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updated 12/16/2010 7:31:21 PM ET 2010-12-17T00:31:21

Here's a new twist to the annual "War on Christmas" debate: Reminders of Christmas can make religious minorities feel ill at ease — even if they don't realize it.

When people who did not celebrate Christmas or who did not identify as Christian filled out surveys about their moods while in the same room as a small Christmas tree, they reported less self-assurance and fewer positive feelings than if they hadn't been reminded of the holiday, according to a new study.

The university students didn't know the study was about Christmas, said study researcher Michael Schmitt, a social psychologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. Nonetheless, he said, the presence of the tree caused non-celebrators and non-Christians to feel subtly excluded.

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"Simply having this 12-inch Christmas tree in the room with them made them feel less included in the university as a whole, which to me is a pretty powerful effect from one 12-inch Christmas tree in one psychology lab," Schmitt told LiveScience.

The researchers reported their results in November in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Oh, Christmas tree …
Schmitt, who celebrates Christmas, was motivated to do the study by the now-yearly debates over Christmas decorations in public spaces. As a social psychologist, he said, it occurred to him that he could provide data on the effect of decorations, "rather than people just sort of speculating."

Previous studies have shown that the environment can have significant effects on people's moods and preferences. In one 2009 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that women report less interest in computer science after being exposed to stereotypically masculine, "geeky" rooms.

Schmitt and his colleagues took a similar approach to the Christmas study. They asked participants to fill out surveys about themselves while sitting in either a nondescript room or a room with a small Christmas tree. [Read: Christmas Eel Makes Tree Lights Electric ]

In the first study, the researchers recruited student volunteers who had answered questions months earlier about which holidays they celebrated. Thirty Christmas celebrators and 22 non-celebrators took part in the study, which occurred around Christmastime.

The researchers then repeated the study with 16 Buddhist students, 19 Sikh students and 47 Christian students.

Most wonderful time of the year?
In both versions of the study, the Christmas tree failed to spread holiday cheer equally. Non-celebrators reported fewer positive feelings and less self-assurance in the Christmas room. Christians and celebrators, on the other hand, were mostly cheered by the tree, with one exception: Celebrators reported feeling more guilt when they were in the Christmas room. That finding suggests that even for Christmas-lovers, the holiday can be stressful, Schmitt said.

The religious minorities and non-celebrators weren't looking to be offended by reminders of Christmas, the study found. After the surveys, the researchers explained the goal of the experiment to the volunteers and asked each of them how they thought the presence of the tree might affect their mood. There was no difference between the responses of Christians and non-Christians or celebrators and non-celebrators. All thought Christmas decorations would make them happier.

"Maybe it's a subtle effect, and they weren't really aware that the tree is affecting them," Schmitt said. They may also be embarrassed or unwilling to admit that a Christmas tree could make them grumpy, he said.

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(Don't) deck the halls
Schmitt emphasizes that he's not interested in being the Grinch who stole Christmas. Still, he said, the majority should take a closer look at how its symbols affect minorities.

"I don't think it's really going to undermine anyone's experience of Christmas to tone it down," he said. "We're not suggesting 'no Christmas' or 'no Christmas displays at all,' but in contexts where we really do value respecting and including diversity in terms of religion, the safest option is not to have these kinds of displays."

Another option is to include other religious traditions in holiday displays, Schmitt said. The researchers didn't investigate the effect of minority religious symbols on people in the majority; however, they wrote, previous research suggests that because these symbols are less frequent and less symbolic of the culture at large, the effect should be minimal.

Schmitt said he's used to getting negative reactions to the study.

"I understand why it might feel threatening to people," he said. "But I think if people do care about making a whole range of different kinds of people in our increasingly diverse society feel included and respected, then we can make some small changes… that would go a long way toward creating a more multicultural or inclusive society."

You can follow LiveScience Senior Writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas

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