Is Decorating for the Holidays Really a Mood Booster?
Unfortunately, like everything else this year, the holidays are looking different. With travel discouraged and indoor gatherings restricted, celebrating with loved ones seems to be off the table. Stripped of annual traditions and deprived of the company of family, engaging in beloved rituals like decorating feels moot, and the holidays not so merry.
Aside from making you feel homesick, the holidays can bring up a lot of grief, and this season is especially somber. “Childhood wounds of not having the holidays that they always wanted, those sad realities get amplified during this season,” says Hatty Lee, M.S., L.M.F.T., founder of Oak and Stone Therapy. “Then there’s collective grief with the pandemic, everything that happened, and everything that isn’t anymore,” she adds. It’s especially challenging to navigate this season alone.
One way to combat feelings of loneliness and inject holiday cheer into your home is to decorate. If you think decking the halls will make you miss Christmases of yore even more, well, that’s the point. It’s a way to manufacture nostalgia, conjure warm, fuzzy memories, and feel more connected to traditions and loved ones. Here are expert-approved tips on how to boost your mental health this season with twinkling lights and your favorite kitschy Santa figurines.
Lean into the ritual
If you’ve always enjoyed bedecking the halls with kooky holiday baubles, keep the ritual alive—even if you’re solo. “Especially for people where this is part of their tradition and there are positive experiences associated with it, definitely decorate,” advises Hatty. “It’s still a way to connect with others.”
Be intentional about decorating. Set a date—and then set the mood. “The more senses you involve to bring back positive nostalgic memories, the better,” says psychotherapist Meghan Watson, M.A., R.P. “Think baking Christmas cookies while listening to your favorite holiday song or decorating the tree while playing your most beloved Christmas movie.”
Hunt down sentimental items
Have a favorite singed stocking from your childhood? Hunt down one or two items from previous holidays that spark joy. Ask relatives if they could ship you the items; otherwise, if the budget allows, buy similar pieces. “What we look at affects our mental health,” says Hatty, so display these comforting trinkets in an area with maximum visibility.
A low-stakes, low-effort alternative is to purchase holiday-themed, sentimental-ish items. Fragrances are especially effective mood-boosters. Watson recommends Christmas-scented candles like pine or cocoa or cozy pajamas that recall specific comforting memories. Plus, buying holiday wares is a great way to support small, BIPOC-owned businesses this season.
Create new traditions
Do something for yourself this season. “The best way to support mental health is through new experiences,” says Hatty. “For people who never had the dream holiday they always wanted, create rituals and new traditions. You don’t have to wait until you’re married or have a family.” So bake a gingerbread house. Hang a stocking and fill it up yourself. Whatever it is, “it’s a way that you can still honor your inner self,” she says.
Same goes for decor. Experiment and have fun. Go funky with disco lights. Decorate exclusively with Christmas gnomes. Or go the political-accoutrement route with RBG and AOC ornaments. Now’s the time to craft the holiday of your dreams, from tchotchkes to activities.
Focus on the essentials
Examine what you have space for, physically and mentally, and go from there. Especially for small spaces and limited furnishing options, choose a focal point—an area or a centerpiece. Is an adorned Christmas tree your nonnegotiable? Do you want a single bedazzled nook? You can just spruce up your Zoom area, for instance, for more festive calls, and leave everything else untouched. “Even just having the Christmas lights on, or a tree, it’s very nostalgic. It makes the space warmer and it’s comforting to be in that space,” says Hatty.
Take advantage of social media
Beyond decorating, utilize social media to feel more connected and less isolated. Decorate together on Zoom, designate an Instagram photo dump hashtag, or create your own TikTok challenge. “Think of how you can connect deeper with yourself and with your community. You can be creative around it,” says Hatty. She suggests holiday games over Zoom, sending gratitude letters, and a virtual Secret Santa.
No matter how you celebrate, remember to do what’s right for you. “Whether you love the holidays or not, there are still so many losses we have to contend with. Be mindful of trying to engage with traditions that aren’t as meaningful to you,” advises Meghan. “If you love Christmas, go all out. But if you don’t, focus on the parts that may be important to you like resting, connecting with loved ones, and reflecting on the new year.”