Christmas lights even before Thanksgiving: There's a reason behind the 'act of kindness,' experts say

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas ... even earlier than usual. 

Families are hanging up holiday lights and putting out decorations before carving turkeys for Thanksgiving. Festive lights – already known to be able to elevate a person’s mood – could take on an outsized role amid the coronavirus pandemic, with families more unlikely to travel to see loved ones.

“On the surface, the first thing that you could argue, easily, is that lights, which obviously are associated with joy, and bring back a lot of good memories, are a way of alleviating depression, sadness, feeling down, anxiety, stress – all the things the pandemic has increased,” said Dr. Krystine Batcho, professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. 

Plus, there’s a desire to return to normal. The pandemic has brought on feelings of being out of control, Batcho said. The holidays are guaranteed to arrive, with or without COVID-19.

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“If you’re Christian, Christmas comes on Dec. 25,” she said. “If you’re Jewish, you know when Hannukah is. It’s comforting to have this sense that since Christmas will come again – and it will, Dec. 25, 2020. We’re in a hurry to get back that marker in time, which tells us that we can be reassured.”

Some holiday rituals may matter more this year

Generally, families who say they have rituals are “more likely to keep getting together for those holidays and the holiday goes a little bit better when it happens,” said Michael Norton, professor at Harvard Business School. 

For many families, hanging lights is a decades-long ritual. Some are just fast-tracking things this year. In England, a community decided to open November with Christmas lights, according to the BBC. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg lit up the city’s River Walk early because, as he put it, “Why wait?” KSAT-TV reported

There will be lots of twinkling lights at Hersheypark’s Christmas Candylane.

“My hunch is that, especially because we’re not gonna be able to do all of our rituals that we usually do – including gathering – that people might go a little heavier on the ones they can do,” Norton said. 

Holidays typically are the times people are at their most social, Batcho said. The pandemic has taken those social opportunities away. Even facial expressions are hidden behind masks. 

Putting up decorations and lights is how people are showing and spreading holiday cheer, since there aren’t other ways to do so, she said. 

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“It’s a very kind, generous gesture because, most of the time, you’re not going to see them,” Batcho said. “You’re on the inside. You’re putting them out there for other people to see. In itself, it’s an act of kindness.”

Norton added, “There’s almost like a, ‘If I can’t have the entire way I would like it, at least let’s really double-down on the ones that we’re still able to enact.’” 

'The earliest we've ever set up the tree'

A few Twitter users shared photos of holiday lights. Most of their photos came with commentary on how early it is for the decorations. 

"Multiple houses in my neighborhood with Christmas lights up already and I’m not even mad!" WJAR-TV reporter Joe Kayata tweeted

Thomas Munns tweeted Nov. 14 was "the earliest we've ever set up the tree," but he and his family were "getting into the spirit" after "rona and 2020 crapped all over us."

  • Holiday lights, and the calming feelings of nostalgia they can bring, have taken on a greater significance during the pandemic, said Batcho, adding that she has noticed lights going up as she has driven around.

"Nostalgic feelings are comforting," she said. "They calm you during times of anxiety. They bring back memories that are from the happiest times of your life." 

Contributing: Ashley May, USA TODAY