Plunging out of an aircraft, doing a cookery course, going to a stand-up comedy show, having a beauty treatment, taking in a concert or a play.  According to the Times (26/11/18), these are the gifts that young Britons want for Christmas.  Not traditional pressies under the tree.  Having an experience is the name of the game.  But why?

A lot of it is about getting likes on social media.  So maybe that’s to do with self-esteem.  Also it could be about getting an adrenalin shot – maybe for some people in order to counter a sense of deadness inside.  Or it could simply be connected with a desire to satisfy a fundamental instinct like the need to laugh or to be entertained.  On occasion, though, a search for a more permanent change could be at work.  It’s not impossible, for instance, to imagine a whole new career emerging from a dabble in a culinary course.  Whatever’s going on, the human need for experiences is a fascinating one.

Changing baby

An intriguing theory was put forward by an American psychoanalyst, Christopher Bollas, in the 1970s.  He believed the drive in adults to have experiences that change to a greater or lesser extent their external environments and thus their moods could have its origins back when they were babies.

A mother, Bollas says, is constantly interacting with her infant – feeding, holding, talking, soothing and kissing it, as well as changing its nappies, getting it into a regular sleeping pattern and a thousand other things besides.  The point is that in doing all this the mother is simultaneously transforming the baby’s internal and external environment.  Every time she takes it out of its cot, rocks it, sits it on her lap and smiles at it, she’s simultaneously stimulating and preparing its capacity to sit, stand, crawl, walk, talk and so on.  She’s constantly helping it change and develop.

From the baby’s end, it’s experiencing the mother as – well, as an experience.  The mother is experienced as a process of transformation – what Bollas calls a ‘transformational object’.

Transformers for grown ups

The really interesting thing is that Bollas believes the desire for transformation never goes away.  It’s laid down in infancy and its trace lives on in adults.  So the desire for a partner, a change of job, a foreign holiday, a new home, a new car, a political cause or a religious faith may all be signs of a search for something that will bring about some kind of metamorphosis in us.  And don’t forget the Christmas gifts of sky-diving and cookery where we began.

The Christmas experience

It’s quite likely that Christmas itself is a transformational object.  It has a magic about it and all kinds of feelgood promise.  As well as those gifts there are the carols, the bright lights, the tree, the dinner.  These are rituals, along with literal rituals like Midnight Mass.  Above all, there’s the promise of people coming together.  The promise can disappoint, of course, with really lousy experiences of Christmas but there’s the hope that it won’t.  The hope that for a period everyone, including us, will become ‘nicer’ people under the influence of ‘peace on earth and good will’.

There are seasonal stories to back that up.  Scrooge really does get massively transformed.  And, of course, the biblical Christmas story is about the transformation of nothing less than the entire human race.  Whether we accept it or not, the idea is that the divine became human (the baby in the manger) so that humans can become divine through union with him.  Strip away the lowing cattle and the bleating sheep and that’s what you’ve got.

So whatever our personal beliefs, you could say that Christmas leaves us with an interesting twist on Bollas’s ideas.  Instead of having an adult transforming a baby, you have a baby transforming adults.

Maybe that’s all getting a bit heavy.  I’ll just wish you a Happy Christmas.  For a change?