“Home for the Holidays.” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” It’s that time of year when the return home defines the season for many people. Songs, movies and TV specials during the holiday season relentlessly emphasize homecoming, for both comedic and dramatic effect. And our highways and airports testify to the culture’s real-life enactment of this Yuletide ritual.
Even as many of us make these arrangements for the return home, we scoff at the hokiness of the endless Christmas tunes melting our radios and the sappy made-for-TV movies infesting the airwaves. The crime is nostalgia. Our general understanding of nostalgia is listed as Merriam-Webster’s second definition for the term: “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” We may yearn, but most of us probably also believe that “you can’t go home again.” We resist nostalgia because we know it’s “excessively sentimental” and, well, childish and stupid.
I would like, however, to advocate for nostalgia. Now, I’m not defending the artistic merits of the latest Hallmark Channel Christmas movie starring Ed Asner or Meredith Baxter, nor am I saying that you should appreciate the folk qualities of Aunt Esther’s favorite Christmas sweater. But I am saying that we should think about taking nostalgia seriously. We should not dismiss the yearning to return home as a childish emotion, but rather respect it–and listen to it–as a genuine life message.
Merriam-Webster’s first definition of “nostalgia” is “the state of being homesick.” In fact, the term’s first use was medical, a recognized physical malady. Johannes Hofer introduced it in his 1688 dissertation–also using the term mal du pays. The term was especially associated with Swiss mercenaries in the European plains and lowlands who longed for the mountains of Switzerland (mal du Suisse). Jean-Jacques Rousseau even wrote that these mercenaries were forbidden to sing Kuhreihen (traditional songs played by Swiss Alpine herdsmen on their horns) because they might lead to illness, desertion or even death. Some deaths were in fact attributed to nostalgia. Even though the root of the term is the Greek nostos, or “return home,” it is also related to Old English genesan, to survive.
By the mid-19th century, nostalgia was less a physical ailment but still a form of “melancholia,” in the terms of the psychology of that time, and was considered a predisposition to suicide. Paul Gruchow notes in his essay “Home Is a Place in Time” that the term was used in 19th century Germany “to describe the failure to thrive of the displaced persons, including my own ancestors, who had crowded into that country from the east.” Even as late as World War II, American soldiers were still thought to be subject to a serious condition of homesickness and the condition was studied in the hopes of reducing desertions and psychological maladies.
I’m not advocating for the return of an obsolete medical term long dismissed, but nostalgia’s origin reminds us of how profound our connection to home, our roots in place, can–and I say should–be. We live in a time and culture when such connections are often actively discouraged, if not indicative of, as I suggested earlier, childishness. If as adults we wish to stay in our hometown, we are deemed failures. If we don’t move around several times in our lives, we are deemed unambitious, provincial or backward. Nostalgia may not be something to be ashamed of and dismissed, but rather a yearning to be listened to and heeded. Maybe being rooted in place is a human ideal we have forgotten.
Humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan coined the term “topophilia,” “the affective bond between people and place.” He gives legitimacy to the act of feeling in our connection to place, and, in his classic works Topophilia (1974) and Space and Place (1977), he cites “home” as the center of meaning and care in the world, the center of our sense of attachment and rootedness. Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space (1994) calls home a “primal space that acts as a first world or first universe that then frames our understanding of all the places outside. The home is an intimate space where experience is particularly intense.” If “home” is our frame of reference on the world, its power is understandable and our yearning for it demands respect.
Granted, home can be a site of negative experience, even oppression. Feminist geographers like Gillian Rose note that homes can be places of “drudgery, abuse and neglect.” And most of us probably do at least have holiday memories of nonsensical arguments, hurt feelings and cutting criticisms lobbed around the dinner table.
I’m not claiming that we’ll always lovingly conspire as we dream by the fire, or that there’ll be much mistletoeing and hearts will be glowing when loved ones are near. There will always be struggle and conflict, even at home. And certainly “home” won’t always be the parental dwelling place. Wherever it is, home is an important anchor in life, and making one should be a priority.
So at this holiday season, if you celebrate, and no matter your religious or cultural background, if nostalgia calls, don’t mock it and don’t ignore it. Embrace the feeling as legitimate. “Home” need not look like a Normal Rockwell painting, but it should be respected as the place to which we devote the time, commitment and affection that makes us truly rooted in this world.