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Published December 21 2013

Ahlin: Nostalgia is good for us? Well, duh, of course it is

‘Nostalgia good for mental health.” So read the headline of a front page Forum story a few weeks back. Evidently the term nostalgia, “coined in the 17th century,” always was viewed as a bad thing. Nostalgia was thought to keep people from getting on with their lives, a dark emotion of not letting go and staying trapped in the past.

The Forum article told of a North Dakota State University researcher who studied nostalgia for 10 years and found the opposite. His research showed that people who look back with fondness to favorite songs or toys or events actually experience comfort that helps them live their lives more successfully. Nostalgia, it turns out, is a “coping resource that people employ to restore psychological well-being.”

Queen of sentimentality that I am, the two things that come to mind are, “Duh,” and, “Ya think?”

Some of us never doubted nostalgia is a good thing, especially at Christmas. Charles Dickens knew that when he wrote “A Christmas Carol.” He said quite candidly that the intent of the story was “to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season … to raise the ghost of an idea, which shall not put my readers out of humor with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May I haunt their houses pleasantly …”

We don’t reread “A Christmas Carol” or view one of the many movies or stage productions of the story annually because we’re excited for something new. We return to the story because it is woven into the fabric of our own Christmas past. The pleasure we found in the story with our parents and grandparents we enjoy all over again in sharing with our children and grandchildren. It doesn’t matter that no Christmas ever has measured up to that fictional happy day when Ebenezer Scrooge’s hardened heart miraculously softened and he became known as a man who “knew how to keep Christmas well.” It only matters that – at least for a moment – gentle kindness swells in our own beings.

Down deep we’re all softies who want to believe that hope and joy can permeate the cynicism and weariness of life. And, perhaps, we’ve known somebody in our own life with a temperament we wouldn’t call joyful, who nevertheless kept Christmas well. My parents were those “somebodies” for my brothers and me. Never extravagant otherwise, they loved overdoing at Christmas. When I was a teenager and my mother redecorated the living room with red carpet, my brothers and I teased her about her choice. She protested, but we were sure subconsciously she must have been thinking how wonderful the living room would be when the Christmas tree was hauled in and greenery hung over the mantel. (As I write this, I realize the red and green combination sounds garish, but it was beautiful. In truth, it was magical.)

One of the reasons nostalgia has been given a bad rap is the notion we can’t be nostalgic without painting the past in undeserved rosy glow. That’s probably true, although another way of looking at it is that we have separated the proverbial wheat from the chaff of memories. Happy and meaningful moments come to the fore. What was unhappy may not disappear, but entirely appropriately it recedes. Another idea is to see how present and past are joined in nostalgia. My husband’s mother used to drive me nuts when she and his dad would come for Christmas. Within a few hours of their arrival, she would start saying, “We’ve had such a nice time.” Or, on Christmas Eve she might say, “What a good Christmas this was.”

And I would think, wait until it’s over and you’re back home to talk about it in the past tense. Now I get where she was coming from. The pleasure of the moment was joined to moments like it from long before. The “is” and “was” were one. She was child, young adult, early married, mother; grandmother: Christmases upon Christmases echoed and added for completeness.

When I look at my grandchildren at Christmas, I see my mother looking at my children, and my grandmother looking at me. Reminiscence and wistfulness, reflection and reverberation: it’s nostalgia. It’s the never-ending circle of Christmas love.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.

Email janeahlin@yahoo.com