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Holiday Nostalgia: Ghosts of Christmas past?

December 8, 2014
by Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D.
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Back In the 1950s, New York  research psychiatrist James P. Cattell described what he then termed “The Holiday Syndrome." Cattell said that this disorder was characterized by anxiety, depression, helplessness,  and feelings of nostalgia or bitterness for past holidays. It usually occurred among loners with a history of family disruption. I once worked at a mental health center where the staff were concerned about one client, who always seemed especially depressed during the holiday season. He seemed to fit Catell’s criteria very well.

 Just sitting in our waiting room in the weeks leading up to Christmas, he would begin crying uncontrollably. At a meeting, one staff member, finally recalled that when his parents had passed away, this client had donated their Christmas decorations to the clinic and these ornaments were adorning the Christmas tree in our waiting room. As our client sat there and looked at this tree each year, he was overcome by the feelings they triggered.

Today we might  call this season affect disorder, the holiday blues, or even PTSD depending on whether some holiday trauma was involved. In the past  this might have qualified as nostalgia. Johannes Hofer, a 17th century Swiss physician, originally coined the term to describe a disorder seen among Swiss mercenaries fighting in foreign wars. This was a severe form of home sickness and among the hypothesized causes were demonic possession,   atmospheric pressure changes, and brain damage due to the constant clanging of cowbells in the Swiss Alps. This syndrome was considered a type of melancholia and was thought to be a antecedent to suicide. Nostalgia continued to be diagnosed among men in military service until the Civil War.

Experiencing nostalgia is a big part of  the holiday season.   It is usually defined as “a sentimental longing or yearning for the past”. Clay Routledge, a   psychologist   at North Dakota State University,    calls it “the  human love affair with days gone by”.    

Holidays may be especially conducive to nostalgia, since like anniversaries and birthdays, they serve as “temporal landmarks." Nostalgia is a universal phenomenon that men and women tend to experience equally. Over  80% of people report feeling  nostalgic weekly and nearly 50% experience it three or four times a week. Many people are also  nostalgic for a past they’ve never experienced. This is called “historical nostalgia” and is common during the holidays, as when people wistfully say they want  to experience an “old fashioned Christmas.”

Chicago neurologist Alan R. Hirsch says that nostalgia is essentially "a longing for a sanitized impression of the past” and that  people are usually nostalgic for what psychoanalysts call “screen memories." Instead of accurate records  of the past these are idealized combination of  memories with negative emotional content filtered out.

Although in the past nostalgia was viewed as being entirely pathological,  it is now thought to have many psychological benefits, including the reinforcing of  a sense of identity, strengthening social connectedness, and helping people cope with boredom, loneliness, and bereavement and it has even been found to stimulate generosity.  Nostalgia not only warms the heart, in cold weather, it’s even been found to help people literally feel warmer.

So what do you think about nostalgia?  Is it a psychological resource  to be used when threatened or  just another source of holiday stress?  


Terry Stawar

President/CEO (LifeSpring, Inc.)

Terry Stawar


Terry L. Stawar, EdD, is President and CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems, a community behavioral...

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