Christmas Nostalgia: The Obstacle to Our Joy?

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“How lovely is Christmas with boughs in the hall,  
When bells ringle-jingle, and friends come to call, 
How lovely is Christmas with joy on the wing,  
While under your window the carolers sing,  
God rest ye be merry, give peace where you may,  
Remember the child who was born on this day,  
How lovely is Christmas with songs in the air,  
a bright merry Christmas dear friends everywhere.” 

Each Christmas, as far back as I can remember, I would sit in our living room and listen to a record that my mother had given me. On this record was the story of young Jethro, a lad who lived in a cabin with his parents a century ago in the wilderness of Kentucky.  

The lights were turned off, the tree was aglow, the nativity scene lit only by the star that hung above the manger. I cuddled up with a blanket and stared enraptured at the picture on the record jacket while I was transported with Jethro back to an age long ago.  

“How lovely is Christmas with boughs in the hall,” sang the carolers on the album. The music alone takes me back.

The hearing of the story “An Axe, An Apple and A Buckskin Jacket” by Arnold Sundgaard is an annual tradition for me. Yes, even well into my adulthood this yearly Christmas homage to my childhood reigns supreme. Indeed, I am eagerly awaiting the moment where I can find time to listen again to this age-old favorite.  

The Christmas Season is filled with moments like this for all of us. We recall baking cookies with our grandmother decades ago. We take trips to see ‘the lights,’ listen to the same Christmas albums, use the same decorations that we did when we were newlyweds 60 years ago. An important practice in our holiday experience tilts toward the euphoric, the nostalgic, the gauzy comfort of Christmases long-gone.  

But is any of this particularly good for us? Some will quickly chime in and confess that it is precisely this that makes Christmas so difficult for them.  

“It magnifies the losses I’ve experienced,” they will say. “All I can think about are the people who are no longer a part of my life and I spiral into sadness.”  

One commentator argues that our predilection to “romanticize…our youth and childhood memories” can “get in the way of what we should be enjoying in the moment.”*  

“Nostalgia,” he tells us, “has a complex etymology.”  

“The first part stems from nostos, meaning “homecoming” in ancient Greek, which was a heroic quality desired by Ulysses in The Odyssey. That epic poem charted Ulysses’ return to Ithaca after the Trojan War. But the second half of the word, algia, means “pain”. The word as a whole implies the “painful homecoming” – the difficult journey – the return home that’s not without trouble.” 

To suggest that our Christmas traditions and practices are distractions seems callous and hollow. The coziness of my Christmas memories is significant and worthy of being savored. But, there is something that rings true in the idea that these wistful recollections are ‘painful homecomings.’ 

Our celebration of Christmas should be more than a nostalgic longing for the past. As followers of the Christ Child, we should be mindful that His birth is far more than just a snapshot from the past. At Christmas, our energy and attention should be directed at the miracle and majesty of Emmanuel—God with Us—with all its eternal implications.  

Yes, if we linger too long in the harbors of Christmas Past we will not have any space left to savor what is unfolding in the present. This is bittersweet in two ways: It moves us out of our idealized pasts—which were not always so ideal, if we pause to think about it; and second, it gives us the freedom to move out of one season and begin another. 

Here’s the source of our joy! God’s redemptive power, made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ, can transform the past into a joyful new day and new tomorrow.    

So may the joy of Christmas remind you that in Christ Jesus all things are being made new. Be gentle with yourselves and with your memories this Christmas so that you can allow God to graft new moments of joy today and always.  


*”Christmas Nostalgia is Something to be Wary of, According to Literary Greats” is an article by Nick Taylor-Collins, and was published in the journal, The Conversation, on December 20, 2017.