Home for the Holidays, Part One: Nostalgia

This week, Dan and Becky Allender are launching a three-part series that will help guide us through the holiday season by exploring some of the trickiest dynamics that emerge during loaded, complex family gatherings. To kick off the conversation, this episode wrestles with the blessing and curse of nostalgia—the bittersweet desire for home that can be so profound this time of year.

Becky admits to being more nostalgic than Dan, and that it often feels like a weakness. She shares about 1960s study of soldiers feeling homesickness at Christmas, which was commonly presented as an illness. Together, Dan and Becky reflect on some of the dynamics in their families of origin, and on how the lingering effects of those realities played out in their own marriage.

Dan: “When that becomes a way to demand of the past that it be infinitely better than your present, then I think we are talking about a kind of pathology that tends to create demands and expectations in the present, and leads to unquestionable conflict.”

Becky: “I think we hit the ground running without an understanding of one another’s desires or one another’s pasts. And I think there was hurt that came sometimes with not providing what the other was really hoping for.”

When nostalgia tries to rewrite the past, repress difficult memories, or deny reality, it can serve to deepen division and further entrench the effects of trauma. For many, this is the case more than ever during the holidays, when a few blurry, composite memories of warm, twinkling, perfect family gatherings might be used to cover up more painful realities.

We’re talking about a fine line between that damaging nostalgia versus something that whets the appetite to create in the present something rich for the world around us.

Dan: “But a lot of research has indicated that it bears great benefit to us to allow ourselves to return to the past without naming every single heartache and loss, but allow ourselves to have more of a 10-, 20-, 30,000-foot view of some of the good we encountered.”

It is possible for nostalgia to be a gift, one that allows us to remember the past in a way in which we can enter the particularity of heartache while still holding onto the goodness that is there. What a beautiful hope to hold for our stories: that we can name the truth and wrestle with the fallout of harm, while still affirming goodness and beauty wherever it can be found. In that sense, a healthy nostalgia can help us reflect on the past in a way that allows us to name more of what we desire in the present.

Dan: “What we’re inviting you to do, especially if you’re in a partnered relationship, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can create your own Christmas as if it’s de novo—out of the blue, entirely new. You are going to bring disasters that you are deeply committed to making sure that you never replicate. You’re going to bring those moments of sweetness, at least some level of nostalgia, to play. And in that, you’ve got the formation of what it is you actually think is a ‘good’ holiday.”