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Is it time for a ‘silent night’?

Are you a Grinch who hates the sight of Christmas in November? Do you sneer at early sales of advent calendars and Christmas decorations? Do the persistent soundtracks of Christmas songs at every shop, workplace, and public event grate your soul? Then I have some great news for you. What was once a socially unacceptable critique of society is now a scientifically validated diagnosis of the downsides of our Christmas-mania. As it turns out, there are bigger problems with ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ than Bono saying “thank God it’s them instead of you” about the starving children that they were raising money for.

Psychologist Linda Blair explained how listening to Christmas songs excessively can negatively impact our mental health, especially for people working in shops that are forced to listen to Christmas music for several weeks. She said that workers “have to [tune out] Christmas music, because if they don’t, it really does stop you from being able to focus on anything else” and, in the long term, the mental effort of drowning out music will take its toll.

What was once a socially unacceptable critique of society is now a scientifically validated diagnosis of the downsides of our Christmas-mania.

But why would people tire of Christmas tunes? After all, don’t most people become viscerally excited when they hear Mariah Carey for the first time of the year? Why would the festive feeling ever die? Humans, at least musically, aren’t creatures of habit, as shown by the mere exposure effect. Just as we like to keep our non-festive music varied, repetition of Christmas songs can easily grate.

The mere exposure effect posits our relationship to music being like a bell curve, with our enjoyment peaking somewhere in the middle. Music psychologist Victoria Williamson describes how our interest and tolerance grind to a crashing halt once we go beyond this peak. Festive satisfaction replaced by boredom and frustration. For people not feeling Christmassy, this effect is exasperated as the music triggers reminders of any Christmas related anxieties, whether it’s the gargantuan task of preparing Christmas dinner, seeing your hated cousins, or working in retail during the Christmas rush.

The mere exposure effect posits our relationship to music being like a bell curve, with our enjoyment peaking somewhere in the middle.

One might now be wondering why business and organisations indulge in the gluttony of constant Christmas songs if it eventually makes their workers miserable. Unsurprisingly, it’s about money. A 2005 study analysing the effects of music on consumers and found that the perfect combination of Christmas music and Christmassy smells kept customers in shops for longer, making more purchases. Author Eric Spangenberg, who has specialised in the influence of music on shopping, even gives a recipe (or a soundtrack) of the best songs to use, saying “slower tempo music slows down shoppers, and they spend more time and money in a store.”

But it isn’t as simple as that. A survey from the 2011 Consumer Reports discovered 23% of Americans say they dreaded holiday music. Perhaps this is why consumers such as Shana McGough find the incessant blaring of Christmas soundtracks off-putting, who told NBC News that too much Christmas music “starts to feel like a part of a giant sales machine trying to bleed me dry.” An everlasting barrage of music ripping the core values of Christmas out of their most beloved songs and replacing it with a hollow, unfulfilling consumerism.

A survey from the 2011 Consumer Reports discovered 23% of Americans say they dreaded holiday music.

Perhaps it’s time for vigilant managers to heed such advice and dilute their soundtracks of Christmas music. Sweet and sentimental can easily turn into cynical and saccharine. Shana McGough’s complaint of Christmas consumerism speaks to societal fears about Christmas’ core values being lost in an obsession with materialism and money-making. And no holiday is more important to us than Christmas.

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