Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Nostalgia: The Christmas Addiction

Image via Kris De Curtis
by Charity Erickson

When I was in my early teens, I spent many December evenings lying on the floor with my head beneath our fake Christmas tree, looking up through the papery-plastic branches at the colored lights we’d woven through the ever-ever-evergreen. (My parents have had the same tree for twenty years now; it’s still going strong.) I was trying to recapture a feeling—a memory of an experience that seemed so specific and real—of transcendent wonder that I felt at some singular moment in early childhood, while lying under the Christmas tree.

Now that I know a little more about the inner-workings of nostalgia, I know that the original experience which I was trying to re-create probably never really happened. Nostalgia is funny like that. It is a feeling based on idealized memory; it is a trick of the brain in which past events are recalled as we wish they had occurred. There is a mournful aspect to nostalgia, and I don’t think it’s just because it involves longing for a time that is past and cannot be revisited; I think the gentle sadness that accompanies nostalgia has also to do with a subconscious awareness that our most beautiful memories are of things that never really happened, at least, not the way we remember them.

Image via Royce Bair
It seems to me that nostalgia is never more active than during the holiday season. We have a collective belief that this time of year should be special, sentimental, perfect. It makes sense, then, that our subconscious would be devoted to repairing our lackluster or outright negative holiday memories. That our brains manufacture holiday nostalgia evidences, perhaps, a psychic need to affirm the societal construct – the goodness and specialness of the holidays.

It is fascinating that nostalgia’s richer, more intense German cousin sehnsucht includes “addiction” as part of its meaning; it speaks to a yearning so powerful that it has to be filled with something, even if that something is just a place-holder. And I can’t help but wonder if the ever-inflating consumption and consumerism that takes place during the winter months have less to do with pure greed and gluttony and more to do with satisfying our desperate need to believe that transcendent moments of pure joy and wonder are able to be orchestrated or contrived—and our deep sadness at knowing they are not. It’s the sehnsucht of Christmas that pushes us to buy, to decorate, to stress out about traditions. It’s all about chasing that beautiful moment.

Image via Jack Fussell
The fact that we have to go to other languages to find words to capture the full essence of this longing (the Japanese have a similar concept, called mono no aware) shows how uncomfortable our culture is with simply feeling these feelings. We feel like we need to fix the feelings—we need to indulge our nostalgia, to chase it and change the past—but perhaps when we do this, we miss out on the beauty of the feelings themselves. Longing is so close to hope; and in that wishful desire for the beauty of the holidays to take over and bring us to that transcendent place of wonder and joy—in that simple hope—there is something worth celebrating, even with quiet tears while lying under the Christmas tree. 

Charity Erickson and her husband live and work together in the north woods of Minnesota. Check out her blog for more of her writing and follow her on Twitter @CharityJill.
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