.

But overall, religious people are kinder and more generous to others than their secular counterparts. Bloom says it’s not practicing religion that makes them this way, however; it’s the community they’re a part of. Here in America, that community is often found through friends and family, even if you’re atheist. “In fact, the statistics suggest that even an atheist who happened to become involved in the social life of the congregation (perhaps through a spouse) is much more likely to volunteer in a soup kitchen than the most fervent believer who prays alone,” the report said. “It is religious belongingness that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.”

Ethnic Diversity In The U.S. Creates New Secular Communities

The U.S. is a diverse country, and it’s becoming increasingly so. Mixed-race populations grew 32 percent between 2000 and 2010, compared to single-race populations, which grew 9.7 percent. In some way, this may be related to the growing number of people who are religiously unaffiliated — 32 percent of U.S. adults under 30 consider themselves unaffiliated, compared to 24 percent of adults 50 and up.

With diversity proliferating, peoples’ cultures, values, and senses of community will converge, whether it’s sooner or later. Religious belongingness will reach people who aren’t necessarily connected. Jews will meet Protestants, Catholics will meet Muslims, and, as was the case with me, some people will end up practicing neither of their parents’ or spouses religions, even as they continue to observe the traditions.

More people will celebrate Christmas with family or friends, or friends’ friends, and this building of new secular communities will push forward the values that many of us now observe on Christmas — as well as the health benefits of community and giving, without acknowledging Jesus.