Andy Williams tells us “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” It’s also the most nostalgic.
Nostalgia is a powerful force, never more so than at Christmas. This season is a time of traditions, a link to our past – some personal, like grandma’s recipe for stuffing, and others shared with many others, like watching A Charlie Brown Christmas.
For me, it’s just not Christmas without Bing Crosby, along with fellow crooners such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Perry Como and the aforementioned Mr. Williams. The movies, TV specials and, of course, the music, most of which predate my own time but are indelibly linked to my Christmases past.
Many of us hold the yuletide season in our hearts, if only because yuletide events are among our most cherished childhood memories, despite the impressions those old notions of Christmas have either come under attack or gone by the wayside.
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Nostalgia is particularly prominent around the holidays, experts note, adding that can be both good and bad.
“People feel more nostalgic during the holidays because many memories are reawakened and relationships renewed,” says Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. and an expert on nostalgia, in an oft-cited American Psychological Association piece.
During the holidays, families and friends get together to celebrate and reconnect; they get caught up on one another’s lives, reminisce and browse through old photographs. Even from afar, friends and relatives get back in touch, with phone calls, letters, greeting cards and posts on social networking sites.
“For many, holidays bring back memories of simpler times along with the sense of the security of childhood or the carefree feelings of being young, with fewer of the worries and stress that accompany responsibilities. Most often, holidays remind us of people who have played important roles in our lives and the activities we shared with them.”
For children, of course, Christmas often boils down to what’s under the tree. The day could never come soon enough, and it was always still pitch dark out when you got up to see what Santa had left you.
Gradually, the holiday became more about enjoying the company of family and friends, many of whom you hadn’t seen all year. My fondest memories are certainly linked to those get-togethers, rather than the stuff I got. Those feelings are even more pronounced given that many of those people are no longer around to argue over who gets the last bit of stuffing or how Christmas used to be so much less commercial.
Of course, Christmas has become highly commercialized – some of the symbols we use today were in fact created by marketers – almost to the point of overkill. But there has always been something – a feeling in the air perhaps – that made the season lift the spirits beyond anything the so-called greeting-card holidays could ever do for us. That feeling of warmth and goodwill, no matter your take on Christmas, is tangible; in some ways, it appears on the wane today as business, stress, and political correctness intrude on the holiday – much as they do on our lives as we progress from childhood into our adult lives.
Many of our nostalgic attachments date back to childhood, Christmas being a font of such memories, notes neuroscientist and author Dean Burnett in a discussion last holiday season with The Naked Scientists podcast.
“Our strongest memories will come from our childhood. When we are developing, our childhood experiences tend to be the most formative. And it’s not logical. A lot of the things our brain prioritizes when it comes to experiences are emotion. Strong, emotional memories will usually override objectively useful ones. And when you’re a child, what is more emotionally stimulating than Christmas? You’re not in school anymore, you’ve got time off, you’re with your family all the time. You get given loads of presents and there’s lots of colourful things everywhere, and music that you can dance to. There are lots of treats,” he says.
“When you’re a kid, Christmas is an extremely powerful experience. Especially when you’re younger and maybe don’t understand, ‘all I know is when I see trees and baubles, I get lots of good stuff, so I must remember this – this is clearly quite indicative of good times ahead’. When you grow up, and you hear this particular piece of Christmas music for example, you associate that with all those good times. When you hear it again, those memories come flooding back as it’s triggering the connections.”
Christmas more than any other time of the year transports us back to our childhood, reminding us that maintaining our childlike enthusiasm would make Christmas, and many other things, far more enjoyable.
“It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty founder was a child himself,” offers up Charles Dickens, who knew a thing or two about Christmas spirit.
Ideally, we would really give into our younger selves: most of us knew better, if less. The holiday does tend to bring out more of our humanity, as if it were a reset button of sorts. Our compassion for others, our empathy and feelings of shared fortunes are taken out of the attic along with the decorations and leftover wrapping paper. Christmas is one step back towards our humanity, the rest of the year two steps away from it. Simple math shows how far we’ve strayed … and what we might become.
Again, Dickens observes how Christmas brings out our better natures, in contrast to other times of the year.
“I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”