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Nostalgia Is a Mixed Bag, for Each According to One's Needs

December 24, 1987|JOSEPH N. BELL

Christmas magnifies everything. Joy. Pleasure. Hurt. Pain. Loneliness.

And especially for older people, it magnifies nostalgia. The ghosts of Christmases Past appear regularly at Christmas Present. And for most of us, these are benevolent ghosts, painting idyllic pictures of large trees and small children and deep, warm family ties.

They also present a problem and a challenge.

There's a poignant scene in the second act of Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park With George" in which the artist is contemplating the changes that have taken place on a site he once painted, and his mother appears before him in a vision. They talk about the past and his childhood, and she paints one beautiful, glowing word picture after another. He corrects her gently, pointing out to her that things weren't really that way at all.

But her perceptions are clear and firm, and he finally allows her that place. His perceptions aren't negative. Just different. He's comfortable with his, and she with hers. But the point seems to me to be that nostalgia is a capacious bag, to be drawn from according to the needs of the individual. It's a mixed bag, of course, just as life itself is--full of wonders and disappointments, joys and despairs from which we can and do draw selectively all the time, particularly as we grow older.

A few days ago, I attended the Christmas concert at my stepson's elementary school. All the usual things took place--parents popping up and down to take photographs, small children scuffing the floor or plucking at buttons and forgetting lines, bigger kids looking at the wings or the ceiling instead of the audience, self-conscious kids barely mouthing words while their showboat peers carried the burden of singing. There was even a wonderfully atonal school band that reminded me of the "think system" in "The Music Man," two dozen earnest children with virtually no training in music somehow producing recognizable Christmas carols that certainly made up in warmth and delight what they might have lacked in finesse.

Through it all was a pervasive feeling of both renewal and beginnings--and maybe, finally, that's what Christmas is all about.

School concerts like this one have been happening every holiday season since the beginnings of public education. Hence the renewal, the Christmas Past. But this particular one had never happened before, and so it was a beginning full of surprises, a Christmas Present.

Coming home from that concert, I was feeling both of those places very strongly.

We all grow up with a whole set of Christmas traditions, and then most of us meld them with a partner to create new traditions in the raising of a family. They were traditions I loved--and still do.

Once that nostalgia bag is opened, it pours out a cornucopia of memories. The funny, unscannable poems on Christmas tags from a quicksilver daughter. The gift of a performance of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" on the organ from her younger sister who began and ended her organ career with that virtuoso number. A son who was punished for finding and exploring a cache of presents by being told to find his gifts on Christmas morning in new hiding places--then shamed us into getting them for him by sitting quietly while the rest of us opened our gifts. And so many, many more. Such memories tumble in for older people, because we have had so many years to accumulate them.

But they shouldn't prevent us from attending and basking in the school concerts today, from building new traditions, from the exhilaration of a kind of rebirth each year of Christmas. That, after all, is what Christmas is about in the first place.

The birth it commemorates can--and, in this old-timer's opinion, should--be celebrated in both a reverence of the past and a regeneration of the here and now. Dwelling totally in either place denigrates the other. And because Christmas does magnify our feelings so enormously, the holiday can thus get out of balance in hurtful ways.

Nostalgia rightly becomes more important at Christmas, and we rightly tend to choose the joys to remember. This is probably as it should be except for one thing: they should augment rather that get in the way of our efforts to explore the joys of Christmas Present.

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