Do you remember those anti-drug commercials from the 80s, where they’d show two eggs? One was in pristine condition and said, “This is your brain.” The other was completely scrambled and ruined and said, “This is your brain on drugs!” Well, it turns out that Christmas is kind of the same way. The difference is that your brain is beautiful “on” and “off” Christmas, but one has a couple of extra fun lights and tinsel attached to it.
When you get down to it, Christmas isn’t really a holiday. It’s not a specific day, time, or place. Deep down, Christmas is a state of mind. In fact, if you don’t believe me, scientists have actually figured out that your brain has special wiring that lights up during Christmas--just like the tree in your living room!
So Where Does Christmas Cheer Come From?
Scientists wanted to understand whether holiday cheer was fact or fiction, so they did some tests to get down to the bottom of what exactly happens to your brain when the Christmas trees go up and the string lights come out. Here’s what they found out.
First, they figured out that giving gifts makes your brain act just like if you received something yourself. That old wives tale, “Better to give than to receive,” might not be quite right, but according to your brain, it’s just as good! Scientists also found that your brain puts gratitude into overdrive during the holidays, which can have a positive effect on your mood and general sense of wellbeing.
So what’s actually causing your brain to change during the holidays? Scientists think it’s nostalgia.
Like most brain studies involving memory, scientists aren’t exactly sure what nostalgia actually does from a biological standpoint, but that hasn’t stopped them from developing a fancy definition for it. Researchers consider nostalgia a deep yearning for the “good old times,” which can be especially pronounced around the holidays. Since Christmas is usually a universally awesome time for most kids, it’s no surprise that the holidays bring back those fond feelings of belonging, warmth, and general cheeriness.
The Double-Edged Sword of Reminiscence
When the holidays come around and you visit your childhood home, seeing all of your relatives and eating delicious foods makes your brain experiences deep feeling of reminiscence. As we’ve learned in previous articles, when you remember things, your brain actually re-lives those old memories. Going through any kind of rekindling of complex emotions can make you feel all sorts of ways. For most folks, those Christmas memories are positive and elicit warmth, joy, and a sense of belonging. Others might actually fall into holiday blues.
While it’s true that Christmas time is usually a time of joy, the same brain processes that make you feel happy can also make you feel sadness if your childhood experiences aren’t so warm and fuzzy. The technical name for it is Seasonal Affective Disorder, and it affects around 20% of people. Scientists think that this disorder can be attributed to basically the same thing as holiday cheer--just the opposite end of the spectrum. Nostalgia is a double-edged sword indeed.
So if you feel particularly cheery, bubbly, and warm during the holidays, make sure to spread your cheer. While there are a few Ebeneezer Scrooges out there who will hate Christmas no matter what, some people might need a little pick-me-up. Reaching out a hand to help your fellow human is where the magic of the holidays truly resides. After all, Christmas and the holiday times are really about one thing above all else: spreading cheer to one and a