Photo credit: Element5 Digital, Unsplash.com

Whether hanging a time-worn star on top of a Christmas tree, spinning a dreidel, lighting candles on an heirloom menorah, or playing African drums in honor of Kwanzaa, seasonal traditions find their way into most homes this time of year.

When we were children, eagerness and expectation filled the air at holiday time.

We thought the Big Day would never arrive. But as we’ve grown older, that childlike anticipation has diminished for many people. While we buy gifts for others, we silently tally the dollars spent, and it can depress us. When sentimental Hallmark holiday movies appear on TV, we feel ashamed that our decorations may be “inferior” to the ones viewed on the screen.

Then, when the news channel comes on, the reports carry a negative tone. Reporters fill our ears with survival tips for holiday blues, and we’re alerted to fire hazards associated with Christmas tree lights or Hanukkah candles. When we leave home and venture to the local mall, parking spots are nearly non-existent.

Well… “bah, humbug!”

The good news is that despite the aggravation you sometimes feel during the final month of the year, the health benefits for your body and brain should be reason enough for a joyful celebration. Believe it or not, nearly every aspect of the holiday season offers something good for your health.


Sitting Fireside 

Whether you spend your holidays in a large home or a tiny apartment, you most likely will display some seasonal decorations. When you unwrap that hand-blown glass ornament your Mother gave you, or set a priceless menorah on your table, your memory goes into a retrieval mode that awakens long-unused neural associations.

Recalling past events actually exercises your brain in a healthy way. Whether your decorations are gaudy or elegant, traditional or kitschy, the act of decorating stimulates your mind’s creativity and excites the right hemisphere of your brain.

Since the dawn of time, our ancestors have been drawn to light. After cave dwellers discovered that rubbing sticks together resulted in fire, everyone since recognizes that staring at flickering flames results in a state of calm relaxation. Researchers have discovered that flames flicker at a frequency that matches our brainwave patterns.

The sparkling flames help to lower blood pressure and reduce stress. Ahhh


Exchanging Gifts

Exchanging gifts is customary for most seasonal traditions. While we were told since childhood that it’s “more blessed to give,” our bodies and brains benefit from both giving and receiving. Our childhood and our adult brains thrive on novelty and surprise. So regardless of the fact that as adults, we have plenty of stuff, most of us never quite outgrow the childlike fascination associated with opening a wrapped box with our name on the tag.

Whether the box contains something we need or want, it doesn’t really matter. We enjoy the suspense and feel gratitude. Since as humans, we’re wired to be altruistic, our brain responds to the delight of others by releasing dopamine — a pleasure releasing chemical — into the bloodstream.


Appreciating Seasonal Music

Whether you prefer “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Handel’s Messiah, “Ma’oz Tzur,” or tribal African instrumentals, seasonal music is beneficial to your health. As you listen your brain becomes stimulated by vivid reflections and past memories.

Music provides additional healthy benefits if you sing along. Making music together bonds families and friends as it creates emotional connections.

As you belt out songs from deep within your chest or abdomen — not just your throat — your oxygen supply increases and your body and brain’s circulation flow increases. As a result, your energy level increases, your blood pressure lowers, and you feel far less stressed.


Celebrating Special Holiday Feasts

Most of us aren’t satisfied by just being “full” of seasonal happiness. We also want to be full of good food, as well. The holidays would not be complete without the tasty sustenance that traditionally graces our dining tables.

Most holiday dinners not only taste good, but smells good, too. Just think of the scent of eggnog permeating the kitchen, the scent of sugar cookies baking in the oven, or latkes frying in oil. Scientists assure us that the scent of vanilla (found in many recipes) reduces anxiety.

The scent of cinnamon, clove, oregano, and cumin (used in many seasonal dishes) stimulates our mind and temporarily enhances the cognitive processing abilities of our brains.

The heavenly scent of peppermint contained in candy canes increases the beta waves associated with alertness in our brains. Neurologists report that the aroma has the same effect as a whiff of smelling salts.

Many indulgent holiday foods are not only pungent and flavorful, they’re also packed with healthy nutrients. Take the proverbial fruitcake, for example. These cakes originated during Roman times, and some joke that the original cakes are still being passed around.

Their prime ingredients include dates, figs, prunes, dried fruits, and nuts. These little wonders are low in fat and high in fiber. They’re a wonderful source of potassium, too, which has been known to reduce anxiety and prevent strokes.


But what about the real “spirits” of the season?

The holiday “toasting” tradition began long ago in England. When hot, mulled, spicy ale was served from a large bowl, people gathered around to share the drink. Everyone lifted a cup and recited the words “Waes hael” which means “good health”. Over time, the spicy ale became known as “wassail”.

Rather than feeling distressed about the holidays, remember the many hidden benefits and blessings found in seasonal traditions. Go ahead, celebrate and be merry.

Here’s a toast to your happiness, blessings, and good health. “Waes hael!”

Jeanie McKay has over three decades of executive leadership development, consulting, speaking and real-life, “in the trenches” business experience as a health care system director and certified coach. She’s known by many as a “people whisperer” for her insightful style that brings out the best in people. As a clinician, Jeanie developed a passion for coaching middle-aged adults and seniors faced with transitions and health challenges. Jeanie is Chief Learning Officer for MindZone LLC…where the science of the brain meets the art of being human. She is author of “Octane for the Brain” and delivers health and well-being seminars and interactive workshops throughout the U.S. for people who need to recharge. She is also a frequently requested speaker at Washington State South Sound at ICF training events.


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