Driving through Downtown St. Joseph last week and seeing the many storefront decorations through a lens of heavy snow took me back to a Christmases past. Many of the Downtown merchants had elaborate Christmas decorations in their storefront windows, marking the time of year. For many years, Downtown was a dead, empty mall with vacant storefronts and ghost signs for long-dead businesses.
Today, that spirit has come back somewhat through the work of smaller merchants and businesses to create a nostalgia for those of us who remember the lively Downtown of our youth.
Gary Cross, author of “Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism,” wrote that “A lot of times celebrations are really about what people wish they had.”
Today I long for the Christmases of my youth, as many others do as well. The decorated storefronts, a house full of family and toys galore.
“Today the word ‘nostalgia’ carries positive daydreamy associations, but it was coined to refer to the experiences that were terrifying and sad,” wrote Catherine Woodiwiss, A Washington D.C.-based journalist in the Atlantic.
In the 1600s, soldiers far from home during the Thirty Years War showed inexplicable signs of melancholy and homesickness. Some were even driven to the point of suicide.
A Swiss physician named Johannes Hofer coined the word nostalgia for this unique condition. In 1688, he combined two Greek words for “pain” and “homecoming” to come up with the term “nostalgia.” In subsequent wars, nostalgia manifested as listlessness, depression and loss of appetite. Military doctors and generals at the time thought the “disease” was contagious. They thought it could be cured through shaming, death threats and sometimes death.
“Pure nostalgia hurts,” Woodiwiss wrote. “People only feel it when they are displaced and acutely aware of what they’re missing.”
The condition didn’t refer only to soldiers for very long. In the mid-18th century, the Industrial Revolution disrupted familiar agrarian rhythms and brought on new anxieties.
Author Karal Ann Marling who wrote the book,” Merry Christmas: Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday” said that “without the rhythms of the agricultural year to signal the turning of the season, city dwellers relied in the shops to tell them when Christmas was coming.”
In the 1800s, New England retailers began selling greenery such as pine trees during Christmas time as a midwinter reminder of life in the countryside. As a result, city dwellers who had an appetite for remembering rural life helped the Christmas tree’s growing popularity.
Today, Christmas is a billion-dollar seasonal industry rooted in an anxiety about change and a yearning for a simpler world.
“The nostalgia of Christmas is in part a way to subsume fears of the future in a yearning for the past,” Woodiwiss wrote.
“Those feelings of completion and wonder were likely strongest when growing up. Christmas may be less about the Christ child and more about longing for one’s own childhood. It’s a season of reassurance in the swirl of modern change,” she added.
All that explains why nostalgia sometimes feels painful. What soothes that pain for me is seeing the wonderment of Christmas through my grandson Jace’s eyes. The Christmas cartoons like “A Charlie Brown Christmas” are new to him. He still believes in Santa and marvels at Christmas trees. His eyes are a time machine that takes me back to my own Christmas childhoods.