The 120 days of Christmas? Are there psychological benefits to extending Christmas lights?

Three years ago I wrote the blog here about the way we as a society make January and February so miserable after the mid-winter celebrations of Christmas and the New Year. I said:

Heading back to the office in the cold wind today, it struck me that why do we have such an excellent mid-winter festival and then make our January and February’s look so dreary?

A simple solution that struck me was that people and organisations should keep up their Christmas lights until the end of February. Indeed I think Christmas lights should be on from the beginning of November so the 4 darkest months are lit up!

Now I know that some might argue that in an era of climate change we should not be so wasteful, but the costs to the economy of sickness and mental illness in January and February should make us see the bigger picture. In any case we are rapidly moving to low energy lightbulbs so I think the level of energy usage should not increase for the extra time lights are on.

Richard Layard has written extensively about the science of happiness and has been successful in campaigning for extra government support for Talking Therapies. I don’t necessarily agree with him that you can substantially increase overall happiness for everyone in a competitive market economy where change and innovation will always make some people unhappy at any given point. However I do agree with Layard’s case that we can make things better for those who may suffer depressive illness. It is also well known that the middle of January is the worst time of the year for this.

Little things such as lighting up the dark days of winter with a continuing display of lights should make everyone feel a little better as they head back from the office in the 8 weeks after the Christmas holidays!

Since writing that blog there have been further articles and studies about the worst point of the winter; Blue Monday in the third week of January; with Mental Health charities even operating a support website. Also, since writing my earlier posting, the UK has now gone into recession and the VAT rise and rise in public sector charges for services is likely to be impacting on people harder this year than it was when I wrote the blog above in early 2008. One option might be to set the clocks on British Summer Time all year round for lighter evenings as the Lighter Later campaign advocates, however this is likely to require ‘upstream’ activity such as legislation, so may take a number of years to achieve. In the meantime perhaps individuals can develop ‘downstream’ approaches as I suggested in my earlier blog posting.

If anyone wants evidence of how nice keeping the lighting up would be, they should go this evening to the Queen’s Walk along the Thames between the National Theatre and the Oxo Tower on the South Bank in London established in 2005. It is a beautiful place most evenings because of the lighting. Why can’t we see more lighting like this, at least for the Winter months?

I don’t think I am even being that radical here. It is interesting to note that the ‘tradition’ of taking lights down by Twelfth Night seems to be a recent superstition and Candlemas (2 Feb) was the day decorations should come down:

“Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall”

— Robert Herrick (1591–1674), “Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve”

Of course in this modern age one might even take the risk of breaking the superstition of bad luck by keeping decorations up longer?

How could we change behaviour here? Values will count and people may hold different views because of that. Some might see the rational case for psychological well-being or enjoy the intrinsic beauty of winter lighting, but some may be loath to move from their perception of ‘tradition’ and emotionally consider a change ‘bad luck’. Some might go along with a change if they see others do so and to follow a new trend.

One idea that might chime with ‘traditionalists’ might be to utilise the Royal Family to set a new trend? After all it was copying the actions of Prince Albert that the Christmas Tree became a ‘tradition’ in the UK less than 150 years ago. It might even be a campaign that Prince Charles or Prince William might relish to improve the lives of people in future? A ‘Keep the Lights Up’ campaign might be something that could be organised for 2012? Indeed the band Coldplay with their recent Christmas single – which interestingly was actually filmed amongst the permanent lights at the Queen’s Walk at the South Bank – might even have given the campaign a theme tune by asking that “those Christmas Lights keep shining on“!

Charlie Mansell is the Research and Development Officer at The Campaign Company. If you want to see what your own primary values set is, why not take the simple Values Questionnaire here.

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