Engaging Memory and Holiday Nostalgia

As they anticipate the upcoming Advent season, Dan and Rachael take a moment to look back, sharing their distinct perspectives on Christmas and delving into memories from their childhood associated with the holiday. Whether it’s a genuine love for the rituals and traditions or a more somber reflection grounded in challenging past experiences, we’re exploring the diverse emotional landscapes that the season can evoke. 

We invite you to listen as we discuss the role of nostalgia, memory, and location in order to allow for more compassionate and empathetic engagement with ourselves and with others as we navigate the joys and challenges that come with this season.

Episode Transcript:

Rachael: Well, Dan, we are entering one of my favorite seasons of the year. I know the feeling is not mutual, and this is a safe place. You also get to feel what you feel.

Dan: I get to feel what I feel. Yeah. Advent, I mean, look, I start with the basic core conviction. Jesus was not born on December 25th. But I can participate richly in the holiday process even though I’m a little bit more like Scrooge.

Rachael: I did call you Scrooge.

Dan: You did, you did before we began. So

Rachael: Here’s what I’ll say. First of all, my birthday is December 1st, so AKA as this very recording. Happy birthday to me.

Dan: Happy Birthday to you, Rachael.

Rachael: And although I agree with you that we have co-opted in some ways pagan holidays to incorporate our Christian holiday and fit with a certain calendar, and there’s a whole history there. I deeply enjoy the rituals of our year that locate us in the story of God. I love that in one of the, as we’re moving toward the longest night of the year, the shortest day when it comes to the movement of the earth on its axis and rotating around the sun, that we kind of build anticipation for the coming of Jesus, the light of the world. So for me, it’s rich in imagery. I like remembering as we kind of enter the advent season, we are going to talk about the memories. What are the things that ground us and locate us in a time and space and help us enter this season and this ritual of remembrance, well. That’s where we’re going to be going. We’re going to talk about memory. We’re going to talk about imagination. We’re going to talk about gifting. We’re going to talk about feasting. But I have to say, Dan, when I think about today, we’re going to focus primarily on memory and location. And I would love to hear from you. I can certainly share myself, but as you think about in some ways the Christmas season, where were you when you celebrated Christmas as a child? What does that nostalgia bring up for you? That memory.

Dan: Not good memories, which is probably again, why this whole December process now, I love the fact that we celebrate the arrival of the light of the world in the darkest season of the year. I love that. I love the fact that indeed the 25th around that season is a high pagan holiday. So in one sense, the entry into the light and this particular season, but there would be two categories. One is my father was a baker, and December was absolutely between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I would say 60% of his yearly income was made. So a lot of my pre-Thanksgiving through Christmas, even as a 9, 10, 11, 12 year-old-boy was spent working at nights at the bakery. And then nobody expected me to do well in school, but attended at least sleep a little bit in the afternoon and then go back. So when I enter this holiday, and then further, not to get too detailed, but as an academician, I traveled a lot and then I graded, and this was the season I always got sick. So my body is depleted and I’m supposed to celebrate. I’m ill, and I’m supposed to be providing a joyous, thrilling event for my children. So between the reality of I’m exhausted and I’m not well, and it’s a dark season, other than it’s the incarnation, I’d rather celebrate the incarnation on July 13th. But indeed, this is the season. So I think it’s important for each of us to be able to say, what’s the location of our experience? Again, not just the glory of the coming of the king of the universe, but what is our lived experience of the holiday season? And for many of us, it’s not a joyous time, but for you it was. And I’d love to hear more.

Rachael: Yeah, it’s so funny. I was sitting here thinking, I guess for us in the northern hemisphere, it’s the shortest days and the longest nights, but the southern hemisphere has a totally different experience.

Dan: Indeed

Rachael: Just thinking a lot about the Global South right now and all that’s happening in the world. But for me, Christmas, yeah, I think it’s really fraught because I think it was a both, and for me, some of my most painful memories in my family played out around Christmas and the stress of the holidays and money and interactions in my home that were just very intense and very stressful. But it also was full of, I mean, I was a little kid who loved rituals, who loved something you could depend on that would happen every year. So obviously I already mentioned my birthday always kicked off the season, and it actually was quite normal for my birthday to land on the Sunday of Thanksgiving week, which is when we would always set up our tree, our Christmas tree. So that’s a really fond memory I have of the ritual of setting up our Christmas tree, putting my dad would put the lights on and always get mad and angry. The lights would be tangled up and not working. And I kind of have some of that in myself. So I’m just laughing now about that. But we got to put the ornaments on one by one, and then when we were done and all of our ornaments, and I still have a lot of these now and my kids hang ’em on our tree now, and it’s a ritual we’ve kind of kept, but it’s like they were not necessarily, it wasn’t like a designer tree that a lot of people have now. It was like all of our ornaments we made in school and just whatever we had, we would turn the lights off and listen to Perry Como records in the dark and drink eggnog. And it was just so it, like in my family, it was rare for us to have moments altogether around a common experience. So that would always kick off the season. But I have a big Italian family. So the Christmas celebration culminated in a week of events. Like we started rolling meatballs two or three days before Christmas, and that was fun. And that was a party and that was a ritual. And then Christmas Eve, we always went to my mom’s parents, my Italian grandparents house, all the aunts and uncles and all the cousins were there. And we opened gifts and we ate pasta fazool, and we had pizza rolls, and we kept making the sauce for the next day…

Dan: Okay, I’m hungry. I’m hungry. Keep going on.

Rachael: Then Christmas day, we would also go see my dad’s parents on Christmas Eve. And so it was like, and then usually because we didn’t always live in the same city, we would travel home on Christmas Eve night in the cozy car, in our cozy pajamas and look for Santa in the sky and be listening to Christmas music and seeing Christmas lights. And I think for me, the mystery and magic of it all and the anticipation, and then Christmas day was pretty normal for us. We opened gifts and then we went and had a spaghetti feast. And so again, there was a lot of really some of my most painful childhood memories colliding in the season. But I don’t know, there was something about, and yeah, definitely Jesus was somewhere there in the Christmas season, but certainly the Christmas tree and a gift. And we did often read the nativity story on the Christmas morning as a family. So it was all woven together. I can remember each house we were in, the house we had where we had a fireplace, when we lived in a trailer, when we lived in a small town, in a bigger house, when we, it’s like I can remember them all.

Dan: So location is central just to underscore that you are remembering a process making food and the gathering, but you’re actually remembering it through the avenue of space.

Rachael: Totally.

Dan: And that is a very important category in terms of engaging, not just the holiday season advent, but actually engaging the issue of the interplay of heartache and goodness. Location is a central part of our brain. We’ve talked about this before, but what holds memory? And again, it’s not one part of our brain, but a very important part of our brain is our hippocampus. And it’s what regulates our amygdala or our stress biochemicals. And the particular portion that we’re beginning to engage is the posterior hippocampus that’s most central in being able to gain location, to have a sense of space and time. And it is what is most significantly affected by any kind of trauma. So as you’re describing a process and season that bears such goodness. But also I think for most families, heightened level of tension, end of the year, taxes, finances, can we afford all that we want for ourselves and others? So I do think as we enter advent, it’s a really important thing to invite people back to, and that is to memory. Not simply to what most people mean by the word nostalgia, but what’s the location, the actual space of the process that actually holds some degree perhaps of heartache or struggle or goodness. So as you think about location, are there a or several specific places that get concretized for you as you even in this conversation?

Rachael: Yeah, actually I’m having tears come up because in some ways, I mean, certainly as I was mentioning the houses we lived, because Christmas morning was always in our home, apart from a couple of times in my adult life when we would got stuck at a hotel because of a snowstorm or different things. But I think the place I most associate Christmas with is my grandparents’ home, which actually just got sold within the past few months. And it’s the one home because we moved so much, it’s the one home, place, that was a constant my whole entire life up until this year, I’m going to be, I’m 42, December 1st, and I haven’t actually had a lot of space to really process the loss of that space. And in some ways, once my grandfather passed away in 2007, we really moved away from having family celebrations at the grandparents’ home because it just became too much from my grandmother. So it’s been a long season since that’s been a place where we’ve held these rituals. But when I think about my entire childhood and much into my early adulthood, that was, I mean, I can tell you all the textures and nuances of the kitchen and the pictures hanging on the wall and the process of moving the furniture to set a table big enough for 50 people and having 20 women in the kitchen cleaning the dishes because everyone needed to be in there, and the multiple TVs with multiple football games on, and just, there’s so much memory in that place, and I’ll never set foot in it again.

Dan: No wonder the tears and to hold that you’re accessing what arises out of the right hemisphere and that process of letting images, sensations, smells, texture. When you said texture, my parents had a couch that had to have had the most horrific contour, touch texture. I hated it. And the image of Christmas, again, as this fundamentally, deeply dysfunctional family, my grandmother would be watching and not scowling, but just watching this drama play out with I think a sense of horror. And I would have, as the only child, the prince of the family, what seemed like hundreds of gifts, my mother would have a handful and my father are like one or two. And literally I would have to sit on this uncomfortable couch as my father would be instructed to deliver to the prince, the gifts. And even as an eight-year-old, nine-year-old boy, I’m just going, this is for lack of better word, this is screwed up. This is just screwed up. And occasionally glancing my grandmother’s eyes with a kind of look like no judgment of me, because I think she realized I’m being put in a position I do not want to be in. But all that came, I mean, I wasn’t thinking of that until you brought the word texture. So when we begin to hold goodness, brokenness, beauty, and brokenness with regard to the advent season, it’s going to require at least if you are open to the process of letting your body engage, what’s at war or what’s part of the great benefit of this advent season? Can we invite you to located-ness to where you may have been for the opening of gifts or for the tree to be put up? It actually even has, as it does for you various locations. There’s a pretty central one that brings such tenderness. I’m wondering what you’re doing with all that even as we’re talking.

Rachael: Yeah, it’s so interesting because what I’m thinking about is how much dissociation I’ve probably had in the Christmas season since my childhood. And I’m like, oh, it’s because there really was such magic and some of my fondest memories of being surrounded by family and enough innocence. I was a very wise child. I was paying attention. But enough innocence of all of the brokenness and the heartache that would come so much loss in a family that big over many seasons. And in some ways I think my family out of good desires, the larger family has tried to hold on to traditions that actually have become very hollow in how they actually feel in the midst of them. And so I’m aware of how much it’s important to actually remember, because that opens the door to a kind of grief that you have to enter to have permission to create something new, to let go of what was. But there’s an ache, I feel in the advent season. There’s an ache that is ever present. But until we started talking about this, I don’t know how aware I was as to what that’s really connected to. I’ve certainly thought about it, but not let it actually take up much space.

Dan: And that’s the word nostalgia. Now, the way most people hear the word, it is a kind of glistening of the past, a kind of rubbing all the edges into a smooth contour. So we remember only the good, that’s how the word I hear being used, but the actual word, nostalgia, is an ache for home. That’s what the word means, an ache for home. And in that sense, I don’t think many of us enter the season with that ache for home. What was good within it, and part for me of what was good was this would be the one season where the best food of the year would be overall my mother’s unwillingness and inability or refusal to really do anything other than offer us Swanson TV dinners. This would be the season that my father would bring some of the best smells, some of the finest tastes of the season. So ham, the turkey, just even beginning as you were talking earlier about the rich fare of food, I actually could see our dining room table, which we seldom ate at, but nonetheless, that would be where something of the glory of his creation would begin to mount up cookies, breads, sweet breads, et cetera. And all that begins to change even the conversation for me, I’m beginning to feel nostalgic, not smoothing the rugged and the ragged, but more, oh, that was so good and not that my wife does not provide, she has phenomenal meals. It’s like, but it’s not my father’s. And that ache is really the beginning of advent. I think what we’re asking of you all is to say, yes, there’s busyness and exhaustion and depletion that this season holds, but can you let your own located-ness as a child evoke something of the question that God asked Adam in the midst of, we’ll use the phrase dissociation, hiding, where are you? That question is really literally a question of located-ness. God is calling forth information from the posterior hippocampus. Where are you? You’re in trauma. You are already in the throes of the heartache of what your failure to engage the snake has brought. Can we step in to where you are? So again, where does that invite you with regard to your own sense of anticipation of advent?

Rachael: Yeah, it intensifies the ache. It makes me want to be located in the here and now. I think being now having a family and trying to create in some ways, create rituals that help us make sense of that ache, especially for children to grow, wonder to even find language for longing, a longing that is a part of our birthright that we’re made for that’s in us. So it makes me want to fight the dissociation and be embodied and be present and be present with my people. And again, I think that means slowing down. It means intentionality, it means creating a sense, a taste of home that we’re longing for in the here and now, knowing it won’t necessarily, we can’t recreate fully. That’s what you’re putting words to, right? There could be such goodness and new goodness and goodness that actually intensifies. It meets deep longing. I feel that. I’m trying to figure out how to put a Christmas tree in our home with a 15-month-old who can climb and likes to take everything out. But I want her to have, but she needs to be able to see the lights and smell the smell. And so I will find a way. I will find a way, Dan, even if it’s suspended from the ceiling,

Dan: I’ll find a way if it ends up being suspended from the ceiling, I need photos if you end up doing it. Some of the sweet memories of Christmas, and again, this probably is because I love Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation was when our children at a very young age literally pulled the tree down on top of themselves. Of course, that was not one of my wife’s favorite experiences of Christmas, but there was something about the absolute chaos of lights and ornaments, smashing and the child crawling up… Again, if you’ve not seen Chevy Chase’s National Lampoon Christmas vacation, it’s like the child becomes like the little rodent, the squirrel that crawls up into it and creates unadulterated havoc. So that freedom, begin to play when you begin to play, it at least holds the intersection again of grief of this is not an easy season. And yet I love, and it’s such an important word, the wonder ultimately, of course, the wonder of God becoming flesh. But in the traditions of how we create suspense, surprise, wonder, goodness, it’s all about the gospel. My six-year-old grandson called me the other day and began with Papa, I want to talk to you about what really matters to me.

Rachael: So precious.

Dan: Well, his mother had warned me. So essentially what he presented was, I really want to become a downhill ski racer who makes it to the Olympics. And papa, you can help me and I’d be willing to have my birthday and Christmas and every other holiday even into the future if you would help me get the opportunity to have a ski pass this winter to become a downhill ski racer. And that process of being able to go, well, Gus, that’s a pretty sizable amount of money, isn’t it? He goes, yeah, when he said this, I know you’re a man of honor. I’m going, oh, baby, I’m being laid. And you will do what your conscience believes is right? But I want you to know how desperate, desperate I’m for this to be the present that I have. And I’m like, oh, son or grandson. I mean, I’m going to make sure the kid gets it. But the bottom line is how do we help our children and ourselves enter desire? Many desires will not be fulfilled. And in one sense, Christmas is an opportunity. Advent is an opportunity to enter into what is our deepest desire, what blocks our desire? And that is what blocks our ability to desire, desire, because it’s been for many of us held with such complexity, such ambivalence, what we’ve desired has not come, or what we desired did come, and we realized it isn’t all that we thought it was going to be. So all to say this is a season that has so much rich complexity, how will you invite, especially your daughter, who’s going to rip the tree down into that sense of wonder?

Rachael: That’s a great question. I do think, because I also think in advent, as much as I know probably we all get a little, not bored, but it becomes trite like words like love and peace and hope and joy. But I do feel like it’s also meant to be a season of practicing kingdom, practicing what it is to anticipate and prepare for the coming kingdom of God. And of course, we live in a moment of the already not yet. We’re like that kingdom is here. We are practicing and intentioning and focusing in a different way during the season of advent, pondering the mystery and the goodness and glory of the incarnation that God came to be with us, that God is human. Last advent, Evie was a tiny, tiny, tiny baby. And I did a lot of thinking about what did it mean that God actually came in the vulnerability and dependence and trusted our humanity enough to come as a baby and that vulnerability. So there’s just so much there. I think I want her to feel a different kind of presence in the advent season, which is hard when you’re a working parent, but I want her to get to feel intentionality around how we are with her and growing sense of play and anticipation. So I don’t know. I have some thoughts on how to help grow anticipation for her, but I also think for our family as a whole, wanting us to slow down a little bit to resist the consumerism of the holiday, which can be really, it’s such a…

Dan: Atrocious

Rachael: …big pull, and I know we’re going to talk more about that in the weeks ahead, but I have a lot to ponder and I know it’s upon us, so I’ve got to start living into it. But I think there will be certain types of music in our home. We may do a little advent calendar. She’s very young still, but she loves stories. So I think there will be telling of stories that grow a capacity for imagination and for longing and for early exposure to who is Jesus and what are we meant for? And she does love food, so I’m sure food will be a part of it.

Dan: So crucial. Again, what I’d underscore is you’re talking about the setting, and when you talk about setting, you’re talking about the stage, you’re talking about the context and that one of the things I love about the season is that Becky begins to roll out the greenery, the well, all the accoutrements that have been something of the experience of our family’s celebration. And even though we’re not going to have children in our home, we’re not going to have our grandchildren in our home over Christmas. There’s still something for us to enter into in part to bring back nostalgia that is the groaning of home, the groaning of what was the groaning of what will one day be. So I think holding advent as it’s the coming, but it isn’t the coming that we most desire now, which is the return of the King. And so to hold this in the season that it is, it is the heightened moment of the already and not yet, it’s the sweetest and hardest of all seasons. And if we can honor not just the complexity of the commercialization, the exhaustion of the season, the darkness of the day, but if we can actually say this is meant to be a heightened moment of intensification, then we can step back into the locations we were once in, but also create something of that goodness that desires, but also a desire that at least today, and who knows by the time this airs, maybe Jesus will returned. If not, then this season intensifies our desire for the absolute restoration of all things, including ourselves. So well. I am more looking forward now to Advent than I was actually 33 minutes ago. So for that, I say to you, my dear Advent loving friend, at least for me, I can say this is a good beginning to the season.

Rachael: Well, and I can say as well, my friend who invites me to look with more sobriety, that I feel a different kind of gravity to this season that feels good and honoring. So thank you.

Dan: Well, you’re welcome. So the interplay between the Sprite who spirits into the lovely season with Cannes and delight and Scrooge both of us made a little movement.

Rachael: We’ve made some movement.