A new poll conducted for the charity Age UK has today revealed that 450,000 older people say they are going to spend Christmas Day alone this year. A quarter of those surveyed said they were “not looking forward to Christmas this year” – with memories of loved ones who were no longer with them being painful.

It might surprise you to hear that there has been a lot of research into the benefits of Christmas. It might sound like common sense, but studies have found that receiving Christmas cards (particularly from friends and family who live far away) boosts your self-esteem and happiness. In 2003, the charity Mind said that “a traditional family Christmas is good for our mental health”. Family relationships and our identity can be protected by as something as simple as sharing meals and passing on traditions between generations, something Christmas reinforces.

So when we are without these things, this time of year can clearly be a difficult time. A PhD student recently interviewed 26 widows over 18 months to try and understand more about the process of widowhood and the impact Christmas has during this major life transition. Unsurprisingly, the women were clear that Christmas was a symbolic time as it made them think about the past, present and future.

But her findings contain some surprises: although memories were painful (like Age UK’s poll suggests) Christmas was also an important time to remember: the women visited the grave of their spouse over the period and one woman said that she put up a picture of her husband two days before Christmas to “honour” the past. Actively remembering their lost husbands as Christmas was difficult but a crucial part of grieving.

There were other things that really helped – many of the women were “thrilled” to receive hand-made cards from small children. For those without close friends or large family, ties to voluntary organisations (one woman praised the Royal Voluntary Service) and churches were also very important.

This story is not a new one – our press and society will always focus on loneliness at Christmas. But it is good to remember those who might be alone (not by choice) during the upcoming festive season: something as small as a hand-made card can make a big difference.