Longing for Nostalgia

I've got that old feeling.

Bittersweet Holidays

Holidays can bring a mix of conflicting emotions.

The holidays are a time of celebration and relaxation for many, but for some they also bring anxiety and sadness. For many, the holidays mean extra work, responsibilities, deadlines, and expectations. Multitasking, once viewed as exceptional but now as routine, can distract us from the joy and respite holidays were intended to give. Rather than providing an intermission from daily work and worry so we can rest and reenergize, the added demands of special events and attending to all those tasks and people we have postponed “until the holidays” can make holidays stressful. As temporal landmarks, they remind us not only of prior holidays but also of the passage of our lives. Important events in our lives can involve both pleasant and unpleasant emotions. When significant events occur around a holiday, that holiday can become a trigger for the emotions that had accompanied them. As we accumulate such memories, holidays can stir a mix of conflicting feelings. 

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They also encourage greater feelings of nostalgic longing for times in our past that predate aversive events. Holidays are associated with many aspects of childhood, such as anticipating special gifts, belief in magical notions and characters, and distinctive celebratory customs and music. For many people, holiday symbols include brightly wrapped presents, secret wishes, acts of kindness, surprises, and decorations. The magic of holidays, so salient to children, can serve throughout life to remind us of that time of carefree innocence, security, and unbridled happiness. Even more importantly, for most people childhood is a time when we felt loved unconditionally, and holidays were a time when that love was manifest in special privileges, foods, and family gatherings. With such reminders, nostalgic reminiscence can comfort us when the holidays have become associated with painful events or when life has become especially stressful.

During the holidays, people connect and reconnect. Family gatherings, greeting cards, and exchanging gifts are all excellent occasions for feeling the support of relatives, friends, and co-workers. The technology of social media has helped people keep in touch with email, website postings, photos, and ecards. Being updated on news from friends and family can remind us of how we have become the person we are now. Within us are qualities of our parents, siblings, and friends. Holidays are highly nostalgic, because they are associated with social memories, especially memories that remind us that we were and are important to others. Research shows that nostalgic individuals are more inclined to value relationships and to define themselves in terms of their connections to important people in their lives—past and present.

Home is particularly meaningful to nostalgic people as it grounds their sense of self in their family roots. Home symbolizes the happiest, most carefree and secure time in life and most importantly the ones who have loved us without demands or expectations. Being grounded in a secure childhood gives us the confidence and freedom to move on and confront challenges in an uncertain future. People who remember their childhood as happier are more likely to feel nostalgic later in life. The enduring benefit of childhood happiness emphasizes the importance of providing and protecting childhood innocence. When adversity strikes during childhood, prompt efforts to support healing, reestablish hope and begin rebuilding the life of joy every child deserves are essential.

In a hurried world of constant change, nostalgia helps anchor us in a feeling that something can be counted on to endure. Traditions are an important part of the nostalgic power of holidays, because they connect us to the past and to others who have shared those traditions. Shared traditions help us feel part of something bigger than ourselves. The desire for permanence is especially important in times of loss or change. After a relationship has ended, a death of a loved one, retirement, or the loss of a job, nostalgia can remind us of better times. Recalling how we have overcome obstacles and survived adversity in our past can remind us of our ability to cope with challenge and endure tough times. More importantly, nostalgic reminiscence reminds us that just as we were once loved for ourselves—not just for what we do or how we look—we are lovable still.

Krystine Batcho, Ph.D., is a professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York.

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