Why We Feel Nostalgic During the Holidays

family holiday dinner
The holidays can bring nostalgia, an emotion with important benefits, according to a nostalgia expert. (Image credit: Dmitriy Shironosov, Shutterstock)

Holidays bring holiday memories, and, often a sense of nostalgia for good times long gone, perhaps even loved ones long gone.

This bittersweet nostalgia helps us feel connected, both around the holidays and at other times. And, it can be a salve to those suffering through hard times, according to nostalgia expert Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in New York.

LiveScience spoke with Batcho about this seemingly universal emotional state, why it's important and why it seems to peak around the holidays. Here's what she had to say.

Q. What is nostalgia?

It has been defined differently by different theorists over time. For instance, it was originally coined in 1688 by a medical physician as a term to indicate homesickness in young soldiers. He viewed homesickness as a physical illness experienced by soldiers away from home for the first time. Without email or telephones, being away from home for the first time was pretty traumatic for many young men. Homesickness was viewed as an illness that caused all kinds of interesting symptoms, even anorexia resulting from loss of appetite. 

Today theorists make an important distinction between two different types of nostalgia, historical and personal. Both are considered psychological entities and both are viewed as emotional states.

One is referred to as historical. That kind of nostalgia refers to feeling good sentiments or feeling attracted to times in the past when the individual might not even have been alive yet. If I said I feel nostalgia for or feel attracted to the Victorian time period, that would be an example of historical nostalgia.

The second type is the type most people have been researching and we refer to it mostly as personal nostalgia, and as you might suspect from the name, it means someone misses or feels emotions toward the past they themselves lived through, you might call it the autobiographical past. You might feel nostalgia for your childhood or your teen years.

To some extent what confused the research in this area is that some people are talking about it as a personality trait — more nostalgic or less nostalgic individuals — and other people are talking about it as a transient mood state — for example, "I feel more nostalgic around the holidays."  You can define it either way.

It’s fair to say that, as a mood state, almost everyone would agree today that it is universal, it cuts across cultures, it cuts across historical periods, it even cuts across the developmental stages or across the age span.

Even a child can be nostalgic. If we're talking about a 12 year old, a 12 year old might be nostalgic for toys he or she had as a toddler.

Q. Your research has shown benefits associated with nostalgia. Please tell me about that.

It seems to help people maintain a constant sense of who they are. You might refer to that as sense of self or understanding of one's identity. And that is no small thing. From the time you are born, and as you go through life, there are so many changes, there are too many to even mention.

At a certain point, if there is something traumatic that occurs, a crisis, it could be anything from going off to war, immigration, a death in the family, whenever there is a major change it can be very helpful to kind of keep grounded in the sense of who you are. That sense of nostalgia helps to link you to your own personal past; it helps you remember who you have been. [10 Things You Didn't Know About You]

Q. Do we feel more nostalgic as we age?

Right now, the consensus appears to be that the peak years for nostalgia might actually be early adulthood and the reason for that has to do with change and transition, because early adulthood is a very important psychological and developmental state where individuals figure out who they want to be. There is really a psychological assault on that sense of identity at that time — some people go off to college, some start their jobs, some get married, so there are a lot of significant changes, and it seems that nostalgia peaks around that time as a reaction to all the shifts, to all the transition.

Q. Why do the holidays in particular tend to evoke nostalgia?

They can do that in a number of important ways, we have been talking about continuity or grounding, one of the ways individuals ground themselves is in terms of who they are relative to other people. In other words, we define ourselves in terms of our relationships, in terms of how we are connected to other people, that helps us identify our sense of self, and nostalgia helps us maintain those connections and a sense of belonging. That is one of the primary benefits of personal nostalgia.

Now move onto the question, as you can tell everyone from advertising to marketing to religion, everything about the holidays centers around relationships. People want to travel home to be with relatives, people are more inclined to participate in religious traditions or cultural customs. So in a way, holidays bring together people when they cannot be together. Nostalgia is almost like a psychological substitute for the real thing, if you think about the song, "I'll Be Home for Christmas," that is almost the quintessential holiday nostalgia that helps to re-unite us across time and space.

For the same reason, if you think about someone who lost a loved one during the year or around the holiday season, now they can no longer physically re-unite with the deceased loved one, but nostalgia once again becomes a psychological substitute, and all of those good memories that revolve around the time spent with the person really help us to cope with loss.

For one thing, loneliness has been shown to be a trigger for heightened nostalgia. It is interesting because then the nostalgia helps someone feel connected again. It helps to decrease the negative feelings of being alone. When you are lonely, it is because you are separate from others in one way or another; and the holidays are really notorious for making people feel alone, even when they are not physically alone.

Q. We hear about stress and depression related to holidays, could nostalgia during the holidays offer the opposite, an emotional benefit?

Absolutely, the most common definition of nostalgia today is that it's a bittersweet sentiment. The idea of bitter and sweet, that's what really captures why nostalgia is so special or unique. It is not just a happy-go-lucky feeling. Sometimes people confuse it with a warm-and-fuzzy feeling or looking through rose-colored glasses at the past, but actually it is more complicated than that, because the bitter part is knowing that the past is irretrievable, it will never be again, and that particular feeling is clearly negative.  It is clearly a very bad feeling, but what rescues us from despair around the holidays or any other time is the sweet part.

Sometimes in the literature you will see people talk about a redemptive quality. There is a redemptive quality when you feel nostalgic about the past that can never be again, because you have learned lessons from it and they can give you hopes for the future and it can also give you a sense of self-worth or self-value. So, if someone feels separated or lonely or unhappy for whatever reasons, it could be they lost their job or they are physically ill or they lost someone they love, the emotion of nostalgia can remind someone that there was a better time in life, there was a time when you were successful or healthy or happy but most importantly there was a time when someone loved you for how you are.

That can be really psychologically helpful, because it reminds you your value doesn't depend on how much money you earn, whether you have a job or not, how healthy you are, any of those superficial things, all of which are important, but the most important thing was that someone loved you, it might have been your mother, father, sister, brother, wife, husband, whoever. We are talking about people in difficult or tough times, there was a time when they were loved by someone just for how they are.

Q. Does nostalgia serve less of a purpose in good times?

When people are feeling happy, when you think about the party scene, then nostalgia can take on more of the sweet tones, when people start telling funny stories about the things that have happened, that is true at any age, you can even see it cross generational boundaries. At those family gatherings nostalgia is very likely, even when things are very happy, because when you have family coming together, you have let's say, a grandfather and grandmother telling stories about the past to grandchildren and that helps unite the family around a sense of connectedness, a sense of identity as a family and it's true that nostalgia-prone people, if we are now talking about it as a personality dimension, they are people for whom relationships are very important.

So in these gatherings, some of which can just be parties or dinners, some of them can be religious rituals or ceremonies, there is a way nostalgia even in the best of times helps someone feel part of something bigger than themselves.

Holidays bring cultural beliefs and even myths, whether it is reindeer and Santa Claus or whatever. And it makes people feel they are connected to a past and to other people across time, across cultural barriers, it is a uniting phenomenon, a unifying phenomenon.

Editor's Note: This interview has been condensed.

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.