This is the time of year when we all start to feel nostalgic. Christmas means so many different things to so many different people and for many of us (including me) there is always an element of nostalgia that goes along with it. It is impossible to get to this festive season without sometimes being overwhelmed with memories. I always have fleeting visions of the past – going carol singing in harmony (literally) with my siblings. We played endless games in front of the fire. We opened crackers. We did all those things that you see in adverts.
But did we really? Have I edited out the tension set in my mother’s mouth every year as she cooked yet another Christmas lunch? Have a decided to ‘mislay’ the memories of terrible rows, my sister’s tears, my brother nearly strangling me when I refused to let him try on my much longed-for hacking jacket that I finally got as a present.
Well, yes and no.
Were the parties better? Was I more popular then? I get few invites now and my nostalgia tells me that this wasn’t always the case. If I wallow in this I feel temporarily sad and thoughtful.
Although nostalgia is generally thought of as being a desire to hark back to better and more harmonious times, this is not strictly true. Sometimes nostalgia can have a hint of something much more dangerous about it. It can often be about memories – the when-I-was-young-and-did-dangerous-stuff effect. There can be a sort-of reverse nostalgia when we long for the good old days before we had responsibilities. I often find myself dwelling on the times, before marriage and children, where I could be utterly wonderfully selfish at Christmas. I drunk what I liked, went to bed when I wanted to and generally forgot to buy anyone presents. I didn’t appreciate my freedom back then and, in some ways, I feel nostalgic for that.
For some reason nostalgia has become frowned on in these bright modern times. I often hear people talking about moving onwards and upwards and what-can-you-do? There seems to be a general feeling that anyone who looks backwards is mawkish and maudlin.
Of course there can be downside to nostalgia. An endless aching for a supposedly halcyon time when everything was good can have a negative affect on how we feel about the present. How can every day life live up to what has gone before if everything in the past seems so much better than the present?
We can also spend our adult lives trying to live up to a nostalgic past that never even existed. I have one client from an impoverished and peripatetic background, who never celebrated Christmas as a child. She told me they never had any money and her mother – a manic-depressive – hated Christmas. Now as an adult, my client is mad about Christmas. She strives to provide the most perfect Christmas, hanging stockings and making gingerbread houses and sending out handmade Christmas cards to just about anyone she has ever met. Her house is festooned with holly and ivy and carols blare out virtually 24/7. For her, it’s creating the Christmas she never had, a storybook Christmas she read about and craved for in a nostalgic fashion, yet it never actually existed.
Nostalgia can have a beneficial role in our lives. Instead of us looking backwards, at a time when being plugged in causes us depression and anxiety, it can promote resilience and growth. This is if we are able to learn from the past and adapt the good bits whilst recognising the ‘bad’ bits for what they are. For example, my mother’s taut anger as she produced yet another Christmas meal has been something that taught me much about my mother and how her world was back then. I have explored that anger and her role within the family as a wife and mother – and the effect it has had on me and continues to have on me – in my own therapy and it has proven to be something painful yet ultimately revealing in many creative and useful ways.
Yet part of the desire for past times is also connected to privacy. We now feel we are constantly accessible and this causes problems and divisions via mediums such as Twitter and Facebook. Our online relationships can be tricky and fraught and, in this sense, nostalgic reminiscence can be a stabilising force as it accesses deep memories that give us a sense of self and of identity. I am still that child round the Christmas table – the youngest of four – watching the reactions of my older siblings as they opened their presents. I still tiptoe around my mother’s silent anger as the sprouts boil over, even if it’s me who is cooking them.
Yet I still feel the unconditional love of my family past and present. For me, remembering this helps me deal with adversity and leads me potentially towards personal growth.