Mental Health

Christmas 2020: 3 ways nostalgia can help us to make the most of this year’s celebrations

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Lauren Geall
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Three women celebrating Christmas together

Just because we have to make some changes to the way we celebrate this Christmas due to the coronavirus pandemic, doesn’t mean we can’t make the most of the 2020 festive season. Here’s how nostalgia could help us to do just that.

If one thing’s for sure, it’s that Christmas 2020 is going to look a little different to the celebrations we’re used to.

Whether you’ve had to cut down on the number of family members set to join you at the Christmas table, choose which of your parents to spend the day with or had to sacrifice some of your favourite festive traditions, we’re all having to make some changes as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

However, while it’s OK to be sad about missing out on this special time of year – especially if you haven’t been able to see your loved ones in 2020 – it’s important to remember that there are things we can do to carve out some value in this year’s rather unique Christmas.

Surprisingly, one way to do this is by leaning into the feeling of nostalgia. Defined as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past,” nostalgia is an emotion which tends to make its mark around Christmas time, as we follow family traditions and indulge in comforting festive music and films.  

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And while leaning into old memories may not feel like the best way to cheer ourselves up when we’re missing our loved ones, there are a number of ways this curious emotion can boost our wellbeing, inspire a sense of optimism and help us to cope – whether through rewatching old movies, engaging in family traditions or reminiscing about Christmases gone by.

It’s why so many of us found rewatching old shows comforting during lockdown – in a time of such uncertainty, there’s something incredibly comforting about revisiting the things we know and love. 

With all of this in mind, we spoke to Dr Wing Yee Cheung, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester who studies nostalgia, to find out more about the ways in which nostalgia could help us to make the most of Christmas 2020. Here’s what she had to say. 

1. It can help us feel closer to family members we can’t spend time with

A woman watching a film at Christmas
Christmas and nostalgia: rewatching old films can help us to remember times when we watched them with loved ones.

Although we may not be able to physically be with everyone we love this Christmas, doing the same activities we’d usually do with everyone – such as watching a classic film or decorating the house – can trigger a sense of nostalgia which allows us to feel closer to them.

This is because, as Cheung explains, nostalgia acts as a kind of “mental time travel”; doing an activity which triggers nostalgia is like being transported back in time, where we can revisit the sensations and people around us in our memories.

“Engaging in static content such as a rewatchable film or TV show can bring us closer to other people at a time when we’re apart,” Dr Cheung explains. “Feeling nostalgic can help us to recall or remind us of the people that are important to us that we are loved by – and this can help us to cope with that sense of isolation and loneliness.

2. It can give us a sense of stability

Mince pies
Christmas and nostalgia: indulging in a family recipe can create feelings of safety and security.

At a time when so many things are uncertain, the nostalgia triggered by following traditions and engaging in festive activities can also help us to feel safe and secure – a feeling many of us are lacking at the moment.

“Things such as putting up the same Christmas tree in the same spot or serving the same dish can help us to hold on to the things we know,” Dr Yeung highlights. “It’s the same with watching an old TV show or film – these are potential things which could bring us back to a past where we feel safe and protected.”

3. It can motivate us to make memories

A couple laughing
Christmas and nostalgia: knowing you'll be able to look back on 2020 can motivate you to make more memories.

The third – and biggest – way nostalgia can help us this Christmas time is by helping us to stay motivated.

Indeed, by familiarising ourselves with the concept of ‘anticipated nostalgia’ – aka, the mental capacity we have to know that we’ll be able to “look back” on a moment in time as a memory one day – we can motivate ourselves to make the most out of a bad year.

“We can utilise the idea of anticipated nostalgia by seeing this year as a special Christmas,” Dr Yeung explains. “We may not get to have the normal setting, but if we’re able to make the most of it we can create different memories, and we can think about how we’ll be able to look back on this year and feel nostalgic in the future. 

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“Say for example you feel tired or have low energy – if you go for a walk with your family and spend some quality time together, you know that when you look back at that moment in the future you can feel nostalgic about it, and that can motivate you to create more positive memories in the moment, despite your low energy.”

She adds: “It’s thinking about how we can create something positive this year, even though it’s not the same.”

Google and the BFI have teamed up to find the most rewatchable and nostalgic British films to celebrate the launch of the Google Pixel 5. For more information on how to find, download and watch the films, visit the Google website.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.