Decorate for holidays? Now?

When is early too early? Experts say never

By Barbara Pierce

early DECORATIONSI groaned as I drove past my neighbor’s house and saw Tom inflating a huge Santa in his front yard. The multi-colored Christmas lights were twinkling over his house. It was a week before Thanksgiving.

“He’s just a little too excited for the holidays to come,” I thought. “What’s up with that?”

How did he get his act together so quickly? What possessed him to get in the holiday spirit so early? And why is he pushing his joy on the rest of us who need more time to ease into holiday celebration? Why is he making us feel badly that we aren’t nearly there yet?

I’m not a Grinch; I do love the holidays, but I tend to be one who suddenly realizes it’s only a week until Christmas, then race to Lowe’s to get a tree and realize I’ve waited too long. As for decorating the outside of my house, that’s not going to happen.

According to researchers, the answer is pretty simple as far as why Tom and others are so eager to decorate for the holidays early. It makes people feel good. Putting up decorations for the holidays can boost your happiness levels. It spikes dopamine, a feel-good hormone, into your brain, they say.

It’s all about nostalgia. Nostalgia — or affection for the past — is a powerful thing, linked to all kinds of positive emotions. Who doesn’t smile at the sight of a lit up Christmas tree, and love the smell of cinnamon or fresh-baked cookies, or get a lump in their throat as they sing a Christmas carol from childhood? Memories we’ve built up over years and years do bring us much emotion.

In our world today, so full of stress and anxiety, people like to remember things that make them happy — decorations for the holidays evoke those strong feelings of the magical excitement we felt as children.

Decorating early makes you happy by triggering positive childhood associations. People who decorate early are either trying to relive the magic of past holidays or they may be compensating for past holidays that weren’t happy.

“OK, I get it,” I said to myself. “Either Tom has happy memories of the holidays when he was a kid and he’s trying to recreate that and stretch it out, or he doesn’t have happy memories and he’s trying to make up for it.”

What else about holiday decorations triggers those happy hormones? For starters, it’s the bright lights and colors. Chromotherapy, or color therapy, which is thought to increase energy levels and boost happiness, might be at play. Or maybe it’s just the ambiance in general that makes us feel the “warm fuzzies.”

And, for sure, the bright, cheerful holiday decorations do help combat the dreary, dismal winter sky.  Nothing like candles flickering and bright lights to help us feel cozy when the snow and cold surround us outside.

And researchers have proved that there are other real benefits to putting out the inflatable Santa and the twinkling lights before you’ve even thought about digging into that turkey. When homes were decorated early, people perceived those inside as friendlier. With the warm, welcoming look of the lights and the Santa, people believe there is a happy family inside waiting to welcome them with hot chocolate and cookies.

However, not everyone enjoys the holidays and all the decorations.

If the holidays bring up negative feelings for you, putting up decorations and lighting pine-scented candles probably won’t help. Don’t force yourself to decorate.

It’s OK to be a Grinch. It’s OK not to get into the holiday spirit. There’s nothing wrong with liking or disliking the holidays. Just don’t spoil it for your family and friends who are in the holiday spirit.

If you don’t have happy memories of the holidays, consider creating new traditions for you and your family — Something that will make you happy and create good memories. Be true to yourself and do what makes you feel good.

If you’re invited to all those holiday parties and you just can’t stand to be around all those people displaying their holiday cheer, remind yourself that you don’t have to say yes to all the invitations. Work out which event will gain you the maximum brownie points and politely decline all others.

If you’re not a Grinch and you’ve been itching to get your holiday stuff out of storage, go ahead. Even though it’s early, hang the lights and blow up the inflatables — the sooner, the better. You’ll make yourself feel good right away and the neighbors will think you are a friendly, welcoming person.

As for me, I’m heading over to Tom’s for some hot chocolate and those wonderful Christmas cookies I know his wife has been baking.

• Barbara Pierce is a retired licensed clinical social worker with many years of experience helping people. If you would like to purchase a copy of her book, “When You Come to the Edge: Aging” or if you have questions for her, contact her at