Embracing Health and Joy: The Christmas Triad

December 5, 2023

As the weather becomes ever more dismal, and the days get shorter it is as if we are enveloped by darkness and then, Christmas appears. It is not only a time of joy and togetherness, but also a celebration with significant health advantages. Christmas offers a unique blend of history, flavours, and connection that helps our total well-being. This triad includes the solstice observances at Newgrange and elsewhere, the delicious spices that adorn our holiday foods, and families getting together.

Even though Christmas shopping traditionally started on December 8th, the real start of Christmas, for me, is  the ceremony of watching sunrise at Newgrange. During the solstice the passage at this ancient Irish site is lit by the rising sun, thus heralding the commencement of a new agricultural year. The solstice also represents the victory of light over darkness, a metaphor that perfectly captures the spirit of Christmas with the birth of the Christ child. As the knowledge of brighter days ahead coincides with the spirit of hope and new growth, the excitement and celebration of light surrounding this midwinter event can have a favourable effect on mental health.

The rich selection of spices that add warmth and flavour to the season’s meals is one that makes Christmas so unique. In addition to their scent, spices like ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon have several health advantages. Due to their anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and immune-stimulating qualities, these spices have long been valued. 

The familiar cloves contain compounds with anti-inflammatory effects, such as eugenol. They are rich in antioxidants, which can help neutralize harmful free radicals in the body thus playing a role in protecting cells from damage. To add to their overall usefulness, cloves also have natural antibacterial and antifungal properties. Traditionally, cloves have been most associated with dental health, and this is due the presence of eugenol which is not only anti-microbial but also helps alleviate pain and is antiseptic. Cloves also  help digestion by promoting the secretion of digestive enzymes which help reduce gas and bloating. Other benefits of cloves include the easing of coughs, hence their inclusion in the traditional ‘hot toddy.’ New research is indicating a role for cloves in controlling  blood  sugar, but it is early days yet to be sure of this. However, I have rarely seen traditional uses of a herb or spice not to be supported by modern research, so  perhaps this is why cloves are added to apple tarts – to reduce the effect of the sugar surge.

Cinnamon is the second most commonly used spice at Christmas, so it is no surprise to discover it is also extremely beneficial to health. Because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities, cinnamon is beneficial to health. It has ingredients that fight oxidative stress by neutralising free radicals. Research indicates that it could improve insulin sensitivity, which would help with blood sugar regulation and be advantageous for people with type 2 diabetes or insulin resistance. Because cinnamon lowers triglycerides and LDL cholesterol, it is also beneficial for heart health. Similar to cloves, its antibacterial qualities promote dental health. Some research is indicating that there may be neuroprotective benefits in cinnamon that help prevent age-related brain disorders. The research on the anti-cancer benefits is in the early stages so a lot more investigation is necessary on that front. If possible, choose Ceylon cinnamon as it has a reduced coumarin content, and coumarins can be dangerous in large amounts. Since everyone reacts differently, it is best to consume spices in the usual small quantities they are used traditionally. 

In a world consumed by hectic schedules, the holidays offer a priceless chance to get back together with family and friends. According to social psychology studies, these get-togethers can promote general mental health by providing essential social support, lowering stress levels, and arousing feelings of belonging, and their role within the family. This, needless to say, may be a positive or a negative, depending on how a person identified themselves within the family. However, generally, the shared experiences, such as cooking a holiday meal together, receiving gifts, or keeping long-standing customs and rituals forge links that increase family ties. Consequently, reduced stress levels, enhanced mental health, and an increased sense of overall satisfaction have all been connected to these events. This, in turn, is linked to happier living. Also, the shared experiences result in enduring memories and though some people’s experience may be different, family gatherings around Christmas often have a positive effect on psychological wellbeing and social connections.

In summary, Christmas is a celebration that includes long-standing customs, wonderful meals, and the cosiness of close family ties. It is more than just a time for fun, festivities, and shopping. Newgrange sets the tone for the week ahead as it represents the victory of light and the hope of longer days. The spices we use to season our food are not only delicious, but also have numerous health advantages. Above all, spending Christmas with family strengthens the bonds that are necessary for a happy and fulfilled existence, which in turn improves our wellbeing. This Christmas, let us celebrate the gifts of health and happiness that this time of year gives us and a happy Christmas to all my readers.

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