Most people have a favorite movie memory associated with the holidays. Unless you’re a full-on Scrooge McGrinch, it’s basically impossible not to have a special place in your heart for at least one or two Christmas movies. And why wouldn’t you? Beloved holiday movies are like crawling under an electric blanket when it’s cold or slipping into a well-loved and worn pair of sweats after a long day. They give you the same soft glow as when you open your bag to find a note from a loved one tucked inside. Nothing not to love about that.
You may have noticed the explosive popularity of Christmas movies over the past few years. From Hallmark to Hulu, Christmas movies are everywhere. But why?
Part of it can be chalked up to the same societal and cultural realities that gave rise to the phrase “adulting” for the millennial generation. As in “adulting is hard.” Namely, with the increasing pressures of modern life combined with the information overload of always being plugged in, our brains are fried and emotional capacity overwhelmed, especially this year of all years. Sure, holiday movies may be cheesy and often cliché, but their simplistic stories and guaranteed happy endings provide a soothing counterbalance to the demands of our daily lives.
There’s some evidence behind this, too. As it turns out, there’s a real psychological component that comes with that warm and fuzzy feeling evoked by Christmas movies. Part of it is the nostalgia bias. For most of us, the holidays formed some of our best childhood memories, and Christmas movies hearken back to that simpler, happier time for us. It’s a case of “classical conditioning,” where our brains take holiday movies and relate them to our own holiday memories until, eventually, watching those movies creates a similar kind of emotional response. Just like watching horror movies together can bond you with friends, watching Christmas movies together can strengthen your emotional bonds with others.
As Elana Katz, a senior faculty member at the Ackerman Institute for the Family puts it, we crave those emotional connections. “The emotional side of our brain picks up emotional signals, registers danger cues, and helps us seek comfort and closeness,” she explains. “We are wired for attachment, and this feeds that place [in the brain].”
We’re wired that way because we’re human, and our limbic systems, the emotional command center of the brain, calls all the shots. Last year, behavioral scientist Pamela Rutledge, the director of the Media Psychology Research Center and Media Psychology faculty at Fielding Graduate University, explained why Christmas movies resonate with us. Contrary to what we’d hope, the holidays are often the time of year that find an increase in stress, depression, and loneliness and the “sameness” of Christmas movies help counteract what’s often the most chaotic time of the year. “The human brain loves patterns and the predictability is cognitively rewarding,” explains Rutledge. “Those predictable story arcs that draw on the standard patterns we recognize from fairytales offer comfort by presenting life as simple and moralistic.”
Weirdly, even though the storylines found in holidays are often unbelievable and anathema to reality – i.e. Santa Claus, magic and miracles, Hollywood perfect meet-cutes, life-changing dilemmas resolved in under two hours – that in and of itself is a comfort. We know we’re probably not going to fall in love with a misplaced 13th-century knight, but that’s part of the magic of Christmas movies. “While few of us are going to switch places with a doppelgänger, save Christmas for ourselves or someone else, marry a prince/princess, or fall for a person who turns out to be a billionaire or find true love in the span of an hour, they still allow us to experience the emotions associated with social validation, the yearning for connection, compassion and empathy,” says Rutledge. “The movies provide simplistic solutions to all those stressors that the holidays can bring: family conflict, isolation or financial pressures.”
In other words, we know it’s not real life and we certainly know it doesn’t pertain to our lives, but simply seeing fictional conflicts resolved reminds us that our own struggles can be resolved, too, and that things will be better. Just as the angel Clarence did for George Bailey, Christmas movies remind us it’s a wonderful life, even if it doesn’t seem wonderful at the moment. The rush of dopamine, i.e. the “feel-good hormone,” that we get when watching Christmas movies or listening to Christmas music helps right our emotional ship, so to speak. It can stop a depressive spiral or feelings of loneliness or hopelessness, helping us to regain our equilibrium and rebalance our perspective about our own real-life challenges.
So if you’re feeling sad or stressed-out right now, may I suggest watching a Christmas movie? It may not solve your problems, but it will at least remind you that they will be solved. And, of course, there’s always the chance a tiny bit of real-life magic will find its way to you.