These weeks around the winter solstice are undoubtedly the most nostalgic season of the year. (Except for maybe summer.) The trappings of this season remind us of all the trappings from previous years: holiday songs, candles, trees, lights, ornaments, tinsel, gifts, wreathes, and the cookies. Even some Christmas songs have lyrics about Christmases “long, long ago.” And every year we receive a few cards that are reproductions of the nineteenth century, Victorian cards our great-great-great grandparents sent to one another. Somehow these older cards have a more authentic aura that seems truer to the season than, say, a rock ‘n roll Santa playing a saxophone.
Nostalgia is good. I recently came across a new term (for me): “radical nostalgia,” coined by the English nature writer Fraser Harrison. By it he means that nostalgia does not have to be a wimpy retreat into the past or a disengagement from the current world we live in. Rather it can be used as a challenge and critique of contemporary culture just as utopian fantasies that look into the future can be valuable critiques of contemporary society. Nostalgia reminds us of important values and ways of living and being that have gotten lost over the years. If it harkens back to earlier days, it does so as a corrective to the problems we’ve created for ourselves in the intervening year.
The word “nostalgia” comes from two ancient Greek words, nostos and algos, which mean “homesickness.” Does this indicate that there was a time years ago when humans felt more at home than we do today? I think it can mean that. I would even venture to say from a shamanic point of view that indigenous people felt more at home in the world than we do even though they had fewer gadgets and gizmos with which to “make” a home. Instead they had an experience of the world that we have lost: namely, a world in which they knew themselves as fellow creatures, related in a simpler, but more profound way to the natural elements than we experience today. It’s true we have more technological control over nature than earlier peoples did, but the trade-off seems to be that we’ve lost that sense of being at home in the natural world—which if we stop to think about it makes up a greater percentage of the planet than our “civilized” environments.
We stop feeling at home. We get homesick. It’s possible that we don’t even know what we are homesick for.
Many people would not want to go back to their childhood homes and those earlier Christmases and family gatherings. Some people still feel wounded from them in various ways. Or the thought of being five years old again seems ridiculous. But even without wanting to go back, which nostalgia can mean, but doesn’t have to, many of us do succumb at this time of year to great waves of what we might call “undifferentiated nostalgia.” A nostalgia for something just beyond the realm of consciousness. Nostalgia for something we can’t quite put our finger on. Maybe it has nothing to do with Santa and gifts but a disconnectedness from the greater planet on which we live. After all, one of the Christmas messages reminds us that there will be “Joy to the World.” And “world” means world. I think we are homesick because we don’t feel at home in the world any longer. Ecopsychologists point out that a healthy individual has to repair his or her relationship with the natural environment, just as a traditional psychologist says we have to repair broken and unhealthy relationships with each other.
No, we can’t go back and be five again, nor can we go back to live as people did five centuries ago. But there is something we can learn about nostalgia from primal people. Eliade points out that early people’s celebrations and ceremonies created a mystical experience for them which was the “equivalent of a journey back to the origins, a regression into the mythical time of the Paradise lost.” (His emphasis) Nostalgia, I think, always conjures up something good that has been lost, even if the “good” that is conjured up is a distorted memory that romanticizes or mythologizes the fun, enjoyment, and satisfaction that we think we enjoyed in earlier years. Or it might simply refer to a longing to be able to start over again, to journey back to the origins, to wake to “a new and glorious morn,” as one Christmas carol puts it.
Eliade continues, “For the shaman in ecstasy, this present world, our fallen world—which, according to modern terminology, is under the laws of Time and History—is done away with.” In the shamanic state of consciousness we, just like the Otherworld, don’t operate under the laws of Time and History. We are freed temporarily from time, from history, from the present moment. As another carol puts it, “the hopes and fears of the all the years” are met here tonight. Time and place dissolve into the present celebration, and each yuletide holiday contains all of them.
Celebrating the winter solstice, under whatever religious terms and traditions you celebrate it, can bring forth nostalgia—for something older, homier, maybe better. But we don’t have to just wallow in it, even though wallowing can produce its own high. We can wallow in it consciously—mystically?—searching for a radical nostalgia that can offer alternatives to the problems of the modern world.
So c’mon. Let’s rock around the Christmas tree. Let’s be jolly. Deck the halls with boughs of holly. If we can feel good, we might make it good—or even better.