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How Holiday Lights Are Good for You

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on December 01, 2022

Holiday lights can add sparkle and festivity, especially during winter months. But research shows they’re more than tradition or decoration. It turns out they can boost your mood, promote your connection to others, and increase your hope.

What Do Holiday Lights Represent?

Many holidays around the world involve lights. In each, they represent something different. Some examples include:

Diwali. Also called the “festival of lights,” this happens on the darkest night of the Amavasya moon cycle. Diwali celebrates the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and justice over injustice. Those who celebrate hang lanterns, set off fireworks, and light oil lamps (or diyas).

Kwanzaa. People who celebrate this honor the ancient harvest celebrations across Africa. Starting on Dec. 26, they light a candle for 7 nights to reflect the seven principles (nguzo saba) of Kwanzaa.

Hanukkah. Jews celebrate their fight for religious freedom during this holiday. Tradition holds that during the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem during the Maccabean revolt, a small amount of oil somehow kept the Temple menorah lit for 8 days. To celebrate this, Jews light candles for 8 nights during this holiday.

Christmas. No one knows exactly why Christians use red and green lights to celebrate this holiday. But some believe it has to do with the life of Jesus Christ, whose birth they celebrate on Christmas, and the blood he shed when he was killed.

Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr. Muslims fast and celebrate Ramadan to symbolize the start of Islamic enlightenment. They end with Eid al-Fitr to break their fast. Decorations for these holidays include many string lights and lanterns.

Lunar New Year. Major celebrations for the new year happen across Vietnam, Korea, Tibet, China, and Mongolia. People who celebrate this holiday aim to get rid of bad luck. They often use lanterns and lights to ring in the new year.

How Can Holiday Lights Bring You Joy?

You know the feeling: driving down a street on a December night where each house displays glowing lights. It might bring back happy memories of the holidays and loved ones.

But how can something so simple make us feel so bright? There are a few different reasons for this:

Dopamine can raise your spirits. Researchers found that holiday lights create a shift in your brain that can heighten your happiness. That shift can increase your levels of dopamine, the hormone that makes you feel good.

One possible reason for this is something called chromotherapy, or color therapy. That’s where bright lights and colors send signals to your brain that release those feel-good hormones. Doctors use chromotherapy to treat some mood disorders like anxiety and depression.

They believe that colors and lights can help treat symptoms of these conditions and boost your energy levels. If you tend to get seasonal depression, holiday lights may be a way to up your dopamine levels.

Nostalgia for the holiday magic. Holiday lights and other decorations might make you nostalgic for times in your past.

But while nostalgia is often linked to memories, experts believe it’s more than that. In fact, research shows it can lead you to have a positive outlook on your future. Studies show that your brain links nostalgia to boosted optimism and social connectedness.

So, when holiday lights make you feel nostalgic, you may also feel more excited about the future and closer to those around you. How’s that for getting in the holiday spirit?

Hunkered down at home. In the 1980s, people stayed inside their homes to stay away from the hard times brought on by the Cold War. In 2020, a similar thing happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts call this “cocooning.”

People spent more time at home, and they put up more holiday lights. This makes sense, especially in tough times.

While you might go out in public more often now, home might still be your main hangout during the holidays. Whether you relax with your family, enjoy slower mornings, or keep your regular routine, holiday lights can provide a lift wherever you are.

They make you look friendlier. One study found that putting outdoor holiday lights and decorations on your home makes you seem more approachable. So, your neighbors may find you friendlier if you dazzle your house in string lights.

The study suggests that your holiday lights also signal a sense of community. Experts say it’s a good way for new families on the block to send the message they’re open to new friendships.

In this study, researchers had a group of people rate the friendliness of strangers based on pictures of the front of their homes. To little surprise, the homes with more decorations were rated as friendlier.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Community Research and Development Information Service (CORDIS): “Trending Science: The Science of Why Holiday Lights Bring Us Joy.”

Library of Congress: “Who Invented Electric Christmas Lights?”

Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: “A Critical Analysis of Chromotherapy and Its Scientific Evolution.”

Society for Personality and Social Psychology: “Back to the Future: Nostalgia Increases Optimism.”

Journal of Environmental Psychology: “Inferences about homeowners' sociability: Impact of Christmas decorations and other cues.”

Museum of Science and Industry Chicago: “Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light.”

National Center for Families Learning: “Why Are Red and Green Traditional Christmas Colors?”

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