If you’re the type of person who gets giddy at the first mention of the holiday season, you’re not alone. As the year comes to a close, these feelings of good cheer can be a welcome break from the humdrum (or humbug) of everyday life and bring back cherished memories from holidays past.
Aside from decking the halls and picking out perfect presents, there’s one time-honored tradition that perhaps brings us more joy than any other—watching holiday movies. Holiday films run the gamut from funny and lighthearted to emotional and even inspirational in content, making them the perfect way to celebrate the season. But are there larger forces at play that contribute to our love of these movies? As it turns out, there’s some science behind why they make us feel so good.
Movies have always been a way for us to briefly escape our own reality in favor of the reality in the film. They are entertaining because they are fantastical and let us forget about our problems for a while. The same rules apply to holiday films, but, unlike horror movies or action movies, for example, holiday movies are chock- full of feel-good moments and sentiments that you’re more likely to see in genres like romance and comedy.
Holiday films make up just a small percentage of the movies we watch annually, but many children and adults alike would name a holiday-themed film among their favorites. And the predictability and comfort of them might explain why. According to Psychology Today, the familiar plots of holiday movies are what make us feel good. We recognize the characters’ mistakes, sympathize with their hopes and dreams, and see ourselves in the family relationships on-screen. There are only occasional moments of suspense or distress—with the exception of Die Hard (but that’s a debate for another time).
Upon watching a beloved holiday movie, our brains respond in a similar way to when we get a hug from a friend or eat a piece of chocolate—they are flooded with happiness. The plots of these movies are so often about love, teaching important lessons about giving to others, and emphasizing the meaning of community.
In 2020, when traditional holiday activities like caroling and gathering with friends were largely not possible, bingeing holiday movies became an especially important respite from the difficulties of the world outside, even if only for a moment.
This type of visual and mental “transportation” can even have a therapeutic effect. Cinematherapy, as it’s been called, has been backed by a number of studies on people with anxiety and depression. People who have experienced these mental health obstacles were found to be engaged and soothed by watching movies and TV and discussing the emotions they experienced afterward. Holiday movies are no exception, providing viewers with an overwhelming sense of comfort. This calming effect and the positive emotions we get accustomed to experiencing every year is also why we tend to gravitate toward the same films.
If you take a look at the lineup of movies played by major networks during the holidays, it’s almost always the same standbys—Home Alone, Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, etc.—because that is what makes viewers happy and coming back time and time again. How else could you explain the twenty-four-hour marathon of A Christmas Story that has been going on since 1997?
Now that you’ve learned about some of the reasons why holiday movies are so beloved, you’re probably ready to start watching. Here are just a few ways to make your holiday movie viewing even more memorable.
Make a schedule.
So many movies … so little time. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of holiday-themed movies there are available to watch before the new year, make a list of your top choices and create a realistic schedule to plan when and where you’ll watch them. If you plan to visit family and friends, you could save some of your top choices for those dates and reserve the rest for other nights.
Start something new.
Instead of just watching the movie, why not turn it into a full-fledged holiday bonanza? Request that everyone wear their favorite holiday sweaters or pajamas and that each contribute a special treat you can all enjoy. Want to get even more creative? Specify a theme based on the film you’re watching. For instance, if you’re planning to watch A Christmas Carol, you can ask that your family or guests dress in their Dickensian best.
Turn it into a game.
A little competition never hurt anyone! Websites like Pinterest are full of printable games to play alongside your holiday movies, whether it’s holiday-movie- themed bingo, trivia, or a fill-in-the-blank movie quotes quiz. You could also think outside the box and come up with your own game based on the movie, such as charades based on the characters or themes. And, if it’s an adults-only party, you could even turn it into a drinking game.
Make sure the mood is set.
Who wants to watch holiday movies without lights and cozy blankets? Before you hit Play, be sure to turn off any overhead lights in favor of string lights and candles, and, if you have a tree, keep its lights on, too. Other fun options include forgoing the furniture and laying a pile of pillows and blankets on the floor or having everyone break out their sleeping bags. This will help ensure everyone is fully cozy and in the holiday spirit!
From animated classics like A Charlie Brown Christmas to tear-jerkers like Jack Frost and laugh fests like Scrooged, holiday movies and TV specials will forever hold a special place in our hearts and minds. They fill us with the fun and the familiar and help us envision a world where it’s the most wonderful time of year all year long.