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The Holiday Nostalgia Blues

The holidays prompt us to think about what has changed and what has remained the same. Sometimes reminiscing can be difficult... but healthy.

I have always loved the holiday season, but I've had the blues this year. They've been coming with waves of nostalgia, memories, reflection and regrets.

Anything and everything triggers the nostalgia, that bittersweet yearning for the past.

All the Christmas songs extolling this most beautiful time of the year, the sparkling lights, the smell of our tree, the taste of ginger in a Starbucks latte.

There are all the Christmas shows and movies. Because I'm a sucker for their seasonable brand of sentiment, I’ve been hitting those pretty hard: White Christmas and A Christmas Carol at the Lesher Center; San Francisco Ballet’s The Nutcracker; and a late-night viewing of the 1945 romantic comedy Christmas in Connecticut.

These sights, sounds, tastes and smells make me think of past Christmases, when I was younger and made a gingerbread house or watched Christmas on Connecticut by the lights of the tree in my parents' home and dreamed of having that 1940s idea of a country Christmas. I think, sadly, “I was happier then.” Or, “Life was better."

The memories also involve non-holiday-related events — both sweet and bitter. For example, as I wrote this, I was sitting in a Starbucks and a duet of Bing Crosby and, yes, David Bowie singing "Little Drummer Boy" played over the sound system.

In the manner of the madeleine bite that prompted Proust’s seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past, my thoughts started running around associations: to the college friends who played the duet for me and then to evenings in their company, sitting around a dorm room, drinking black Russians, listening to music.

These sweet memories make me sigh: “That time has passed, and nothing will be like that again. I’m not like that anymore.

This bitter side of the sweet memories will send me into a tumble of regrets. I’ll look at my life today, compare it to my perception of how things used to be and ask, “How did things turn out this way?"

In this frame of mind, the future looks strange and scary. I’ll respond by reminiscing again, this time about when I used to be in a different frame of mind and filled with more hope.

This yearning for the past has been involuntary these past few weeks. Once the memories grab, they can be pretty alluring.

Mad Men’s Don Draper understood the allure of nostalgia in selling products. In a now famous first-season episode during a pitch to Kodak executives to sell their Carousel slide projector, the fictional 1960s Madison Avenue ad man explained that nostalgia “is a twinge in your heart more powerful than memory alone.” He said nostalgia “takes us to a place where we ache to go again… to a place where we know we are loved.”

Someone else who understands the power of nostalgia, especially during the holidays, is real-life psychologist Krystine Batcho. The professor at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York, has made nostalgia a focus of her research. 

I came across her name and her area of expertise earlier this week during a Google search on “holidays, nostalgia.” I wanted to know why my holiday blues have been so powered by nostalgia. I was annoyed with myself for dwelling in the past.

According to Batcho, I am not alone in such thinking this time of the year. Many people feel nostalgic because the season is full of traditions that reawaken memories and renew relationships, she said. Apparently, that's even without the influence of advertising.

“Like anniversaries and other temporal landmarks, the holidays remind us of special times and help us keep track of what has changed, and what has remained the same in our lives – and in ourselves,” she said in an interview with the American Psychological Association. "For many, the holidays bring back memories of being young, with fewer of the worries and stress that accompany responsibilities.”

She added that music, including all those Christmas songs, is especially evocative. “Nostalgic song lyrics engage the listener in reverie and capture the bittersweet feeling of the past’s irretrievability.”

Articles on holiday blues talk about how seasonable depression flares up in people coping with major life changes: losing jobs, moving, health problems, deaths of loved ones. 

This past year, I changed jobs and went through a major health scare. I learned I had an irregular heartbeat. There was good news in that getting a pacemaker took care of it, but having a heart-related condition definitely inspired ruminations about mortality.

Grief over change

Nostalgia springs from our grief over change, especially during the holidays when it would be normal to think: “Last Christmas, before I lost my job, I had enough money to buy presents for all people on my list;” or “Last Christmas my mother was still alive."

Batcho told me, in a phone conversation, that "change in and of itself is always stressful, whether it’s a good change or a bad change."

During our chat, Batcho helped me rethink my concern.

I had been wondering whether I was just creating my own misery. But Batcho suggested that what I was doing was actually positive.

She believes nostalgia and reminiscing can be good things, contrary to the common wisdom that it’s a sign of psychological weakness to dwell on the past.  In fact, she said, the holiday focus on nostalgia can be useful for people individually and society as a whole.

“In American culture, there is this linear sense of progress,” she said. “Everyone is on this straight line. Anything that holds you back or creates a temporary obstacle causes this fear in us that we’ll be passed by.”

Nostalgia — with its bitter side — can be depressing, Batcho acknowledged. But it also reminds of our social connections to people in our lives — even if we have lost those people to death or other circumstances. It also gives us a sense of continuity and of the “self that remains.” 

“In moving forward, we have to keep some focus on looking in the rear view mirror,” she said. “Nostalgia helps us catch up. The holidays remind us, in a way, that we should slow down.”

Having happy memories is a good thing, even if they are just memories, Batcho assured me.

If we're depressed, having these memories shows that we have the capabiliity to be happy, just in new ways, she explained. Likewise, reminiscing shows us how we have survived challenges: “Sometime in the past, things were dark and hopeless but here you are. It worked out somehow."

“Most recent research done on nostalgia shows that it really provides a vision for the future,” she continued.

Actually, I think I might be happy now, even though I'm also blue about time passing, my heart condition, my lost youth, etc.

It's nice to hear that I have the capacity to be happy again, even if maybe I already am. That's a good vision for the future.

In a few weeks, when the holidays are over, I'm sure I'l be sad again, this time over the fact that these few sad but sweet nostalgia-filled weeks of my life are over, never to return again.

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