The days huddled up against Christmas aren’t always filled with cheerful times, despite what ads, television specials and everybody else’s Facebook posts appear to promise. For many of us, they bring a sense of profoundly mixed, if not actually contradictory, emotions.
There’s nostalgia, which can be sentimentally satisfying (“Remember when Grandpa used to smoke his Meerschaum pipe in front of the fireplace?”) or unsettling (“Remember how Grandma used to scream when Grandpa smoked in the house?”).
Nostalgia was originally defined as a disease of acute homesickness, but it’s been modified over the years so that we’ve come to regard it as an emotion we’re meant to carry with us, like bulky gifts, all through December. But like gifts that nobody really wants and which come at great cost, nostalgia can be more of a burden than a blessing.
Does it genuinely honor the past to keep the wounds of our losses fresh? Wouldn’t those we’ve lost be more grateful for good thoughts rather than perpetual mourning?
For years after my mother died, I mourned her deeply, especially at Christmas. My older brother finally took me aside after one family meal when I’d been not only dispirited but also rather upset at the fun other people were having when I was still in pain. “You’re using your misery as a votive candle to our mother,” Hugo said. “It doesn’t help her, it doesn’t help you, and it sure as hell doesn’t help anybody else. You need to change this before it becomes what you do for the rest of your life.”
I took him seriously. I got into therapy and learned, over many years, ways to work with and through my sense of isolation.
I also learned that everybody had troubles of their own; I was not the only one who had to make an effort. Even if the faces I saw seemed merry, it didn’t mean their lives were easier than mine.
Nurturing a sense of defiant bereavement didn’t shield me from the worries and sadness of the world. I had to teach myself to live with — but not be defined by — nostalgia.
Some of us are troubled, particularly at this time of year, by the thoughts of what we might have had, what we once had, what others have, and what we might not ever have no matter how many wish-lists we make.
That’s one of the reasons the British tell ghost stories at Christmas: The past is with us when the year swings wide open into the dark winter night. Even if your holidays are spent in a warm climate, or in the Southern hemisphere where the days are at their longest, memories of what’s gone are close enough to leave a chill.
Charles Dickens offers the season’s most haunting tale in “A Christmas Carol.” I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with that work, having written an introduction to the Signet edition of the book.
“A Christmas Carol” is about loneliness; money and greed are just side-bars. The most important passage happens when, under the spell of the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge confronts his utterly abandoned childhood self.
The Ghost points out that, although other children have been gathered up by loving families, one boy remains. “The school is not quite deserted ... A solitary child, neglected by his friends, is left there still.” Scrooge says he knows it and begins to sob, weeping “to see his poor forgotten self as he had used to be.”
In this moment, Scrooge discovers that generosity is a transferable commodity: It can move from one’s self to others. Once Scrooge discovers a wellspring of understanding and sympathy for himself, he can direct it outwards. Scrooge also learns — and this is an equally hard lesson — to accept those sincere offers of camaraderie, community, and connection he had previously dismissed. By reconciling with the past while finding hope for the future, Scrooge can live fully in the present.
I still light votive candles in memory of those I cherished, but I don’t use them as a shield anymore. Instead, I let them illuminate the room, grateful that they keep the December dark at bay. I wish, my friends, the same for you.
Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at the University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com. This column ran originally in the Hartford Courant.