Holidays: "There used to be more tinsel" - Housing psychologist explains why Christmas decorations are so important to us

"There used to be more tinsel" - as the saying goes from a famous sketch.

Holidays: "There used to be more tinsel" - Housing psychologist explains why Christmas decorations are so important to us

"There used to be more tinsel" - as the saying goes from a famous sketch. Did we really decorate better in the past - so that Christmas and the Advent season were more contemplative and cosy?

Barbara Perfahl: My impression is that today the spectrum of what is considered Christmas and Advent decoration has become much larger. In the past, the Christmas decorations actually looked the same in all apartments. There were the traditionalists, who relied heavily on green, red and gold, and those who deviated a bit and maybe hung up a piece or two in pink. But basically it was very ritualized. The design and also this ritual aspect of the design has changed and today much more than Advent decoration is permitted. 30 years ago, an Advent wreath like the one I have here – a glass box with four candles in it – would not have passed as such.

You just mentioned the rituals. It is a tradition for many families that the Christmas tree is decorated together on December 22nd or 23rd. So isn't it just the decoration itself that's important?

At its core, the ritual is important. The decoration is only the symbol, image or result of the ritual. Every morning I look at my apartment decorated for Christmas and am reminded that we are in Advent. We might look at the advent calendar together with our children – and in doing so, we will also remember beautiful moments from our childhood Christmas celebrations. And not the decoration itself, but the ritual behind it is ultimately what makes the stars in the window, the balls on the tree or the candle on the wreath so important to us. The decoration prepares us for Christmas and gets us in the mood.

The results of a study suggest that those who decorate earlier are happier and look forward to Christmas more.

The question in such studies is always about the causal connection: So people decorate earlier because they are so looking forward to Christmas, or does the decoration put them in a positive mood. But: Rituals give us security in principle. Christmas as a celebration of love and family has a positive connotation for most people. So people decorate in order to bring the symbols of this festival into their homes weeks in advance.

Some people tend to be perfectionists when it comes to Christmas decorations. So does the decoration also cause frustration?

Of course, that depends on how we are knitted and what our living needs are. For example, if it is important that your own four walls represent something and you use the decorated apartment to represent yourself, you may have a penchant for perfectionism. That might include getting the house perfectly decorated for Christmas, and then it becomes more of a must-do, which can add to the stress and frustration of all the other Christmas preparations.

A 1989 study found that our neighbors perceived us as friendlier when our house was beautifully decorated for Christmas. So aren't we actually hanging the poinsettia for ourselves?

Especially the Christmas decoration of the house and the garden is also a small show. I lived in Hamburg for a while and I remember a house near the airport that was so excessively decorated that it was a must for me and many others to visit this house in the run-up to Christmas. This type of decoration is already hanging or setting up to attract attention or to show your artistry. In many families, Christmas is the time of year when all family members really come together. At home you receive visitors and the house should be representative for the guests.

In the last decade, entire streets have sprung up in many places, where people decorate their houses to the extreme and turn them into a true Christmas wonderland. Where does the penchant for this opulent decoration come from?

It is difficult to say why this is so. One point is certainly that through travel, films on TV or reports, we see how other countries decorate for Christmas. We know the colorful lights and big Santa Clauses in the gardens mainly from the USA. And in this country, too, some people have adopted this type of decorating because they like it. Why one or the other does it very excessively can be a form of self-expression, a kind of competition of a whole place or simply a hobby.

However, in view of the rising electricity prices and the energy crisis, many people may not be able to have a large number of fairy lights or a huge illuminated figure in the garden. Many people probably need to take a step back when it comes to Christmas decorations. How does that affect people?

I can well imagine that many families will really take a step back when it comes to decorating. And will concentrate more on the more contemplative, reduced and more traditional decoration. Instead of the big luminous figure, there is only the tree, the crib and the Advent wreath. Christmas could be a little more contemplative visually. Living and decorating is always very strongly influenced by what is happening in society. The last few years with the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have been unusual and stressful for many people. I can well imagine that this is also reflected in the Christmas decorations - but we will only know for sure after Christmas, when we have experienced it.

Speaking of traditional Christmas decorations, it includes the colors red, green and gold. How do these colors affect our mood?

When it comes to Christmas, many people think of the snowy forest and with the Christmas tree and the greenery we bring nature into our homes. Gold is extravagant and a symbol of joy and celebration. Red is the color of life. Red is usually a color that is stimulating or can also make you aggressive. In combination with green and gold at Christmas, the color red is excitingly good and can even have a calming effect. Ultimately, the colors must certainly also be viewed from a religious context, where Christmas is a high festival.