5 Reasons the Holidays Are a Powerful Source of Nostalgia
Many people report having strong nostalgic feelings about holidays. Why? What is so special about holidays that make them closely associated with nostalgic feelings?
Research on the psychology of nostalgia answers this question. Here are five reasons why we often have strong nostalgic feelings about holidays.
1. Nostalgic memories involve personally cherished life experiences. They are the memories we find most meaningful. Culture plays an important role in what we perceive as meaningful. And holidays are cultural. Some are religious, some are secular, and some are a little of both. For instance, Christmas is a religious holiday but it also has many secular components (e.g., Santa Claus). Both the religious and secular dimensions of Christmas are cultural, though. They involve traditions passed down from one generation to the next. Cultural traditions and worldviews provide our lives with meaning, order, and structure. Thus, it is not surprising that holidays provide the perfect recipe for making meaning.
2. Nostalgic memories are highly social and so are the holidays. Research shows that nearly all nostalgic memories involve other people, such as romantic partners, family members, and close friends. And these are the people we spend holidays with. In other words, since close others play a central role in nostalgic memories, it makes sense that when we get together with close others over the holidays we are creating the experiences that will become nostalgic memories.
3. Nostalgic memories are special. Everyday life is full of mundane experiences, routine duties and tasks required to adaptively function. Most people don’t feel nostalgic about paying bills, commuting to work, or buying groceries. Of course, if something that is part of our daily routine helps generate meaning, we might develop nostalgic feelings for it. For instance, I have nostalgic feelings about walking to work with my wife when we moved to England for a couple of years and worked together at a university. This was because it was noteworthy for us to be on this adventure together in a foreign country. The walk wasn’t meaningful by itself. The context mattered. Much of the time, the experiences that are truly special to us are rare, just like holidays. Many of us don’t get to see our closest friends and family on a daily basis so the holidays become particularly special, which makes them potent sources of nostalgia.
4. A key function of nostalgia is self-continuity, the feeling that our sense of self is stable across time. Life is full of changes, experiences that can make us feel uncertain and life seem unpredictable. We move to new cities, start new jobs, sometimes lose jobs, make new friends, lose friends, experience personal loss, and so on. In these experiences of discontinuity, we are prone to turn to nostalgia, to revisit the memories that stabilize the self and makes us feel connected to the most meaningful aspects of our past. Holiday traditions and rituals are all about continuity. They give us a sense of stability across time. This is another reason that, for many, the holidays and nostalgia go hand in hand.
5. Finally, nostalgia is as much about the future as it is about the past. Though this might sound counterintuitive, recent studies from our lab, for instance, reveal that when people engage in nostalgic reflection, they subsequently feel more socially confident and optimistic about the future. They also prioritize social goals and engage in more social behavior. That is, nostalgia brings online the social self. It reminds people of meaningful social connections and increases efforts to pursue new opportunities to meaningfully connect with others. Nostalgia has also been shown to increase feelings of inspiration and charitable giving. In short, nostalgia energizes people. Holidays are also about the past and the future. We are nostalgic for past holidays and this makes us look forward to future holidays. Nostalgia helps motivate us to plan holiday events and keep holiday traditions alive.