When December snowballs around, everyone gives a collective sigh because we all know what time of year it is: the holidays. Wishlists are being made, children are reevaluating their behavior, decorations are being revived from their dusty closets, Christmas songs are on a loop in halls and supermarket aisles, and of course the television is filled with channels and channels upon holiday films, classic and new.
In fact, the holiday triumvirate Netflix, Hallmark, and Lifetime have released 146 new movies for the 2021 Christmas season. With relatively low cost productions and extremely high advertisement revenue, they won’t stop churning out holiday flicks anytime soon. But what makes these films so appealing that they are a facet of holiday culture? Why do families spend at least 90 minutes—in as early as March—to watch a film that they know will end with a kiss and the true meaning of Christmas (Sadlier, 2021)? The answer is simple; these movies offer viewers a reliable slice of happiness in a world where everything is anything but normal. (I’m talking about you, pandemic.)
The magic of holiday films lies in their predictability. The formula for success is a mix of rom-com, sprinkled in with light drama and seasonal tidings, and backdropped by a charming town covered in snow. The directors employ the usual tropes: a businesswoman disenchanted with city life goes back to her hometown and finds her soulmate with the help of Santa and his elves. Oh and don’t forget that it snows on Christmas. It’s cheesy and unworthy of critical acclaim, but studies have shown that cliches, despite overuse, can actually engage people more (Fuller-Wright, 2021). The predictability provides a sense of stability and familiarity; we know that we can turn to these films to elicit emotions, enough to cry, to laugh, to feel connected with each other and the world around us.
And this is a good thing. Research has found that nostalgia, a notoriously “negative” feeling, can boost optimism and motivation to act in the spirit of Christmas (Abyeta et al., 2020). What’s more, people who cry during films release oxytocin and are more likely to give to charity and be kind to strangers (Zak, 2015). Laughing too has plenty of benefits from decreasing pain and stress to preventing depression and anxiety (Zander-Schellenberg et al., 2020; Koa et al., 2020). After collecting data from 20 thousand people, Matthew Killingsworth, a Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar and happiness researcher, actually found that they were happier than usual on the holidays, and people who used words like “weekend,” “coffee,” “holiday,” and “delicious” tended to score high for positive emotions (Schwartz et al., 2013). As reported by Selina Zheng, AP Psychology Jennifer Danna (2021) adds that watching these films becomes an annual social event and brings families and friends together. Social connection can positively impact many categories of health, including weight management, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and depression (Martino et al., 2017).
With all these benefits in mind, even a Grinch might believe in the science-backed magic of the holidays, sappiness included. So brew some hot chocolate, bring your loved ones near, snuggle up in fuzzy socks and blankets, and turn on the TV for a Christmas film. And who knows? It might even snow.