The Christmas Holiday Effect: Why do more people die during the holidays?

Several studies suggest that there’s a higher chance of dying on Christmas, the day after Christmas or New Year’s Day than any other single day of the year. It’s called the ‘Christmas Holiday Effect’, yet its underlying cause remains unexplained.
The Christmas Holiday Effect: Why do more people die during the holidays?

Did you know that humans are more likely to die of natural causes around the Christmas and New Year festive period? During such a happy time, it’s easy to forget about the grim statistics. But, fear not, we’re here to explain the phenomenon in detail. (Oh, and Merry Christmas, by the way.)

What is the ‘Christmas Holiday Effect’?

The Christmas Holiday Effect, the Holiday Death Spike – whatever you wanna call it, the spike in mortality rates during the festive period is a documented phenomenon first observed by sociologist David P. Phillips while analysing death certificates. Subsequent studies have corroborated this finding. This pattern is consistent across all age groups, except for children, and encompasses various conditions such as heart disease, respiratory issues, and cancer. 

Why do more people die at Christmas time?

We don’t have a distinct answer for this one, but researchers have a slew of theories. Initial hypotheses suggested that the surge in deaths during the holidays might have something to do with how December (being the coldest month of the year in the Northern Hemisphere) could influence health.

However, this idea was debunked when similar studies were conducted in the Southern Hemisphere, in New Zealand, where the Christmas holiday period falls within the summer season. Josh Knight, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne, and his co-authors in their paper, ‘Revisiting the “Christmas Holiday Effect” in the Southern Hemisphere’, found no apparent correlation between any observed Christmas holiday effect and the impact of temperature or seasonality. 

What are some other theories?

Other theories include the possibility of reduced staffing at medical facilities, the notion that patients might delay seeking medical care during this time to spend more time with their family, or the idea that terminally ill patients may choose to hold on to spend the holiday with loved ones before saying goodbye. The truth is that while there are theories, and many studies have been published, further research is required.

Wrap up

While many theories try to explain the increased mortality rates during the Christmas and New Year's period, one compelling notion suggests that terminally ill patients may intentionally hold on to share the holiday season with their loved ones. This goes to show how significant festive moments become when faced with the reality of mortality.

If you found this guide interesting, here’s some further reading that may be of interest:

If you find yourself needing to arrange a funeral over the Christmas and New Year period, the kind and caring team at Willed are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days of the year to assist you. Call 1300 945 533.

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