You’ve heard the old joke: “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” Turns out it isn’t even a joke: it’s true.
Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer invented the word in 1688, combining the Greek words for pain and homecoming, after he noticed that soldiers returning from the Thirty Years War showed inexplicable signs of melancholy and homesickness.
Over 300 and some years, the meaning has morphed into something different. Now we see it as a longing for something past, something we once had and yearn to have again. And it hurts. People feel nostalgia only when they are displaced and are acutely aware of what they’re missing.
There is no time when the modern, Western world feels nostalgia more acutely than at Christmas. Our society has been conditioned to feel it ever since Charles Dickens created the season of goodwill and peace, grumpiness and jealousy to all in his moralising A Christmas Carol in 1843.
Ever observant of social change, Dickens foresaw the industrial age and how it would up end the way people saw the world. A newly mechanised society was manufacturing a class of people dislocated from their own context and heritage. Nostalgia spread to mass culture, and it carried a different pain – instead of longing for a place, it meant longing for a different time.
As in England, so in the New World. Karal Ann Marling, author of Merry Christmas! Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday, writes: “Without the rhythms of the agricultural year to signal the turning of the seasons, city dwellers relied on merchandise in the shops to tell them when Christmas was coming.” Evidence that the “commercialisation” of Christmas began as far back as the mid-1800s.
Amid headlines of terrorism, mass shootings, xenophobia and more, it is comfortable to retreat into a longing for
a simpler time, where presents were unwrapped under a real tree that dropped needles over Mum’s carpet, where the roast lamb might have been left on the barbecue for too long while Dad and Uncle Bob shared another flagon. Where everyone had to wait to watch the Queen’s Message on the single TV channel.
Families have changed, but kith and kin will always want to be together at Christmas. As with christenings, birthdays and engagements, we want to be with those whose DNA and memories and joys and sorrows we share. That’s not always possible – physically. So this December 25 we should celebrate that we can connect with those who can’t be at the same table. Grandma sits in her Wellington unit, and happy tears fall as she sees grandchild number 14 opening the gift she couriered to Auckland or Melbourne or London – all thanks to a Skype link. Nostalgia. It’s just so much better these days.