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Memories of Christmas past
The way we remember past Christmases shows how our memories prepare us for the future
The celebration of Christmas is typically marked by memories of the past, with many aspects such as decorations, traditions and food often recalling past Christmases or events. Some of these may be personal and individual (such as a special bauble on the tree) and some may be collective (such as the way many people recall Christmas stockings and favourite songs or carols).
The way we remember Christmas tells us important things about the way memory works and how it is more nuanced than we sometimes give it credit for. We tend to think of a memory as something that is right or wrong – true or false. In this way, our memories can be seen as repositories or filing cabinets to which we have access, albeit as faulty humans we can get it wrong sometimes so our memories are seen as false. But the reality is more complex.
Memory as a constructivist process
More contemporary memory theories points to a more dynamic and constructivist process, where our experiences are actively engaged both in the creation and the recall of the memory. These suggest that memory is more than ‘memorisation’: in other words, us, and, our environment, are active participants in the way that we both create and recall memories. As such, the situation we are in, our personal experiences, as well as the meanings and interpretations we imbue, play a role in shaping how remembering unfolds. Take for example, being asked to recall at this time of year, recalling either a past Christmas event vs a summertime barbecue. The details remembered, their richness and emotional resonance of the Christmas memory surpasses that of the summertime barbecue – illustrating how the context impacts remembering. And of course, individual beliefs about Christmas will also shape how Christmas events are remembered.
With this in mind, we can start to see how remembering as an active process of (re) construction actually offers memory a positive strength as it allows it to be flexible, adapting to new needs in an ever-changing world. If we remembered all things at all times then we would struggle to find the right information to prepare for current and future needs. If, at this time of year, we were remembering things about past summer barbecues as vividly as past Christmases, then we would struggle to find ways to link the past, present and future, as the sheer volume of recalled information would upset any sense of coherence and stability.
Given that memory has some degree of construction, then what and how we choose to remember is linked to our identity, what kind of people we see ourselves as. Some may bring to mind past Christmases that are marked by acts of charity and kindness, others may bring to mind the family and friends they reconnected with. Whichever route is taken, there is an interconnectedness between memory and identity with events and commemorations of past events reflecting the way in which we choose to see ourselves – the autobiographical narrative of who we are.
Memory as a collective active act
This reconstruction is not an entirely individual act but one which has an important collective aspect, as the act of reminiscing about past shared experiences provides a way for close bonds and shared meanings to form. The act of reminiscing is typically linked to traditions or rituals that represent sacred group values; it is through their enactment that they play a role in creating and reinforcing collective memories.
For people celebrating Christmas across many Western countries, the tradition of putting up decorations or hanging stockings is often accompanied by reminiscing about shared histories and creating a shared sense of the meanings of these items. So the way in which we choose to remember Christmas is something that is determined by ourselves as well as friends and family but also the wider society and culture that we live in.
This is not only something that build closer connections to those close to us, but we can see how how brands and even politicians communicate with the public through this use of collective memories. Adverts, especially during the Christmas period often evoke feelings of nostalgia, creating a sense of longing for the past, which creates a deeper, more engaged connections between views and the brand. Indeed, many political campaigns across both sides of the political spectrum can be found campaigning about the virtues of the past.
While nostalgia may get used by brands and politicians, it is inherently a social emotion that creates deeper social connections and enhances sense of meaning for individuals. Moreover, Routledge and colleagues (2011) show that nostalgia promotes well-being and provides a buffer when people are placed in stressful situations.
Connecting the past with the future
Christmas traditions show us very clearly how memory works: less of a ‘filing cabinet’ and much more a dynamic, as we see what is remembered and how it is remembered is partly something that sits with us as individuals but is also something that is a collective activity.
Of course, this has implications way beyond understanding the dynamics of the festive season – for politicians, governments and commercial organisations, the question we will increasingly examine over 2022 is what shapes the way we remember the past as this is critical in determining how we approach the future.
Therefore, while reminiscing about Christmas traditions may draw our minds into the past, doing so is less about the past and more about building closer connections to our present as well as preparing us for what may occur in the future.
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