It’s Christmastime, which means we celebrate the birth of our Savior by…drinking eggnog, putting a pine tree inside our house for some reason, and leaving cookies out for a fat man in a red suit.
Yes, some of our traditions do feel arbitrary. Others (like gift giving) are tied to Scripture (the wise men gave gifts). But there’s more to it than that. In fact, science demonstrates that giving serves a vital function in that it really does make us happier.
There are documentable benefits to many of the traditions and lessons of Christianity (and, admittedly, other faith traditions). In fact, far from there being a “war on Christmas,” science and mainstream culture seem to be working overtime to convince us of the benefits of religious practices and rituals.
Let’s take, for example, something a lot of believers do this time of year: singing in a choir.
Not only is this a great way to get in the Christmas spirit, but a study conducted at Canterbury Christ Church University in England shows that group singing improves happiness and well-being, while a different study shows that that it reduces muscle tension while boosting posture and breathing. Choral singing can also boost the immune system. Perhaps most compelling, singing in a choir has positive benefits for people who have had a stroke and people with Parkinson’s disease. A 2016 study concluded that “participation was perceived as improving mood, language, breathing and voice.”
While it’s a mystery why belting out “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” has so many health and psychological benefits, plausible theories include proper breathing, a sense of purpose (thinking about a transcendent message conveyed in lyrics), belonging to a community, and (if you’ll permit me to engage in a little mystical, Marianne Williamson-esque speculation) exposure to harmonic sounds, frequencies, and vibrations.
Another tradition I would like to embrace is declaring the Sabbath off-limits.
If you’re like me, even during the holidays (which were once considered sacrosanct), the invasive innovation of the smartphone has made it hard to set boundaries between work life and family life. But like a smartphone, our batteries need to be recharged―not perpetually on empty because of mindless scrolling.
I probably don’t have to sell you on the idea that rest is good, but let me quickly emphasize one of the best, if least appreciated, benefits: sex. Far from being sacrilegious, this is perfectly, shall we say, kosher. There’s even a romance novel called Double Mitzvah about Sabbath sex (one translation of “mitzvah” is a good deed done from religious duty). Now, this might sound like pure unadulterated fun, but consider the documented positive effects. Here’s one: If you’re married, consider how much better your marriage would be if there was a day without TV or cellphones that was, at least partly, dedicated to intimacy. I think science will back me on this. Can I get an amen?
To study the benefits of the Sabbath, we need a control group. Here, there’s truthfully not much concrete data. But a Seventh-day Adventist school in California found research suggesting that “…refraining from secular activities on Sabbath was associated with better mental health and better physical health.’”
There are plenty of other examples of how religions practices are demonstrating health and psychological benefits, too.
Although the sin of gluttony is more likely to make an appearance during the holidays, the practice of fasting, which is mentioned almost 80 times in the Bible, is becoming trendy. This is for good reason, too. Studies are finding that it can help ward off neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Likewise, a rising number of health experts and nutritionists are embracing fasting as both a weight-loss aid and a diabetes preventative.
While these are not the 40-day fasts described in some passages of the Bible, intermittent fasting (periods of eating followed by periods of fasting) has emerged as a well-regarded and effective discipline. (Note: This is not to minimize the spiritual significance of fasting, which is to learn to rely on God and not your own strength. The last thing I would want to do is to inspire a prosperity gospel book on How Following Jesus Can Get You Ripped Abs.)
I could go on, but I don’t want to bore you with countless studies about how so many other practices like prayer and meditation, gratitude, and generosity have been documentably proven to help make us happier and healthier. But I’ll leave you with a more interesting, if weird, one that might help explain why it’s appropriate for all this Christmas merriment to come at what is, meteorologically, the darkest time of the year. A famous 1993 experiment conducted by Paul Ekman and Richard Davidson demonstrated that, rather than being reactive, forcing a smile can actually generate positive emotions.
How does that fit into the religious theme? The Christian Bible is full of advice for people to effectively smile before they feel joyful (there is literally a verse that says: “A friendly smile makes you happy…” – Proverbs 15:30). In many ways, this is what faith actually is―acting as though you have received God’s blessing even before it physically materializes.
There are numerous examples of why we are to “call those things which be not as though they were.” Abraham and his wife were too old to have children, but God changed his name from Abram to Abraham, which translated to “father of many nations.” That’s right. God changed his name before he changed his circumstances―the ultimate “fake it ‘til you make it” success story.
Paul and Silas (missionaries in the early church) were beaten and thrown into jail, yet they sang hymns of joy before the prison’s walls collapsed and they escaped. On their way to the promised land, Joshua and the Israelites marched around Jericho for six days with the irrational faith that the city would fall on the seventh day. Guess when the city’s walls fell? Yep.
Regardless of whether you believe these practices are beneficial because they were laid out by an omnipotent Creator who loves us and wants the best for us, or simply that the accumulated wisdom of mankind was retroactively incorporated into faith traditions, modern science demonstrates that many Biblical habits have documentable—almost miraculous—benefits.
Some people might say these practices work because they are God’s rules. Others might say they became God’s rules because they work. Either way, you can (and should) be following most of these habits, regardless of where you come down on the question of faith.
Now, back to your parties, merriment, and hanging mistletoe.
Some believe it cures cancer. Don’t believe me? Look it up!