Whether you follow well-known holiday traditions, or if you and your family have created your own, traditions are a big part of celebrating the holidays. Repeating the same special rituals and habits year after year helps us build memories that last a lifetime. And according to scientific research, abiding by some of your favorite holiday traditions can be more than fun — it’s also good for your health. Read on to see how holiday traditions like caroling, sniffing festive scents, and putting on your favorite Christmas sweater can ease pain, boost your brain health, and more.
Soothe aches and pains with a Christmas tree.
Putting up a live Christmas tree or burning a sugar cookie–scented candle are perfect ways to fill your home with a wonderful holiday aroma. The best part: A German study found doing so also eases pain. Researchers say pleasant scents (whichever you find most comforting) activate areas of the brain that noticeably reduce your perception of pain.
Make a festive playlist to feel better.
Selecting beloved holiday songs to enjoy while trimming the tree or wrapping presents does more than just put you in a cheerful mood — it also quickly quashes aches and pains. According to a new British study published in the journal PLOS ONE, the simple act of picking out tunes gives you a sense of control, which rapidly decreases pain sensations.
Dress up to lift your mood.
Have certain dresses, shoes, or earrings you wear this time of year because you enjoy how festive they make you look? They’re also an easy way to put a smile on your face! Research reveals wearing your favorite clothing prompts a surge in the happiness-spurring brain chemical dopamine. And it’s so effective at boosting your mood, experts have dubbed the phenomenon “dopamine dressing.”
Sleep soundly by admiring decorations.
Simply pausing to take a few extra moments to gaze at your holly wreaths, antique ornaments, and other cherished decor each day improves your sleep quality. That’s the word from researchers in Singapore, who found that appreciating beautiful art is so soothing, it helps you relax more deeply at night so you fall asleep faster and get sounder Zzzs.
Pick up a book for a quick pick-me-up.
Reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens or another holiday classic before going to bed ushers in more restful sleep, according to a study out of Ireland. Investigators explain that books (of any genre) absorb your attention, which takes your mind off daily problems so you can more fully unwind and sink into sleep.
Protect your memory with prayer.
A British study found that folks who follow religious practices, like attending services or praying, are less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder that ups dementia risk. Religious folks have higher levels of a molecule (BDNF) that helps grow new brain neurons.
Sip a latte for brain benefits.
According to a Canadian study, coffee consumption can keep memory loss at bay. Researchers explain that dark roast coffee’s phenylindanes curb buildup of harmful tau proteins in the brain, cutting Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s risk.
Fend off colds with carols.
Whether you belt out a tune while baking or go caroling with neighbors, singing lowers your risk of catching a cold, flu, or other virus. University of California researchers say that it spurs up to an increase in immunoglobulin A in your saliva, which is your body’s first line of defense against invading viruses. It works by reducing activity in your sympathetic nervous system (responsible for your stressful fight-or-flight response), allowing your immune system to work more efficiently.
Blow out a candle for immunity.
Is it time to extinguish the Christmas candles in the windows before you go to bed? Volunteering for this chore could benefit you, says science. A Harvard study found deeply inhaling and exhaling (as if blowing out a candle) cuts flu risk. Stretching and relaxing lung tissue curbs germ replication by activating antiviral genes.
Strengthen your heart by wrapping gifts.
A new UCLA study found gift-givers have lower diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) and a lower heart rate, which reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke. Acts of kindness rein in tension, taking pressure off your heart and arteries.
Host a holiday potluck for heart health.
There are many good reasons to gather with loved ones over the holidays, but did you know that there are health benefits, too? Regularly spending time with friends and family improves heart rate variability (a measure of how quickly you rebound from stress), shows a University of Illinois study.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.