The Grim Santa

I didn’t think anything of it until the third person this week told me that he had to reschedule meetings because of a death in the family. In his case, there were two deaths: his aunt and sister, both of whom died within days of each other. The aunt’s death was not a surprise, his sister’s was. Another explained that she had attended three funerals between Christmas and New Year’s for family members. She was naturally distraught.

This got me thinking, so I did some investigating and discovered that these deaths were neither a coincidence, nor my imagination, as if I had been seeing yellow Volkswagons everywhere. It turns out that a spike in deaths actually occurs during the holidays. What’s more, this spike occurs on specific days and is called the “holiday effect.”

According to researchers from the University of California, on December 25, 26, and January 1, mortality from natural causes spikes in dead-on-arrival (DOA) and emergency room (ER) cases. There are more DOA’s and ER deaths during these days than any other day of the year for most major disease groups and all populations except children. Beginning with Christmas, the number of deaths exceeds the normal winter increase. Incredibly, the researchers conclude that “Christmas and New Year appear to be risk factors for deaths from many diseases.”

You may be thinking too much eggnog and fruitcake, but that’s not the case according to the American Heart Association. Overindulging in food and alcohol doesn’t account for the increase in deaths, which can be as high as ten percent over normal periods. Neither does cold weather during the winter months, even with flu and colds making the rounds. For instance, New Zealand, which celebrates Christmas and New Year’s during their summer, experiences a spike in deaths similar to that of the United States.

There are other theories and related facts. Two such theories hold that hospitals and ER rooms are understaffed during the holidays, which manages to sound both absurd and cruel at the same time, and that people are reluctant to go in for care at Christmas and New Year’s. It is interesting, though, that people who die from heart attacks during the holidays are a full year younger, on average, than those who die from heart attacks at other times.

Christmas and New Year appear to be risk factors for deaths from many diseases.

According to another theory, terminally ill patients might be hanging on so they can spend the holidays with loved ones before slipping away into that good night. I like this theory, romantic as it is, but it doesn’t account for the sudden deaths like the ones experienced by the people who had to reschedule meetings with me this week.

What do we make of this holiday effect, then? It’s possible that socioeconomic status may play a role. A lack of family, friends, and money affects people’s experience of what is supposed to be the most joyful time of the year. Media hype about presents and Santa Claus can fuel frustration over not being able to provide the expected goods, as if that were the reason for the season, as they say. Still, what parent doesn’t want to be Santa Claus in their kids’ eyes by coming through with the deliverables on Christmas morning? The pressure to produce a Norman Rockwell picture of family life can be enormous, especially on young parents. And pressure means stress.

There’s something about the holidays that makes people vulnerable, and it starts even before Christmas. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s, people are accustomed to reflect on their past, recalling times with family members who have died and feeling both nostalgia and regret over what they have done and what they have failed to do, to paraphrase the Confiteor. Susan Lees wrote about this recently in “Jewels of Music #3.”

With self-reflection comes self-assessment. We can’t help but review our lives and take an inventory. Invariably, we get to the “what if’s.” The problem is that they can kill you, literally. But I remember reading an article that characterized successful entrepreneurs. These were people who didn’t fear failure or imperfection. And once they made a decision, they didn’t agonize over it. They made it and moved on, for better or worse. They also knew what was truly important in life and spent time at that. That may be the best way to keep the Grim Santa from your door.

Image credits: LuAnn Hunt on Unsplash. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”


  1. Really interesting, Robert. Not surprising, though. I’ve noticed a real increase in persons seeking counseling for family crises, depression, and a sense of feeling abandoned during these holiday times.
    This season has been particularly difficult for those seniors and otherwise marginalized communities who depend upon their faith communities for spiritual, communal, and material support. The closure of their churches has left the elderly, the impoverished, and the “strangers” among us feeling very bereft.
    In our church community, parish and diocesan leaders decided to begin a series of zoomed “fire side chats” to begin this week. One night of the week, the deacon, another night, the Rosary, another night, a mental health counselor, etc. I wish that we had begun during Advent. I wish I had volunteered to set up a “check-up call tree.”
    Yes, I will be one of the mental health chats, but my suggestion was to have a night of parish musicians, Mariachis, cantors, leading prayer in song…I don’t know about others? It would help me.
    Our priest, Father Francisco Valdovinos, a Missionary Servant from Mexico, a dear one for me and many others, has been on a ventilator with Covid for 4 weeks. Yes…prayers of tears without words would comfort me. Lord have mercy.
    Father Francisco was always sending me a bag of potatoes here, peppers there. But his last gift to me was a used toy from his collection; a small stuffed kitten, very well loved by a child or adult on Father Francisco’s travels. Only Father Francisco would know how precious such a gift would be for me. So…this little, gray, well-loved kitten sits on the music stand of my piano, awaiting some music .

    1. Thank you for the comments, Susan. I’m sure anything you can do would be a great help, especially spiritually. Maybe the deacon could do scripture study online. And what about offering a recording of piano music? We’re in a world without church right now.

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