Does the Holiday Season Make People Violent?

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Dec. 27 2011 6:50 PM

Beware the Mistletoe

Does the holiday season drive people to violence?

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The Christmas morning crime scene in Dallas, Texas. Is there more violence around the holidays?

Ronald Martinez

A man dressed as Santa Claus is alleged to have shot and killed six members of his family and then himself on Christmas morning in a suburb of Dallas, Texas. Films such as Die Hard, Black Christmas and Silent Night, Bloody Night depict Christmas violence, and there's a widespread (though unfounded) belief that people become emotionally disturbed over the holidays. Is the Christmas season really that dangerous a time?

No. In fact, December turns out to be one of the least violent months of the year. A Department of Justice study conducted in 1997 found that hospitals treated the highest numbers of violence-related injuries in June, July, and August, while only 8 percent of such injuries were treated in December. In 2007, one of the few recent years for which daily data are available from the Mortality Statistics Branch of the National Center for Health Statistics, there were fewer reported homicides on Christmas than on most other days in December. While police chiefs and other local officials sometimes claim that domestic violence increases over the holidays, they don't have much hard evidence. On the contrary, researchers for the National Domestic Violence Hotline found a drastic decrease in call volume on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Thanksgiving, at least during a study period running from 2004-10. In the 1997 Department of Justice study, hospitals treated the fewest violence-related injuries in February, and the fourth fewest in December. (Holidays or not, people tend to commit more acts of violence when it's hot out.)

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Other holidays don’t seem to have the same peacekeeping power as Christmas. According to one study of reported violence in Idaho, incidents decreased on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day, but went up for New Year’s, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July. All such studies are subject to random effects, and no comprehensive national study has been conducted on this question.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Robert N. Anderson of the Mortality Statistics Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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