Christmas Memories in an Unusual Year

I’m probably the millionth person to say that this will not be a normal Christmas. In fact, as I write this, I’m still not sure what sort of Christmas get-togethers we will be allowed to have. Then there’s the question of if it will feel safe to do. Tricky issues that different families will navigate in various ways, I suspect.

I want to talk about Christmas memories. I’m convinced that positive memories are an important, and sometimes overlooked, mental health buffer. Some research supports this. One study, for example, found that recalling positive memories reduces cortisol levels and negative self-thoughts in young people at risk of depression. That finding makes intuitive sense. The act of recalling a happy memory is pleasurable, a personal restorative practice that causes the release of brain chemicals which play a role to biological self-regulation. Good memories are also an emotion domain reminder. We’ve had good times before and we’ll have them again. That gives us hope.

So, for people who celebrate Christmas, happy holiday experiences memories could help mitigate some of the stress and uncertainty that is unfolding around us these days. This would, of course, also apply to other cultural or religious holidays or just positive experiences in general.

So the positive memories we have are sort of like a bank account: psychological souvenirs that give us a little shot of feel-good hormones as we think of them. But there’s another equally important part of the memory picture: that’s the memories we make during good times.

A friend of mine went through a sudden, sad and stressful marriage breakup some years ago. One thing I remember her saying several months into the experience was how important she felt it was to make some new memories with her children. Supporting her kids through the family’s transition was not just about helping them understand and cope. It was also about having some fun and happy times as a one-parent family – without the children’s father.

My friend believed that these good experiences—hopefully the kids also had some with their dad as well—and the associated happy memories, would help her kids see that, even though they were sad about Mom and Dad not being together anymore, they could and would still experience happiness at times. New happy memories would help her kids recover from the breakup and adapt to their new reality.

I thought she was so wise. Since then I have often reflected on the value of nice memories.

Taking an intentional and mindful approach to making new memories seems particularly relevant in this year. Surely we don’t want to just cope with the upcoming different Christmas, and what might be missing. Maybe some new, interesting, fun and memorable activities can come out of this year’s experience.

I won’t venture to suggest what those new, special experiences should be. They will, no doubt, vary from family to family. But one thing I’m sure about is that, for better or worse, this Christmas will stand out in our memories, and probably our children’s memories too. So maybe we should put some thought and energy into what we can do to ensure that some of those memories are positive for our kids.

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