In the mood for love this holiday season? You’re not alone!

in the mood for love
Illustrator: Karagh Byrne

I was born in September, as were three of my closest friends and my grandmother. This isn’t that surprising—September is the most common birth month, as more babies are conceived during the December holiday season than at any other time of the year. 

The “holiday glow” that has us in the mood to celebrate—humming along to Christmas carols, showering nieces and nephews with Chanukah gelt, drooling over a delicious Kwanzaa feast, burning a Yule log, or making elaborate New Year’s plans—also lights up our brains with positive emotions and puts us in the mood for love (both familial and romantic).

Why holiday togetherness puts us in the mood for love

No matter which holidays you celebrate, engaging in their familiar rituals can create a general feeling of happy, relaxed connectedness. According to Dimitris Xygalatas, director of the University of Connecticut’s Experimental Anthropology Lab, “In a very real sense, those rituals do not simply celebrate bonds between human beings—they create them.”

Lighting the menorah with family, watching the televised ball drop in Times Square, and drinking from the common cup during Kwanzaa are all examples of December traditions that people engage in together and tend to view in similar ways. They’re the kind of ritual that the great sociologist Émile Durkheim had in mind when he proposed the theory of “collective effervescence,” or the special feeling of excitement and unity that only comes from group experiences. 

That buoyant sense of effervescence can also help keep things from fizzing out in the bedroom. According to research conducted by Indiana University and Portugal’s Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia, scientists Joana Goncalves-Sa and Luis Rocha found that the feelings associated with some holiday celebrations can also influence our sex drives. 

In their novel study, these researchers used data from Twitter and Google Trends to show that, regardless of climate, “worldwide peaks of sexual interest exist and coincide with specific religious celebrations.” For instance, in predominantly Christian countries, online searches related to sex peak around Christmastime—and in predominantly Muslim countries, these searches peak around Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha. The researchers posited that when the “collective mood” of the people around us is positive, we might respond by being more interested in romance. 

And as Xygalatas points out, “It is unsurprising… that romantic connections, too, very often spark in the context of [holiday] rituals. In fact, many of our holiday traditions encourage this, for example, by cheering people to kiss each other when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, or when standing under a mistletoe.” 

That holiday glow inside your brain

Neuroscientists can actually see this “holiday glow” lighting up the brain. When scientists at the University of Denmark put volunteers into an fMRI machine and showed them pictures either related or not related to Christmas, the volunteers’ brains lit up in a way that clearly showed a “Christmas spirit network” in the human brain comprising several cortical areas

What might make our brains respond this way, simply from seeing a festive tablescape or an image of some Christmas lights? After years of engaging in holiday traditions, our brains learn to associate the holiday season with positive emotions because of the flood of feel-good neurochemicals these traditions release.

Decorating for a holiday gives us a spike in dopamine levels, contributing to our happiness. When we do things for other people—such as give gifts or help prepare a meal—our oxytocin levels increase, and our cortisol levels drop (reducing stress and making us feel more bonded to others). Sharing food and spending time with our loved ones also releases oxytocin, and the act of taking time away from our normally hectic schedules to engage in holiday traditions gives us a chance to relax and recharge.

 These positive emotions can carry over into other areas of our lives throughout December. One study found, for instance, that when shoppers hear Christmas music and smell scents associated with the holidays, they rate the store they are in more positively than they do when these cues are not there to elevate their moods. 

Carried away by the holiday spirit

In some ways, popular culture seems to have intuited all of this already. Think about the avalanche of new holiday romance movies that appear every December—now such a cultural institution that you can find TikTok and SNL parodies, holiday movies written by bots, and several online holiday movie plot generators poking fun at the phenomenon.

The holidays can rev up our need for a little romance so much that Cosmopolitan recently coined a new term, “snow-globing,” as a way to talk about our tendency to get a little blinded by the holiday glow and read too much into our relationships during the holiday season. That’s not to say that holiday romances are never the real deal—just that we need to be mindful of how the festive mood can carry over into our love lives and influence our perceptions.

Whatever holidays you celebrate, enjoy the chance to share food, traditions, and togetherness. And don’t be surprised if December also has you on the lookout for love—it’s a surprisingly common side effect of all of that holiday joy!

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