Why do we feel nostalgic at Christmas?

We may get a sentimental feeling when we hear voices singing, but what causes us to reminisce?
16 December 2021

Interview with 

Jacod Juhl, University of Southampton & Dean Burnett, Neuroscience Author


It's beginning to look a lot like Chrismas - toys in every store, holly on the door. But aside from the decorations and the lights and the gifts we see, the holiday season also stimulates a unique feeling. A sense of nostalgia for Christmas' past. Julia Ravey spoke to nostalgia psychologist, Jacob Juhl, and neuroscientist and author, Dean Burnett, to get to the bottom of why we reflect back every December... 

Julia - I'm out and about in Cambridge, and it is definitely beginning to look a lot like Christmas. There are beautiful decorations everywhere, twinkling lights, people out and about shopping. But for me, it isn't just about the decorations, or the music, or the food. It's about that feeling of nostalgia Christmas brings. Why is it that we look longingly back to the past? I'm hoping nostalgia psychologist, Jacob Juhl can help me understand more about what this feeling is.

Jacob - If you look nostalgia up in the dictionary, it's going to say that nostalgia is a sentimental longing, and wistful affection for the past. When people are nostalgic, they tend to reflect fondly on aspects of the past. They tend to reflect on certain time periods like high school, or primary school, or college, or university, or young adulthood, but almost always, they're surrounded by close others. So, close friends or close family, and nostalgia is largely a positive emotional experience, but sometimes it does, contain, I guess what I always say is, a tinge of sadness. However, the negativity or this little bit of sadness in nostalgia is almost always outweighed by the positive experience of nostalgia.

Julia - And does nostalgia serve a purpose for us?

Jacob - From a psychological perspective, it does serve a purpose for us. Some things that often trigger nostalgia are negative experiences. One big trigger of nostalgia is feeling lonely. When people are alone, they don't have a close sense of support, at least immediately with them, and they tend to feel nostalgic in response to this. Research has shown that nostalgia actually, in turn, boosts a sense of social connectedness with other people. Similarly, when people feel that life is meaningless or perhaps they're bored, that triggers a sense of nostalgia and nostalgia in turn increases a sense of meaning in life. Therefore, its primary purpose is to help people cope with negativity and provoke more positivity.

Julia - Does nostalgia alter our perception of the past?

Jacob - Almost definitely. When people reflect nostalgically on the past, they view it through rose tinted glasses. Oftentimes seeing it necessarily more positive than it was. And we all know that our memories, generally speaking, are susceptible to a lot of biases. So I'm guessing that when people reflect nostalgically in the past, they tend to give it a bit of a positive spin.

Julia - I was listening to Christmas songs the other day, and I noticed just how many of them referenced the past. "You will get a sentimental feeling when you hear", "Last Christmas, I gave you my heart", "Here we are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore". So what is it about Christmas or the a holiday season in particular that has us all reminiscing? Neuroscientist and author,Dean Burnett, is definitely the right person to ask.

Dean - Our strongest memories will come from our childhood. When we are developing, our childhood experiences tend to be the most formative. And it's not logical. A lot of the things our brain prioritises when it comes to experiences are emotion. Strong, emotional memories will usually override objectively useful ones. And when you're a child, what is more emotionally stimulating than Christmas? You're not in school anymore, you've got time off, you're with your family all the time. You get given loads of presents and there's lots of colourful things everywhere, and music that you can dance to. There are lots of treats. When you're a kid, Christmas is an extremely powerful experience. Especially when you're younger and maybe don't understand, 'all I know is when I see trees and baubles, I get lots of good stuff, so I must remember this - this is clearly quite indicative of good times ahead'. When you grow up, and you hear this particular piece of Christmas music for example, you associate that with all those good times. When you hear it again, those memories come flooding back as it's triggering the connections.

Julia - Christmas in a way - because I feel like every year we have the same music, the same food, we normally interact with the same people - it's a bit like a Groundhog day. We experience all of the same cues. Is that a big influence over triggering memories of the past?

Dean - Yes. If you think of it like a crossword puzzle when you're trying to fill in the blanks, but half of them are already done, then it's a lot easier to recognise the words. When you surround yourself with the usual cues of Christmas, it makes the existing memories linked to Christmas much easy to trigger. It doesn't take much to fire them up.

Julia - Dean talking about the familiar things around us at Christmas got me thinking about all the things that we have in our family home. And we get them out every single year. And actually today is a very important day because my family are putting up the Christmas tree.

Michelle - That's the doorbell. The Christmas tree has just arrived!

Julia - As I'm very sadly, not at home at the minute, my mum (Michelle) and sister (Rosanna) gave me a tour of all the decorations they'd put up so far.

Michelle - We have the lovely tree in the hall.

Julia - The snowmen are looking a little bit worse for wear, I'm not going to lie.

Michelle - I think it's all the buildup of sellotape. We've got the Santas on the fireplace. And again, one of the Santas actually lost a foot.

Julia - How long have we had them? 20 years?

Michelle - A long, long time.

Julia - How many cribs do we have in that house?

Michelle - At least 10. I haven't got them all out.

Rosanna - We've got that lovely one that we made out of ice lolly sticks. That's going up tomorrow.

Julia - I know the Angel Gabriel looked really angry because I did that one with a red pen.

Michelle - A lot of them look like they've been decapitated now, but every year I rebalanced them. Here is the Christmas Robin - that's a new one. I couldn't resist, but I'm beginning to regret it now because I've still got half a room full of decorations to put up. We've been working on it all weekend, but almost there.

Julia - All right. See you soon. Can't wait to see you next week for Christmas.

Michelle/Rosanna - Bye!

Julia - Essentially my home turns into a Christmas grotto every year and we keep hold of all of the things that are important to us, even if they are broken. So Dean, why is it that we cling onto these traditions?

Dean - We are very social species, and one example of a thing we need is a sense of control. The ability to know this is the routine. This is how it works. It's reassuring to say, we know Christmas goes "ABCD" - that's how it happens. You stick to that because that is your routine. We don't like to play around with established patterns. If you go into something as important as Christmas, which you are extremely emotionally invested in, you want as much control and certainty as you can. So we stick to the traditions, we stick to the routines, and we prioritise them. And when other people tell you do something different that's a no - that upsets our system. Having traditions is reassuring for the brain in a subconscious way for so many reasons.

Julia - And Jacob, what is it about traditions that makes us feel nostalgic?

Jacob - Traditions are important to us largely because they give us a sense of meaning in life and that along with kind of all the sentiment, all of the social connectedness really helps heighten the accessibility of the memories, making it a good thing to be nostalgic about.

Julia - It seems like our need for stability in the form of traditions and the importance of Christmas solidified in our early years makes us reminisce more around the holiday season. We whip out the same music, deccies, see the same people. It's almost like a time machine back to Christmas' past, giving us that nostalgic feeling. On that note, my hot chocolate is all ready, mince pie is warm, and it is time to put on my favourite Christmas film, which I've watched every December for the past 20 years. It takes me back...


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