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The psychology behind collective Christmas decorating

Entire streets are often lit up by dazzling, bright lights and Christmas decorations together. (Jamilla Zuniga)

Huge inflatable reindeers, verdant holly wreaths, golden lights spanning the roof–Pleasanton residents have long had a tradition of decorating their houses in anticipation of the upcoming holiday season. But why is it that, when strolling around the neighborhood during Christmas season, the most festive houses always seem to be in groups? Turns out, there are psychological motives beyond ‘being in the holiday spirit’ that drive  the collective seasonal urge to spruce up one’s home. 

Conformity

Houses decorated for the holidays often come in groups – when one person decides to put up lights, the rest of the neighborhood feels like they should join in. In psychology, this phenomenon is known as conformity, “a type of social influence involving a change in belief or behavior in order to fit in with a group.” In other words: no one wants to be left as the neighborhood grinch.

Conformity is “a type of social influence involving a change in belief or behavior in order to fit in with a group.” In other words: no one wants to be left as the neighborhood grinch. ”

“There’s some pressure to [decorate] for sure, that’s why I think it has increased over the years and more people are doing it. Especially [on] Candy Cane Lane,  I’m sure there’s pressure to [decorate],” said psychology teacher Brett Bower

Conformity can be in response to a real or imaginary pressure. So whether or not the judgemental stares you seem to be getting from your neighbors around the holiday season are actually real, you might feel pressured to put some inflatable reindeers on your roof, or at the very least hang a wreath. 

“It’s largely a good thing, to adapt behavior for the alignment of the group, although too much conformity can be detrimental to the individual,” said psychology teacher Mark Kushner. 

Even after insisting they don’t feel pressure from anyone to decorate, many don’t realize that this is one of the factors driving their decision to do so. Sometimes, just seeing everyone else jump on the bandwagon can induce a subconscious desire to join in, as with Christmas decorations. 

“My neighbors have a lot of lights up now, so now I feel like I have to add some of my own,” said teacher Dawn Silva.  

Competition

For others, competition is a big motivator behind their festive houses. Not only do they want to put up decorations, but they want to put them up bigger and better than everyone else on the block. 

“I walked outside the other day, and my neighbor has all this Christmas music playing, and all these crazy lights, and well, now I want to crush him,” said physical education teacher Danny Jones. 

I walked outside the other day, and my neighbor has all this Christmas music playing, and all these crazy lights, and well, now I want to crush him. ”

— Danny Jones

As a football coach, Jones embraces competition, which extends even to house-decorating. 

“When I first moved to my house it was pretty simple, now it looks like a winter wonderland… It’s the best house on the damn block,” said Jones. 

There is also correlation between gender and competitiveness towards putting up decorations, with men being more likely to cite their competitive spirit as motivation, while women, their holiday spirit. 

“My own personal competitiveness drives me to put up my decorations, wanting to be the first one with them up. I believe that if you decorate before Thanksgiving, you have problems, so as long as I’m the first person the day after Thanksgiving, I’m happy,” said Sean Brennan, a Pleasanton resident. 

Community

The amount of lights a certain area puts up can be an indicator of how close-knit their community is. Those closer with their neighbors report feeling more motivated to decorate, and participate in other holiday activities like block parties. In some areas, such as Candy Cane Lane, houses on the same street collaborate and even match their decorations with similar themes. 

“We have a good community within our neighborhood. Both sides are decorated for the holidays, [and] we would even help each other. It’s encouraged, and it’s gotten better over the years,” said Bower

On the flip side, communities with less camaraderie often exhibit less holiday spirit.

“We do not really decorate for Christmas, sometimes we’ll put up lights, it depends on the year. There’s barely any community in our neighbourhood. No one really decorates, sometimes they put up lights too but no one really goes all out,” said Ramya Pulakhandam (‘23)

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