Party for One? The Great Nostalgia of Christmases Past

How reminiscence can be an effective tool in soothing the holiday blues

Even with my introverted social battery, I enjoy holiday gatherings. The Christmas spirit excites me, as long as it involves something I am socially comfortable with and I’m with a person or two that I trust. Good company and festivities have an infectious joyful energy that can soothe even the most socially anxious person.

However, the nature of this pandemic has changed the way we socialize. Regulations are still in place to prevent parties and events from spurring a massive spread of infection. Nine months since the first known case, the novel coronavirus is still as persistent. It will be a while before it would be safe enough to resume life as we know it.

Now, all I have are the memories of how I spent the previous yuletide seasons. My family gatherings would always involve an extensive feast, exchanging of gifts, and whatever parlor games my relatives would come up with. It was even more special when relatives from abroad visited after years of not seeing each other.

When I used to work at a physical office, meant bonding with my colleagues without thinking of emails or deadlines, plus awaiting the ever anticipated 13th month pay. When schedules permitted, I also made it a point to go to a year-end catchup with my closest friends at a nice restaurant.

That’s how I remember the holidays. This year, memories of handing over gifts without having to sanitize packages, hugging family we haven’t seen in a long time, and holding our grandparents’ hands and saying mano po are just movies playing on loop in our minds. We’re not even sure when we can get to do those again, but we can remember them fondly for now. Nostalgia will lift our Christmas spirits in a time when we’re reasonably expected to be far away from everyone else.

Nostalgia as a Transitional Device

The flow of time is now divided between the periods before quarantine and after the outbreak. Think of it like how they dated the Gregorian calendar with BC and AD, but more dystopian, less spiritual, and a whole lot more stressful. The whole world is undergoing a collective trauma akin to a very long cabin fever, so it’s perfectly fine and completely understandable to rely on a trip to memory lane to seek comfort in the normalcy of life pre-pandemic.

Case in point, clinical psychologist Valentina Stoycheva proved that recalling memories in a stressful time is a sound way to cope. Dr. Stoycheva explained in her book The Unconscious: Theory, Research, and Clinical Implications that nostalgia alleviates the stress we feel together right now. “While [trauma] has the danger of creating this longing for the before, when things were maybe safer, and when we were unaware of all of this and protected by our naïveté, there’s also something about nostalgic behaviors — fashion, clothes, movies, music — that serve as a transitional object.”

These transitional objects help us move on from life before the pandemic to our current state. The first example of transitional objects I can think of are old images. #ThrowbackThursday posts have turned into throwback every day or every week. The most common type of throwback content I see on my feed are those of previous travels, with captions akin to “take me back” or “I miss traveling (sad emoji).” I, for one, have gone back to the travel photos I had stored in my computer just so I could reminisce and go back to a simpler time. All this of course is coming from a place of privilege; the sad truth is that many don’t have the luxury of these memories to go back to in the first place.

My personal transition objects have been the prints and stickers I was supposed to sell at events initially scheduled for the year. Before the lockdown, my main source of income as an artist relied a lot on art markets and comic conventions. Upon receiving notices from event heads about the said events getting cancelled, the art community had to get creative on how to make a living during these tough times. It felt bittersweet looking through the products I made and remembering the Before Corona days, when customers would drop by, scroll through, purchase art, and actually converse freely. Those were the days.

Nostalgia also shows in the online space we preoccupy ourselves with. Several listicles have popped up recommending timeless movies to binge-watch on streaming sites. We open music streaming apps to play electronic beats that will pump us up in our makeshift exercise area the same way traditional gyms used to. Or we play bossa nova and jazz as the aroma of brewing coffee wafts around the kitchen just to recreate the coffee shop ambience we miss. According to one study, being quarantined for a long time has had everyone playing old tunes to break the monotony of staying at home. Findings from the same study noted that demand for nostalgia gradually grew alongside the increasing frustration brought about by lockdowns. Because the pandemic is still here, recreating some semblance of the outside world has been crucial to recollecting the good old times.

Nostalgia as a Double-Edged Sword

The idea of nostalgia wasn’t positively received at first. When it was a new concept in 1688, Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer created the word “nostalgia” by mixing two Greek words: nostos for “homecoming” and algos for “pain.” Professionals in those times mistook nostalgia as the illness that forms when depression and melancholia mix together. It was so negatively received that a Russian general threatened to bury his subordinates alive if they yearned to go home.

As time passed, nostalgia grew to have a more positive connotation to refer to happier times. Yet even with the change in outlook, nostalgia is still a double-edged sword that we have to be careful with. Svetlana Boym, the professor and author of “The Future of Nostalgia,” classified it into two types: restorative and reflective.

Restorative nostalgia is when we yearn for the past. When used positively, we duplicate the feelings we associate with those memories. This may seem like a good thing, but it’s a step back from being mindful of where we are now. If getting caught up in the past goes out of control, the less pleasant memories can get to us and reopen the wounds of the trauma we have buried at a subconscious level. I have unfortunately fallen into these situations, especially this year, and found myself getting emotional over unresolved internal conflicts, or grieving over the joyful memories that will take a while for me to be able to recreate again.

Reflective nostalgia is different though. It goes by acknowledging the past as what it is — history. Instead of dwelling on it, one asks: What can I learn from this? To do this, talking to a trusted confidant or seeking aid from a professional who can help unpack internal baggage is key. Another method is to write unfiltered thoughts down in a journal meant for one’s eyes only. This year, I revisited journaling as a hobby more often to keep myself in check before my next therapy sessions. It also helped me organize my thoughts before talking about them in confidence with anyone I trust.

Nostalgia as a Means to Stay Present

Regardless of our intentions in remembering, nostalgia is a valid coping mechanism during this time. Getting sentimental is a good step toward feeling the Christmas spirit. More importantly, we can go back to the essence of the holiday season close to the end of the year without risk of contracting virus. Take away the parties and greetings requiring physical contact. What exactly did the past Christmas celebrations bring? It’s the giving and receiving of compassion to ourselves and one another.

We can lift up our own moods by brightening the home with Christmas decorations, since we will be spending more time indoors for a little longer anyway. A little sprucing up is a good creativity exercise to break the monotony of being in the same space. And in exchange for that traditional reunion dinner, we can safely send over prepacked food to our family and connect with them online instead. Gift exchanges with friends are still possible, as we can ask delivery services to bring them our care packages. Even with the adjustments we have to make, we can still feel a similar, if not more meaningful, sense of joyfulness the usual Christmas party would bring.

But perhaps a better way to evoke nostalgia would be to check on your family and friends. The best gift this season is time, thought, and attention. You don’t have to forget social distancing and take off your mask to do this. A simple message or a short video call should do. Asking loved ones how they’re feeling and what they’ve been up to would mean a lot. You can even get nostalgic together on the memories you’ve shared to uplift each other’s spirits.

While nostalgia can combat the loneliness that an imposed isolation can bring, connecting with others in safe ways is the much needed morale boost we all need. Rest assured, once things get better, this will yet be another joyful Christmas memory we can reminisce together — within each other’s physical presence.

This article was written by our contributor, Aica Duran.