Normally, I’m the kind of festive season fan who delays All-Things-Christmas until the week or so just before Christmas Eve. That’s when we start hanging the twinkling lights outdoors, wrapping presents, and cranking up Bing Crosby’s White Christmas.
But it’s 2020 now. And suddenly the season is feeling very, very different. . .
This year, the holiday season couldn’t come fast enough for me. For the first time ever, I was filled with pure delight at the sight of downtown streets decorating for Christmas even before the Hallowe’en candy had sold out.
I somehow needed sparkle and light after 10 months of living without much of either.
But I know that some of you aren’t only NOT looking forward to this season, but may be actively dreading all of it this year in mid-pandemic.
In fact, I listened to two of my dearest friends this past week agreeing that, since nobody’s coming over for Christmas this year, what is the point? Hardly worth decorating the house, doing Christmas baking or putting up lights. Maybe a wreath up on the front door, but nobody’s going to see any of it, anyway – so why bother, really?
This year, all of us are facing canceled or severely restricted holiday plans. No out-of-town family arriving for festive dinners. No parties with neighbours and friends. No Handel’s Messiah concerts. No Boxing Day brunches. Here in Victoria, the world-famous Butchart Gardens has for the first time cancelled their annual Christmas light spectacular, one of our favourite family outings each winter.
Luckily, one important element remains: according to official word from NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defence Command that for decades has been tracking Santa’s around-the-world journey for kids everywhere:
“We know that Santa Claus has safely delivered presents to children around the world in previous pandemics. We are confident that this year will not be any different.”
Buoyed by that encouraging news, I’m ready for my early start to feeling festive.
University of British Columbia psychiatry professor Dr. Steven Taylor told a CBC interviewer recently that this festive urge is about more than just the aesthetic beauty of twinkling Christmas lights:
“Cultural rituals are important to people because they’re stable and positive and normalizing. Rituals like holiday decorations are things that outlive our mortality, they outlive the sickness and death of COVID-19 – like the nostalgic trends that emerged earlier in the pandemic when people began baking bread en masse.”
Nostalgia is Dr. Krystine Batcho‘s job. She studies “the psychology of nostalgia”. Whenever she asks her research subjects about their earliest childhood memories, she’s frequently told stories that revolve around seasonal holidays like Christmas – and specifically, decorating around the holidays:
“In our childhood, those decorations were likely followed by good things, such as the coming together of family, good food, exchanging presents – all kinds of happy moments. By classical conditioning, then, decorations take on the properties of elevating our mood.”
And whether yours is a family that loves to celebrate Christmas traditions or a family with negative memories around this season, how can the beauty of bright little lights illuminating the darkness not elevate your mood?
Dr. Batcho describes this kind of nostalgia as “a stabilizing force that can comfort us during times of change and transition.”
There are few times in modern memory that are as fraught with change and transition as what’s been happening in 2020 during a growing global pandemic. What I really need right about now is that stabilizing force of nostalgic comfort, and I’ll take that comfort wherever I can possibly get it – even if it’s just in twinkling lights and festive Santas in front yards.
Dr. Batcho reminds us that it’s often difficult to embrace the major changes we go through because at a deeper level, change can threaten our sense of being in control. This is true no matter how life is changing – from getting married to getting divorced, or facing a chronic and progressive medical diagnosis, or certainly while living through a pandemic.
Dr. Batcho explains:
“Nostalgia for the past reminds us that although we don’t know right now what the future’s going to bring, we do know who we have been. That’s a very comforting emotion, especially to someone who believes today is a very stressful time, but when I was growing up, it seemed far less stressful.”
Beautiful lights and decorations won’t do anything to end the pandemic or its associated misery this year. They won’t make it possible to hug our friends or visit loved ones in hospitals or care facilities. They won’t discharge desperately sick people from the ICU, or let frontline health heroes toss off their PPE once and for all.
What they may do this year of all years, however, is to offer the nostalgic comfort of remembering faraway sights, sounds, tastes and smells of long-ago Christmas seasons when life seemed so safe and so simple.
But won’t recalling positive memories of Christmas Past plunge us into despair by forcing us to compare those good old days with now? In fact, research has long suggested just the opposite: except among those already diagnosed with severe depression, recalling positive memories can actually repair a negative mood.(1)
I wonder if some people are dreading the changes this season will bring because to them, Christmas will just turn out to be a disappointing imitation of a “real” holiday experience.
To these people, I’d offer the same reminder we used when I worked in hospice palliative care. Before each holiday season, our bereavement counselors told grieving family members to give themselves permission to do Christmas completely differently during the year of their loss. (And really, isn’t grief an accurate description of what so many of us are feeling now?)
For example, you don’t have to do anything this season just because it’s what you’ve always done. You do not have to do anything you don’t want to do just because other people expect you to do it. You can always go back to former family traditions next year (if you want to!) – but just for this year, feel absolutely free to do something else.
Instead of cooking that huge bird with all the trimmings, for example – and then feeling upset because you don’t have a huge crowd of dinner guests to eat it all, consider ordering take-out Chinese like many of my Jewish friends like to do for Christmas dinner. Borrow a neighbour’s dog and go for a long mid-day walk. String up an extra set of your lights on an elderly neighbour’s front porch. Use your imagination. Make a plan. Even in the midst of a pandemic, you’ll find safe and joyful options.
And even if “nobody’s going to see” any of the tiny white lights and the red tree bobbles strung along my balcony railings, the important thing to me is that they make me smile each time I glance out the windows – and, really, shouldn’t that be enough?
If you have bright little lights decorating your own neighbourhood, I hope that you too will smile at them all month long. Each smile is a wee mental health break from the relentless fatigue and worry about the state of our world.
Meanwhile, take care out there, and please stay safe. . . ♥
Joormann J et al. “Mood regulation in depression: Differential effects of distraction and recall of happy memories on sad mood.” J Abnorm Psychol. 2007 Aug;116 (3):484-90.
P.S. Happy Christmas to Pat and C.P. who inspired me to contemplate deep thoughts about Christmas lights all week – xoxo
Q: What kind of nostalgic memories do Christmas lights and decorations stir up for you?
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about how heart patients (and others) can improve our mood in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease“ , published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2017. You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher (use their code HTWN to save 20% off the list price of my book)
-“How To Savor the Special Moments, Even During a Pandemic” (a charming post by Nancy Seibel, well-known throughout the breast cancer community) who died last week, nine days after she wrote this article. Condolences to Nancy’s family and friends.