Renee Loth

Merry retro Christmas

(Ross Macdonald for The Boston Globe)
By Renee Loth
December 25, 2009

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A BIG ITEM this shopping season among Generation Nexters (roughly age 15 to 29) was the Fuji Instax camera. Unlike ordinary digital cameras, the Instax uses a cool thing called film, and instantly develops a finished photograph before your eyes. New! Just like the Polaroid, which Edwin Land invented in 1947.

Vinyl record albums are also making a comeback, with sales up 35 percent over last year, according to a Nielsen report. New waves of consumers are discovering the superior sound and the pleasures of liner notes and cover art. And it’s not all classic rock: even Lady Gaga and 50 Cent are pressing out new recordings on . . . records.

It is a testament to the power of nostalgia that these products strike a longing for things the people attracted to them never knew.

For really wallowing in seasonal memories, though, few things beat the holiday catalog from the Vermont Country Store. Its 88 pages are crammed with flashback-inducing items like bubble lights for the Christmas tree, Glass Wax and stencils for window decorating, that string-pull Santa pin with the nose that lights up, and all manner of old-fashioned holiday sweets like ribbon candy and cream mints, guaranteed to produce a Proustian buzz.

Much of the descriptive prose in the catalog has a kind of cranky and superior tone, suited to its target audience. Describing a portable manual typewriter on offer, the copy reads: “It moves at a pace that encourages thought, will never crash, and can go with you anywhere.’’ Unsaid but understood: Remember how much better things used to be?

These are the high holy days of nostalgia, when the ache we feel for days gone by is almost pleasurable. We look back in rosy reminiscence and take comfort in the familiar, drawn powerfully in this season to the rhythmic certainty of tradition.

For 364 days the world is a baffling, anxious place of new skills to master and new problems to solve. But for a few sweet moments in the dusk of the year we know just what we are supposed to be doing, even if it is eating Chinese takeout and going to the movies. We even know, sort of, how we should feel.

Not all holiday memories are cheerful. As a girl I shuddered when my mother described the exceptionally lean year she and her five siblings each received an orange for a present. But my mother was the most diligent defender of our holiday traditions: the treacly Mantovani strings on the stereo; the Chianti in straw bottles; the three-day lasagna preparation; the ornaments placed just so.

Why is nostalgia such a powerful force in our lives? The word translates from the Greek nostros (“return home’’) plus algos (“pain’’), in other words, homesickness. According to a recent paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, the bittersweet feeling is a “social emotion,’’ evoking mostly positive memories, even redeeming bad ones. It can be triggered by loneliness. It has “the capacity to counteract stress and restore equanimity.’’

For baby boomers this is especially poignant, the researchers note, because as we age we tend to look less toward future achievements and place more value on a life with meaning, on being part of “a social network’’ (what used to be called “community’’ before Facebook.) Thinking back reinforces a sense of rootedness and belonging, if only to a particular time in history.

Few things bring home awareness of mortality like the dying of the year, and few things salve the emptiness like memory. But memory is a slippery thing, recalled in soft-focus. As countless aphorisms have it, yesterday is gone, and the future can’t be known. The present moment is all that is really reliable.

The trick is to somehow imbue the present with all of the richness of memory, to blow off the dust and make it a living thing. To hear those Mantovani strings as if for the first time. Do this with love and purpose, and you can make this day into a memory someone else will treasure, nostalgically, on days yet to come.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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