Buddy the Elf has taught us that “singing loud for all to hear” is the best way to spread Christmas cheer. And while the fictional movie character portrayed by Will Farrell might not be the expert source you’re looking to rely on for advice, there is science to back him up.
A recent Globe and Mail article highlighted the work of Ryerson University psychology professor Dr. Frank Russo, who holds the Hear the World Research Chair in Music and Emotional Speech. Russo says that group singing, like we often find ourselves experiencing during the holiday season, not only creates a sense of social connectedness but also calms our bodies. He says that singing in unison creates an environment in which the singers’ heart rates and breathing patterns synchronize, cortisol levels decrease, and oxytocin levels increase. Singing together for all to hear therefore most certainly can increase your feelings of Christmas cheer, but I’m worried that it might be a joy we begin to loose.
I’m writing these words after just sitting through two elementary school Christmas concerts and reflecting on one teacher’s comment to me that her class this year (the one my kids are in!) isn’t much of a singing group. Maybe it’s just a mix of kids who don’t enjoy singing, or maybe it’s because fewer parents are singing to their children.
An organization called the Lullaby Trust (a British charity that aims to prevent Sudden Infant Death Sydrome (SIDS) and support bereaved families) commissioned a poll that found only about one-third of parents sing lullabies to their non-school-aged children. Of that third who did sing bedtime songs, roughly 70 percent were parents over the age of 45, leading to the conclusion that the tradition of singing lullabies to children is disappearing.
There are countless reasons why younger generations are not singing their babies to sleep: everything from the rise of pop music to the changing family dynamic to the introduction of white noise machines and sleep training experts. But there are so many, many reasons why we should ensure this tradition continues.
Lullabies are much more than just a tool to help babies fall asleep. Research conducted with children and infants found that singing lullabies before surgery could lower young patients’ heart rates, reduce anxiety, and decrease the perception of pain. That’s a hugely powerful tool for us to lose, especially when it is so accessible and inexpensive. Then there’s educational benefits. A study by the UK’s National Literacy Trust found that singing repetitive songs, like nursery rhymes and lullabies, with children helped support language development and reading skills. Finally, the emotional attachment and lifelong memories created by the shared experience of singing is immeasurable, in my opinion, and not easily replicated by another action.
Then there’s my worry that the loss of lullabies also leads to a loss of that other fundamental singing touchstone, Christmas carols. While it’s only really been a shared societal tradition for about 200 years, the singing of Christmas carols holds a magic that I think we often overlook.
In our rapidly changing world, where the entirety of human knowledge doubles every year, Christmas carols create a bridge across divides of age, economy, politics, and even religion. Our society seems to be simultaneously becoming homogenized and divided into smaller and smaller factions, and yet we have these touchstones that can bring us together. We cannot afford to lose that, either.
So, this weekend, as we wait the final few days for Santa to appear, I encourage you to raise your voices together in song. Sing loud, sing together. And keep singing, as our gift to future generations.