For many Americans, the unwritten rule is to wait until after Thanksgiving to start decorating for the December holidays. Once the last leftovers have been eaten, out come the Christmas trees, wreaths, menorahs, lights and various cheerful tchotchkes. But in 2020, people seem to be breaking with tradition and putting up their decorations early — and that could be a good thing, mental health experts say.
Scroll through social media and you’ll find friends, influencers and celebrities already sharing photos of their festive living room setups or lawn displays, the rules about when it’s “appropriate” to decorate be damned.
One Ohio woman, who for the first time ever put up decorations the day after Halloween, told Cleveland.com, “There has been so much doom and gloom and so much stress and misinformation and absolute torture in 2020 that I said, ‘My lights are going up, and they’re going on,’ because I need that. We all need that. I wanted to make myself happy and to maybe bring a bit of cheer and pretty lights to somebody else.”
It makes sense that more people are trying to get into the holiday spirit earlier this year, said New York City psychologist Melissa Robinson-Brown.
“People are longing for happiness and joy,” she told HuffPost. “This year has been a significant year of grief and loss: loss of freedom, loss of time with family, loss of income and job, and loss of loved ones, just to name a few. As such, people are seeking comfort and even healing.”
Plus, many of our beloved holiday traditions — like parties with friends and family gatherings — may be on pause because of COVID-19. Decorating is one way we can safely and healthfully lift our spirits.
“Drop the judgment. If it makes you feel good, this is the year to do it,” said Ryan Howes, a psychologist in Pasadena, California, and author of the “Mental Health Journal for Men.” “If starting your holiday season in August was your desire, go for it and feel no shame.”
We asked psychologists to share some of the potential mental and emotional health benefits of decorating early this year, if that’s your thing.
Holiday decorations may trigger positive memories from childhood that can be comforting and spark joy. Rebecca Nelson via Getty Images
It may evoke comforting memories from happier times
Putting up the tree and adorning your living space with lights and garlands may trigger nostalgia, reminding you of warm holiday memories from your childhood. For people who are unable to physically celebrate with their loved ones this year, thinking back to positive experiences from the past may bring comfort. Decorating early means you’ll get to soak up these good vibes for a few extra weeks.
“As a psychologist, I often talk about the connection between our thoughts, emotions and behaviors,” said Los Angeles psychologist Erlanger Turner, an assistant professor of psychology at Pepperdine University. “Given the stress of the pandemic, thinking about positive images is one way to help prevent stress or anxiety. Decorating your home may serve as a cue of positive memories and emotions, which can be really helpful to promote joy and prevent sadness.”
Smell is also strongly tied to memory, so consider lighting a scented candle that reminds you of sitting by your grandparents’ fireplace or getting a real tree, instead of an artificial one, for that piney fragrance.
“If someone has a holiday smell that sparks positive emotions or memories, having that smell around has a potential to lift your mood,” said Atlanta psychologist Rebecca Leslie of Living Fully Psychological Services.
It’s a healthy distraction from the heaviness of 2020
While it’s important to let yourself feel your feelings (yes, even the unpleasant ones), that doesn’t mean you need to be consumed with fear and anxiety 24/7. Finding healthy ways to take your mind off all that’s happening in the world can provide some relief and help you cope.
“There have been so many heavy events this year, including the pandemic, racial injustice and the election,” Robinson-Brown said. “It’s easy for folks to get caught up and even obsessed with what’s going on in the media, which can heighten feelings of anxiety and depression. Decorating early provides great distraction and a pleasurable activity in which to engage.”
“Decorating your home may serve as a cue of positive memories and emotions, which can be really helpful to promote joy.”Erlanger Turner, a psychologist and professor
It makes you feel a little more in control
So much of what’s happened this year has been far outside our control. We can’t individually end the pandemic, stop police violence or change political turmoil — and this can make us feel powerless at times.
“We can do our part, but it takes a massive effort from many people to make these changes, and this contributes to a feeling of helplessness,” Howes said.
Mental health experts recommend focusing on what you can control in order to abate some of the anxiety prompted by 2020, so why not make one of those focuses your decorations? You have the ability to make your home feel like a cozy oasis despite the chaos outside.
“If you can transform your living room into a winter wonderland, this can give you a feeling of control and efficacy that has been missing in 2020,” Howes said.
It can help you look forward to something uplifting
In a year filled with dread, building positive anticipation has been a challenge. But when you look at your decorations, you start daydreaming about the good times ahead: watching holiday movies with your kids, blasting holiday music in the car, baking cookies, getting some time off from work or school, and opening presents.
“At a time where we’ve had few things to look forward to, the holidays are a welcomed shift from dread to excitement,” Howes said.
The holidays may look different this year, but you can still find small things to look forward to. LOUISE BEAUMONT via Getty Images
That said, decorating isn’t right for everyone
For many people, the holidays may actually be a dark time — particularly for those who had difficult childhoods or are grieving the loss of a loved one.
“If decorating also triggers stressful memories, decorating sooner this year may not be beneficial,” Leslie said.
And even people who normally enjoy the holidays may find it difficult to do so this year.
“If the decorations spark sadness around not being able to be with family for the holidays, having them up for a long period of time would not be beneficial,” Leslie added.
The most important thing is to do what feels good for you — whether that’s leaning into the holidays, avoiding them altogether or somewhere in between.
“If you feel like skipping the holidays this year because it feels too taxing or doesn’t bring joy, do it,” Howes said. “If 2020 has any lasting benefits, I hope that we learn to become more aware of what really feeds us and what doesn’t and gain permission to pursue what we most desire.”