I Leave up Christmas Lights Until April to Ease My Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

Photo: Getty Images/Aleksandar Nakic
When my father was young and single, his parents would buy him a Christmas tree every year, and he’d display it—with lights, tinsel, and ornaments—through April. The holiday cheer that the tree emanated just by way of existing in plain sight, he still contends, helped ease his seasonal affective disorder symptoms during the dark, dreary days of winter until spring finally sprung. And when I moved out of my parents' house for school, he restarted the cycle by buying me a tree that I, too, refuse to dispose until blooms sprout up outside my apartment. In fact, this willful defiance against the timeliness of when to take down Christmas decorations has become my most beloved holiday tradition.

You’re probably thinking, “Okay, but April? That's a little excessive, right?” Well I, like my dad, suffer from seasonal affective disorder, which intensifies with my year-round dysthymia. And as I’ve slipped into another frigid, dark, and emotionally taxing winter, I've come to realize yet again that I feel so much better when in the glow of Christmas lights. And I have a hunch I'm not alone.

When to take down Christmas decorations and lights if leaving them up makes you happy

One '80s-era study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology concludes that putting up your decorations on the earlier side of the holiday season communicates cheeriness and sociability to your neighbors. And while that's certainly a positive effect of festive decor (and one you can feel good about if you're known to replace your Halloween lawn ornaments when reindeer), it caters specifically to the external. Regarding an internal, personal mood boost courtesy of holiday lights—during any season—pros say the effect may be a result of feeling nostalgic about Christmases past.

"When someone gets a mood lift from leaving decorative lights up, it‘s probably an emotional association—maybe happy memories or beliefs about what the holiday season is about." — Aimee Daramus, PsyD

"When someone gets a mood lift from leaving decorative lights up, it‘s probably an emotional association—maybe happy memories or beliefs about what the holiday season is about," says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. "So by leaving lights up, you get to have that for a little longer."

In my case, that certainly checks out, because I have so many happy memories that involve Christmas lights: unwrapping Nintendo 64 games at my YiaYia’s house, throwing a boozy-brunch holiday party, strolling along snowy streets to ogle expertly decorated homes. Basically, when the holidays come around, I go full Winona Ryder and clutch that string of glowing goodness like it's my child—and a lot of that is an effect of my year-round depression.

During those short, grey days of December though essentially April (thanks, climate change!) when the spidery, bare trees plague my work commute, I feel myself getting especially down. However, returning home to a bright, rainbow-sprinkled tree adorned by my YiaYia’s vintage decorations transports me to a safer place—a happier one. So, I leave them up long past the holidays.

Holiday-light loophole: Twinkle lights aren't just for holidays anymore

Still skeptical that ignoring the socially accepted timeframe for when to take down Christmas decorations and lights can do your low mood any good? Whether for bedrooms, weddings, or the actual holidays, string lights have become a go-to aesthetic, coincidentally (or not, it could be argued) parallel to the surge of clinical depression we've seen in recent years. And the interest in them stays relatively strong, beyond December.

"Searches for ‘fairy lights’ are highest November to January, when people are looking to decorate their homes for the holidays," says Swasti Sarna, Pinterest Insights Manager. "However, Pinners are looking for that cozy feeling throughout the year⁠. Although searches begin to drop off in February, there are still hundreds of thousands of people who continue to search for them, and searches begin to rise again as early as May."

And, there's strong evidence to support these late-spring Pinners aren't just super-organized planners who are ahead of the game for their holiday decor. "In November of 2019, there were approximately 28 times the searches for ‘bedroom fairy lights" than ‘Christmas fairy lights,’" says Sarna. "This may mean that even as the Christmas season nears, people are looking to brighten up their bedroom for their own feelings of joy and comfort."

So it seems that many people need a little Christmas magic, even when it doesn’t directly relate to the holiday itself, but rather just the lights.

Can holiday lights treat symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

The lights can be therapeutic for sure, but for treating seasonal affective disorder, stick with natural light lamps. "The lamps that are used to treat seasonal affective disorder have a specific wavelength of light that imitates real sunlight and might stimulate vitamin D production," Dr. Daramus says. "Your lights won‘t stimulate vitamin D production like a sunlight lamp will.”

Furthermore, if you hate the holidays, this festive form of pseudo chromotherapy is probably not for you, friend. (And, also, I’m amazed you got so this deep into the piece.) Otherwise, ignoring widely held beliefs of when to take down Christmas decorations can be a big self-care power move.

"If you want to use the power of those associations to cope with SAD or just winter blues, any strong positive winter imagery will do,” Dr. Daramus says. “Someone else might get the same lift from skiing, drinking cocoa, big cuddly sweaters, knitting, watching Christmas shows until March, or anything else that gives them some cheer. It should be something that gets to you emotionally."

Looking to elevate your hygge factor this winter? These essentials (fairy lights included!) will make any small space extra cozy. And make sure to snuggle up with a weighted blanket once you're settled.

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