Your Brain Tricks You Into Loving Cheesy Christmas Movies

For 11 months of the year, we are discerning movie-watchers. In December, we binge-watch ‘A Christmas Prince.’

I cannot find Eloise at Christmastime anywhere.

Or rather, I can’t find it streaming anywhere. I can buy a DVD for $6 on Amazon, but then I would have to buy a DVD player and also figure out how to hook that up to a television. I assumed it would stream on Disney+, but there’s some kind of darker conspiracy afoot and it is nowhere to be found.

I’m 27 years old, and there are plenty of actual good television shows and movies to watch. Movies that are critically acclaimed, obvious Oscar bait. But I want to watch Eloise bring Christmas joy to the entire Plaza Hotel, while a frazzled Nanny (Julie Andrews) tries to get the goddamn garland to hang in the archway—if only Eloise’s constant slamming of doors wouldn’t send it crashing every time!

Reader, trust me when I say she delivers a speech to the elder council of elves (and the entire North Pole) that had me crying in my bed, by myself, on a Saturday night.

Thwarted in my desires to stream Eloise’s antics, I settled for Noelle, an original Disney+ movie starring Anna Kendrick and Bill Hader as Santa and his younger sister, Noelle. Basically, Hader is about to take over the gig from his dad, Old Santa, but — gasp! — he actually kind of hates Christmas. And he disappears! And so Kendrick has to chase him down (he ends up in Arizona, long story) and save Christmas and prove her worth.

Reader, trust me when I say she delivers a speech to the elder council of elves (and the entire North Pole) that had me crying in my bed, by myself, on a Saturday night.

When I asked Elana Katz, a senior faculty member at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, why I still crave Claymation around December 1, she explained that these cheesy, predictable, too-cliché movies are like expressways to our limbic system, the emotional control center of our brains.

“The emotional side of our brain picks up emotional signals, registers danger cues, and helps us seek comfort and closeness.” And there is nothing more comforting than a Christmas movie. “We are wired for attachment, and this feeds that place [in the brain].”

The easiest way to understand what’s going on in our brains when we watch Christmas movies is the psychological concept of classical conditioning. (You may think you’ve never heard of it, but if you know the deal with Pavlov and his dog, you’re actually quite familiar with the concept.)

Psychology professor Chris Ferguson drew the connection for me: Classical conditioning is an automatic response where a neutral stimulus (in this case, a holiday movie) is paired with an unconditioned stimulus (all of the good memories you associate with Christmas) and creates an emotional response (warm fuzzy feelings).

“The form of art begins to evoke an emotional response that was originally evoked by something else,” explained Ferguson. Oftentimes, the holiday season has positive associations — snow days, movie nights, delicious baked goods, presents. All things that, at one time, made us feel happy. Holiday movies — no matter how predictable! — cue our brain to relive those happy memories and evokes a classical conditioning response.

“We’re attracted not because they’re high quality, but because [Christmas movies] remind us of this earlier period of our lives that is simple, fun, and happy.” That response is also connected to “nostalgia bias,” or the trick our brains play on us to convince us that things were “better back then.”

“When we compare our situation today and to our past, we have a tendency to remember the positives from our past and forget the negatives,” Ferguson explained. “In the case of Peanuts Christmas — we realize it’s not even that funny! It’s just something we [watched] in our childhood and I think it connects us to that earlier time.”

I have very distinct memories of watching the Eloise movies on a VHS tape in the small television in our guest room. When I asked my sister if she remembered the tapes, she responded immediately:

“Taped off the TV. Incredible commercials. Favorite movie.”

Apparently, the other reason I gravitate toward a hundredth rewatch of Eloise’s antics (or, when thwarted, I’ll settle for The Holiday) is that it may eliminate some of the Christmas season stress. According to Ferguson, this is called “mood management,” and it’s a very real technique that people may unconsciously use to calm down. (This works in any season: My mom DVRs every — every! — Hallmark Christmas movie and watches them year-round while she walks on the treadmill in our basement.)

“Simplistic, easy, nonstressful narratives change their mood when they’re feeling overwhelmed by the responsibilities they take on,” said Ferguson, who admitted that despite its cheesiness he still does watch A Charlie Brown Christmas every year. We disagree on the magic of Claymation movies, though — Ferguson says he can’t watch them anymore because they’re a bit too saccharine, while I maintain that seeing an elf achieve his dream of becoming a dentist is holiday art in its purest form.

Though I suppose my brain just wants me to think that.

Audience Development at Medium / Previously: Time Inc., Real Simple, childhood

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store