Some people view the holidays as a depressing time, when their own unhappiness looms larger when compared to the joy of others.
And it is commonly believed that the number of suicides increases during holidays.
Now an extensive new study belies that assumption, showing that the number of suicides actually declines significantly during six U.S. holidays and the five days before and after. Psychologists hope they can learn what the protective factors are during those times and apply them to the rest of the year.
If ways can be found to "play up participation in the holidays for people who are isolated," said psychologist David D. Phillips of the University of California at San Diego, author of the study, it might be possible to avert some suicides the rest of the year.
Phillips examined the more than 180,000 recorded suicides between 1973 and '79. During that time, there were 70 to 75 suicides a day.
Unlike previous analyses, which looked at the holiday alone or the few days after, Phillips examined 11-day periods with the holiday in the middle.
In typical 11-day periods, there were about 800 suicides. But in holiday periods, there were only about 700.
For some holidays known for family gatherings -- Memorial Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas -- suicides were down on every day of the period. On the others -- New Year's, Independence Day and Labor Day -- there was a slight increase immediately after the holiday itself, but still a decline for the period.
In explaining his findings, Phillips stresses that his analysis is based on his background as a psychologist and not on interviews with people who attempted suicide or chose not to.
Some people may be encouraged by the holidays as a runner is encouraged by a landmark in the distance, he said. As the runner might say, "I'll keep running until I reach that fence post, and then I'll stop trying," so might the suicidal individual look to Christmas.
Others may look to the holidays to "turn their life around." These people often suffer disappointment afterward.
Perhaps the key protective element is the presence of family and friends -- a setting that makes suicide less practical and generally seem less urgent.
Phillips noticed the decline in holiday suicides while working on a separate project, attempting to measure the effects of press coverage of suicide on the rate. He assumed that he would have to adjust his numbers for the holidays and found, to his surprise, that they had to be adjusted down, not up.
"It's rather startling that we can have a minor industry in magazines warning about the danger of the holidays," he said in a recent interview, when in fact there are not more suicides.
Such dire articles, he said, are based on "a very small, non-random sample, or a hunch -- 'we've written about it before, so we might as well write about it again.' "