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Criminology's Christmas Cold Case



As November turns to December, the telltale signs of the holiday season begin to appear throughout the United States. Nativity scenes and menorahs are erected in town squares, opalescent lights adorn many homes, businesses begin advertising to holiday shoppers, and the few radio stations that have not been playing Christmas carols since Halloween make the transition. However, there is another sign that the holiday season has begun, one that many Americans pay little mind to: the crime rate begins to change. As one major metropolitan police department succinctly (if not histrionically) puts it: “We call it good cheer. Criminals call it complacency.”


As is explained by Ashley Daley of WCNC Charlotte, reports from police indicate that every year the crime rate goes up in the month between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. In fact, police departments throughout the country warn their constituents of the dangers associated with the holiday season and provide numerous tips for staying safe during the holiday season, offering numerous explanations for this alarming trend. According to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department the increased crime rate “is due, in part, to shoppers carrying more cash and credit cards… shopping later than usual and the relaxed, care-free attitude that comes with” the holidays and the Baltimore County Police Department speculates that throughout “the holiday season, shoppers may be so busy that they fail to be aware of their surroundings”, making them easy prey for purse snatchers and thieves.


But is the hap-happiest season of all really one of the most dangerous? Dan Carman & Attorneys PLLC confirms that data from the National Crime Victimization Survey shows that while violent crime does not increase “two specific types of crime increase in December: robbery and personal larceny”. These trends are consistent with the picture painted by American police departments. The holiday season is a period of time during which more people than usual are out and about getting their holiday shopping done, meaning that any given pedestrian is more likely to be carrying a higher than usual amount of cash, presents, or other expensive items.


Despite the almost common-sense status of the increased crime rate during December, there has been surprisingly little criminological research conducted on the influence of the holiday season on crime. While the criminality present during the holiday season is known to the field of criminology, the small amount of relevant research has only paid attention to crime on holidays themselves rather than the holiday season.


In 2003, Ellen Cohn and James Rotton investigated holiday crime using 911 call data from Minneapolis and Minnesota in 1985, 1987, and 1988. Their findings indicated that while crime rates do not tend to change on minor holidays, the crime rate tended to go up on major holidays, justifying the concerns that American law enforcement have for public safety during the winter holiday season (which is packed relatively densely with major holidays). Interestingly though, Cohn and Rotton’s findings show that the relationship between holidays and crime are more complex than and markedly different from the relationship between the winter holiday season and crime. According to the analyses on property crimes, the data shows that unlike the rest of the Christmas season both theft and robberies decreased on Christmas Day. Overall, this study found that instrumental crime decreases on all major holidays, including the winter holidays. For violent crimes, however, Cohn and Rotton found that assaults increased significantly on New Year’s Day and significantly more domestic violence complaints were reported on Christmas Eve. Cohn and Rotton found that “almost all the relationships between violent (expressive) crimes and major holidays were positive” with the single exception being a decrease in reports of disorderly conduct on Christmas Day.


One of the few other studies of crime during the holidays was published by Wyatt Lam in 2020. Using routine activity theory, Lam uses the 2016 data from the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) to compare 15 holidays against the average non-holiday weekday, using categories based on the space in which holiday celebrations tend to occur. These categories include private space holidays (e.g. Christmas Day), public space holidays (e.g. New Year’s Eve), and mixed space holidays (e.g. Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve). Lam’s results are consistent with those found by Cohn and Rotton: out of the four winter holidays that Lam discusses three of them (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve) had significantly lower instrumental crime rates than an average weekday, while New Year’s Day had a higher-than-average crime rate. This may be due to the fact that the NIBRS dataset tends to overreport crimes on the first day of any given month, however, as Lam points out, relative to other first-of-the-months “New Years [sic] Day has an unusually high number of reported offenses”.


Overall the sparse existing data and research indicate that economically motivated crimes are committed more frequently throughout the holiday season but are less common on holidays themselves. Violent crime rates, on the other hand, aren’t any higher than usual during the holiday season but increase on the holidays themselves. While knowledge of these trends is important, it is clear that there is far more to the relationship between the winter holidays and crime than we currently know. For example, Cohn and Rotton found that while there was “a greater prevalence of domestic violence on Christmas Eve than other days… the difference did not attain significance on Christmas Day”, indicating that the trends listed in the previous paragraph are not universal. Despite their findings being mostly consistent with their theoretical basis, Cohn and Rotton indicate that they found that “the social and cultural effects of holidays on crime were more complex than originally anticipated”.


Few of these social and cultural effects have been considered at present. One potential explanation for the lower instrumental crime rate on holidays are ‘gatherings’. Cohn and Rotton speculate that the previously mentioned domestic violence trend may exist because most domestic disputes occur at night, and families tend to gather at night on Christmas Eve but in the morning on Christmas Day. Lam notes that at gatherings “people tend to stay in groups… celebrating together either with family, friends, or large groups of strangers”, decreasing opportunities to easily commit crime. This touches upon ‘motivation’, another consideration that Lam points out, in which potential offenders may be “preoccupied with holiday activities and celebration such that there are fewer motivated offenders”. Cohn and Rotton also point out that there may be fewer ‘opportunities’ to commit instrumental crimes on holidays “because of the decreased number of suitable targets (empty homes) and because of the increased presence of capable guardians”, with the latter concept of ‘guardianship’ being a factor that both Cohn and Rotton and Lam see as affecting holiday crime.


This barely scratches the surface of the potential social considerations influencing holiday crime and neglects cultural factors altogether. As Lam laments, “Little research exists that analyzes crime patterns on holidays”, which is a hole in the existing research on the temporal patterns of crime. Additionally, the research that does exist focuses primarily on Christmas, New Year’s, and the holiday season in general but does not consider other winter holidays like Chanukah and Kwanzaa. Holiday crime seems to be a taken for granted part of the holiday season: police departments across the country are clearly well aware of this trend, even if their representation of the facts are at times oversimplified, yet the task of further explaining the social and cultural forces that affect holiday crime have received very little attention criminological discourse. Perhaps it is not the holiday shopper’s but the criminologist’s holiday “cheer” that the LVMPD should be concerned about.

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