THE BLOG

Sally Augustin: Can Holiday Decor Affect Us Psychologically?

Dec 23, 2011 | Updated Oct 11, 2012

Flickr Photo by Mark Crossfield

There are lots of things that can affect your mood during the holiday season... what do holiday sights and sounds add to that volatile mix?

At least in the Northern Hemisphere, the holiday season comes at a time that's short on sunshine and warmth -- so those of us in northern climes slog along, stay warm as best we can, and go into a sort of hibernation -- until the holiday parties start to roll along.

Holiday parties can send you jolts of energy -- even if you felt like settling in to a nice long nap in the car or train on the way over. The sorts of reds, greens, and blues that are popular in Christmas and Hanukah decorations are just the shades that research has shown boost our energy level -- they're rich examples of their respective hues.

Seeing that holiday red around also has a romantic payoff. Research done by Andrew Elliot and his colleagues has shown that when men see women or women see men (these studies were all done with heterosexuals) wearing the same reds used at Christmas [or Valentines Day] or against a backdrop of that red, they believe that the person they're looking at is more attractive and sexually desirable than if they're wearing another color or standing against another color backdrop.

All of the stars -- five or six pointed -- that figure so prominently in holiday decorations also rev us up. Curvier shapes relax, angular ones energize.

Holiday parties that pack a lot of people into a room also make our hearts beat a little faster --which is generally a good thing. Our response to being around a crowd is just about as primal as our reaction to the darker, cooler days -- they play off against each other in our unconscious in a primordial battle.

Lot's of holiday music is really peppy and since our hearts start to beat in time to the music we hear, well, you see where this is going.

Holiday smells tend to counter all this up, up, up. We find most of them calming. Recent research has also shown that the Wise Men were really on to something with the frankincense. The smell of burning frankincense reduces anxiety and depression -- probably a good thing in a manger where establishment-defying ideas are being thought.

We have more energizing visual and sound experiences through the holidays than encounters with those calming smells, so overall we're more invigorated by our holiday sensory inputs than relaxed.

Finally, we all have associations to holiday decorations, whether they're holiday bells or clumps of holly or dreidels. For most of us, those associations are good and they'll tip our amped up state into positive territory.

No wonder most of us look forward to the holidays every year.