Why This Christmas Is Guaranteed to Be Memorable

The psychology of time perception.

Posted Dec 16, 2020

Think of all of the Christmases past. Which stand out to you? Or do they all seem to blur together? If you have a hard time singling out particular Christmases, it may be because you engage in the same routines over and over, every year.

Research on time perception suggests that the more we repeat the same events and experiences, the harder it is to store and retrieve those memories. Novel events make more vivid memories, and the more we reflect on those memories, the better they are preserved. So, this Christmas—the first COVID/pandemic/lockdown Christmas—should be more memorable simply because of the unique circumstances.

For most of us, this will be a very different holiday season, without the large gatherings, parties, and dinners. Restricted travel and stay-at-home orders will make this a very different Christmas indeed. And we will think about it, resent it, and imagine how it could and should be different, and embed it in our memories. It will be very hard to forget our first COVID Christmas.

The “silver lining” of the COVID Christmas, however, is that its uniqueness may actually slow down our time perception. Typically, Christmases (and other regular holidays) seem to fly by. As we put up the lights and trim the tree, we think, “Didn’t I just do this a few months ago?”

That’s because of the same routine. If you want to slow down time and make a recurring event, like a holiday or a vacation, more memorable, make it unique. For example, my most memorable Thanksgiving was the one we spent in Hawaii instead of doing the traditional turkey-fest with family.

Another illustration: Every year, for decades, we have done a post-Christmas trip to Las Vegas, often staying at the same hotel, engaging in the same routines. Last year, a snowstorm closed the main highway, so we decided to take a circuitous route on little-traveled back roads. Well, we got stuck for a long time in a blinding snowstorm because of an accident ahead on the narrow, two-lane road. After a few Donner-party jokes, we prepared ourselves for a night in the cold in the car. That unique event alone made that our most memorable Vegas trip. One that will never be forgotten nor blurred with the others.

So, what is the lesson to be learned from this?

While we will likely always remember “that COVID Christmas” (hopefully, it is the first and the last!), in the future, be sure to use your holiday time more wisely. Try doing something different each time to make it unique. Also, strive to be more mindful. Live in the moment and soak up what is going on around you. If you reflect on those experiences—particularly savoring the positives about the experience—you will have a more lasting impression.

References

Draaisma, D. (2004). Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past. Cambridge University Press.