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No Place Like Nostalgia for the Holidays

Well, Thursday marks, for most people, the start of The Holidays, that vague blob of time at the end of the year when everyone feels generally happy, busy, and nostalgic. I’m starting to realize, though, how powerful the nostalgia element is, especially at a time in my life where almost all the places and tradition from my childhood Christmases are gone.

A few years after I finished college, in the spring, my parents sold the house I grew up in. While that was mildly traumatic on its own, the impact didn’t really hit until Christmas that year. It was so jarring; the Christmas before, we’d been in the old house and my parents had mentioned fairly casually that they were thinking about selling the house. Now here we were in a house I’d never been in before, with all our same furniture arranged awkwardly in new space.

I was kind of like a nervous animal, sniffing around and trying to decide if I hated the whole thing. Christmas in your late teens and early 20s is characterized by a sort of longing for your childhood holidays, and until that Christmas I’d been able to relish the few things that still made me feel like a kid. We had our tree-trimming ritual, where we all decorated the tree in front of the big front window in the living room, and while the rest of my family got bored or maybe a little drunk, I’d insist on continuing until every ornament was up.

There were the spots all over the house where the decorations went up. My bedroom got two (electric) candles in the window, a stuffed polar bar with a Santa hat, a glittery “Noel” sign on my bedroom mirror, and a patterned throw blanket on the bed. In college, and even the first few years I was working and living in another city, I’d come home a few days before Christmas and feel like I needed to check the whole house to make sure everything was in its proper place (it always was).

All over my neighborhood and town, there were the families and houses that put up Christmas decorations every year. I knew them all: the house near the traffic light with the family of light-up reindeer in the yard, the house where it seemed like every tree in the yard was brightly lit, the house along the bend that made the long fence along their yard look like a candy cane. That first year in the new place, I was filled suddenly with sadness and almost a little panic to think I wouldn’t see any of those houses, perhaps ever again.

My life had changed so much those first few years out of  college that going back home had been one thing I could count on. I’d broken up with my boyfriend of five years, I’d struggled at a new job I never felt good enough for, I’d tried (with limited success) to make new friends in a new city, and I’d found out how hard it is to pay bills on an entry level salary. Coming home for holidays, or the occasional odd weekend, was a huge comfort to me then. No longer having that same home to come home to wasn’t just about nostalgia; it was about holding on to what I thought my life was.

I needn’t get into the whole “It’s not where you are, it’s who you’re with” lesson of the story, although it’s true. My family still gathered for Christmas; everyone, including my 90-something grandmother, was still there. But the thing I really learned from that first new Christmas, now many years in the past, was that, after a while, that nostalgia and yearning are really a big part of Christmas.

The American concept of Christmas is one that’s inherently rooted in the past; everyone watches the old movies around the holidays. Parents try to balance making new memories with honoring their family traditions. Kids, like the annoying one I was, scrutinize the whole proceedings every year to make sure they stay the same. The repetitive, cozy nature of winter holidays lends itself perfectly to that desire and attempt to preserve the right feeling of Christmas. And the people who are caught in between (no longer a child but not yet ““ or ever ““ a parent) may be the only ones who notice.

In the years that have passed since that first Christmas in the new house, even more in my life has changed. I grew to love my new city and the people I met there, so much so that now that I’ve moved back to my hometown, I miss it terribly. I got used to the new way of doing things at the new house, and I’ve realized that letting go of a part of my childhood may be what helped me truly be present in my new situation. And I’ve gotten married; my husband and I are now figuring out how to split our time between families this Christmas, with limited success.

Maybe nostalgia isn’t a bad thing; it lets you reflect on where you’ve been, the years and the memories that have made your present life possible. My past lives as child, teenager, 20something, keeper of tradition, are now truly gone. They live on in pictures I rarely look at, in the people I keep in touch with once in a while, and in my own memories. It’s nice, even if just once a year, to let that part of me live again.

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