Christmas nostalgia for the family we never were

Christmas nostalgia for the family we never were

I never rode in a one-horse open sleigh or saw visions of sugarplums dance in my head.

Doug Muder
1969 U.S. Postage stamp, Winter Sunday in Norway, Maine.

1969 U.S. Postage stamp, Winter Sunday in Norway, Maine (© istockphoto/MikeRega).

© istockphoto/MikeRega


Last year one of the cable movie channels urged me to “spend Christmas with the Family”—the Corleone family. They were running a Christmas Day marathon of all the Godfather movies.

It was a perversely brilliant choice because the Godfather trilogy holds a dark mirror to one of Christmas’s more difficult themes: nostalgia for the kind of family we can’t be anymore and may never have been in the first place. It chronicles the decline of the fictional Corleones from the tradition-rich cosa nostra of first Don Corleone to the businesslike modern syndicate of his son Michael. The father is the center of a community, but the son—though wealthier and more powerful—outlives his many enemies only to die alone and unloved.

Oh, to return to the families of yesteryear—even the Corleone family.

Each year Christmas brings us many progressive and uplifting themes: peace on Earth, the rebirth of hope, and the renewing power of love, among others. Again and again, Scrooge takes a turkey to the Cratchits, the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes, Charlie Brown’s forlorn tree looks just fine after it’s decorated, and the community pitches in to save George Bailey’s savings-and-loan.

We can use those stories and images to raise hope and inspire constructive action. But the bittersweet nostalgia of Christmas is more problematic. It’s narcotic. Overindulgence can deaden us to the present and leave a hangover of depression and failure.

Originally, nostalgia was a medical diagnosis, a disease afflicting elderly immigrants and soldiers posted to distant lands. They wasted away, pining for the old country. Some even died of it.

But at least they pined for something real, a place that still existed and could be returned to. Today, even going home for the holidays will not cure Christmas nostalgia because the old family—even if it still survives and can be reassembled—never was the family that Christmas tradition idealizes.

I know mine wasn’t. Growing up, I never rode in a one-horse open sleigh or saw visions of sugarplums dance in my head. We had gas heat instead of a fireplace, so we never sang carols around a Yule log or roasted chestnuts over an open fire. I never carried my father’s ax while he dragged a freshly chopped evergreen home through the snowy fields.

All those memories are in my head, but they’re not mine. I don’t know who they once belonged to.

This year, as always, my sister and I will make as much family Christmas as we can manage. Christmas Day we have our separate traditions in the places where we live. She has Christmas in the South with her husband and their sons, now grown to be fine young men. I will spend it in New England with my wife and friends whose children we have watched open their presents every year since they were toddlers.

On the 26th, we will take our families to our hometown in the Midwest, where our parents are still alive but too infirm to host us. We’ll stay in a hotel but gather at the house where we grew up to eat food brought in from a store—in shifts, because the kitchen table isn’t big enough for all of us. My parents will participate in conversation to the extent that their hearing allows. My nephews will defeat me on the pool table in the basement, and for two days we’ll watch one college football game after another.

It’s not something Norman Rockwell would want to paint. But it’s the best we can do.

We are lucky, I realize, to be able to do so well. I have lost touch with nearly all the cousins I used to see every year at my grandparents’ houses, but I know that none of them have two parents still alive and still married. My sister and I play no role in each other’s daily lives, but we get along and enjoy the company of each other’s spouses. I like my nephews, and appreciate that they have not yet broken away to form their own Christmas traditions. Our family’s holiday conversation is enjoyable, and does not navigate a minefield of unmentionable memories or topics not to be broached.

Measured against reality, against national statistics or other families that I know well enough to compare, we are doing quite well. Why doesn’t that seem like enough?

Unitarian Universalism prides itself on being a rational, forward-looking faith. We honor our history, but don’t direct our longing back to some golden age. It’s hard to imagine what could make us sing “O that we were there!” and really mean it.

Nostalgia, on the other hand, is emotional and backward-looking. No wonder it takes us out of our element.

If we just suffered through nostalgia as individuals, that would be unfortunate. But when the religious right invokes nostalgia to promote its “family values” agenda, our discomfort becomes a political liability as well. They can use nostalgic stories and images to create powerful emotions, then channel those emotions into action against people or practices that conflict with that vision. And far too often we respond with facts and logic that miss the point. We ignore the nostalgia, or worse, tell people that they are wrong to feel it.

That’s never going to work. Yearning for some lost ideal of family may not constitute knowledge or understanding, but it is a symptom that demands a serious response. Like electrical charges in the clouds, such strong emotions will come to ground somehow, whether we give them a path or not.

And besides: I feel it, too.

This year I’ve done some sitting with my Christmas nostalgia, trying to take it seriously and see what might lie at the root of it. These vague feelings of loss that Christmas exploits—where do they come from? What do I actually envy in the real or imagined families of the past?

I wasn’t surprised to discover that the answer had nothing to do with abortion or homosexuality or any of the other pieces of the religious-right agenda. Nor does it have anything to do with sleighs and trees and feasts. What did surprise me was that my answer boiled down to something economic: The families of my nostalgia didn’t just live together, they made a living together.

Like Michael Corleone, my father learned a family trade (farming) from his father, but was unable to pass it down to his son. I may have learned baseball from my father, but Dad learned an entire way of life from Grandpa. There is no way I can know my father the way he knew his.

Likewise my mother learned the many skills required of a farm wife from her mother and grandmothers and aunts. She worked side-by-side with her sisters—learning, teaching, arguing, and probably sometimes pulling each other’s hair. I’m sure it wasn’t always pretty, but it was a dense web of relationship that my sister and I never knew.

By the time I was growing up, Dad worked in a factory. Whatever he did there was invisible to me, part of the mysterious process that brought money into our home. Eventually that money made it possible for me to go to college, where I learned a profession from strangers.

At one point in my life I taught calculus. My nephew John is an engineer now, and had to learn calculus to become one. But he didn’t learn it from me because I was hundreds of miles away, and besides, that’s not how things work now. I hope John and his brother Mike are discovering that I can be an interesting person to watch football and shoot pool with, when we see each other once a year. But they will never know me the way Dad knew his uncles.

That’s a loss. By itself it may not be a reason to roll back the economic changes of recent generations. But it is worth acknowledging and mourning.

In many families you have to go back several generations, but for most, Christmas used to be one day of celebration in the midst of everyday side-by-side toil. We have kept the celebration but lost the way of life that it celebrated. Of course Christmas can’t mean now what it meant then. You can’t share “the most wonderful time of the year” with someone unless you’ve shared a sizable chunk of the rest of the year as well.

The debilitating thing about unprocessed nostalgia is the helplessness that often comes with it. We can’t go back in time. By ourselves we can do little to remake society on an older model—and even if we could, we’d most likely get stuck with the whole past, and not just the parts we wanted. Denial of that helplessness opens us to misdirection and manipulation; the energies of nostalgia are easily diverted into efforts that are merely symbolic or tangential.

But I’m coming to see that nostalgia, properly understood, can motivate constructive action. I can’t choose for myself or my nephews to grow up again some other way. But if what I yearn for is not just the past, but to be nestled in denser webs of relationship, that’s something I can work on—not just in my family, but in my community and congregation and all parts of my life.

If I want to get anywhere with that, though, I’ll have to work on it every day, and not just on Christmas.