Many of us have lasting memories from our childhood holidays. Some are more predictable than others, tied to traditions that get passed down for generations and whose mere practice today still stirs emotions.
Others, however, seem to come out of nowhere. And it’s hard not to wonder how much we’ve forgotten.
“Memory is a complex enigma,” says Rochester, N.Y. licensed counselor Lee Kehoe. “There is a wealth of research looking to uncover the inner workings of memory and why it is some experiences stick, while others fade away.”
Houston psychotherapist Mary Jo Rapini, for example, says she still savors every detail of a surreal Christmas-morning ice storm when she was growing up in her small northern Wisconsin town.
“We had opened presents earlier and I was so disappointed I didn’t get the horse on springs that I wanted,” she says. “I didn’t cry, because my parents were proud and we had no money. Then, I went to the front window and saw it had rained, then turned to ice. It looked like a magic land.”
But barring the arrival of an unexpected ice storm, we wondered if there was a secret to creating lasting memories for ourselves and loved ones.
It turns out, experts say, that memories are cemented not because of what we do but how we do it — especially activities that a family values as meaningful and are undertaken with its own individual “style” that is as unique as a fingerprint.
“It’s (about) how we share experiences together,” says Esther Benoit, a family counselor based in Williamsburg, Va., and a member of the American Counseling Association. “Some of our most meaningful family traditions can come from the simplest acts of togetherness.”
“Traditions are likely to be remembered, especially those that involve active participation,” agrees Alison Preston, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Texas. “Working with your children to establish a regular holiday ritual that is important to them would be a good way to help establish an enduring memory. Repetition of an activity helps strengthen our memory of the activity, and people also tend to remember events better when they play an active role in them.”
Giving tradition a twist
However, Robert Epstein, research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in Vista, Calif., says that tweaking traditions can boost their staying power in our minds. Lasting memories are based on events that have two kinds of intertwined characteristics: They are “surprising in some way and they have strong emotional content,” he says.
Thus, to conjure surprise and emotion during the holidays, “the same-old, same-old won’t do,” Epstein says. “Think new and think emotional.” His suggestions include having an “incredible” singer lead your family in some of the songs of the season; creating a play that reenacts some aspects of the holidays; even — budget allowing, of course — spending the holidays in “some amazing place,” like a beautiful lodge on a lake or somewhere exotic.
“If there’s lot of kids involved, bring in a surprising guest, like Santa Claus or a real turkey or a real reindeer,” Epstein adds. (Yes, we checked: You can rent reindeer and wild turkeys or, at the very least, find a reindeer or turkey costume to rent.) “You don’t need to think big, necessarily, but you need to think surprising and think emotions. That’s where lasting memories come from.”
Capturing the gist
When rituals involve the whole family and are repeated each year, a “gist memory” is formed, says Kehoe, which means someone may not be able to place a memory specifically in time or remember specific “peripheral” details.
“Rather, the person remembers the gist of that memory and it is often blended into other related, encoded gist memories,” Kehoe says.
So you may remember the specific year the cat climbed into the Christmas tree, or when the dog ate the turkey. Maybe you think you remember other particular details of those holidays, but actually, you may be remembering an amalgam of details that come together to form one.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Neuropsychologist Daniel Reisberg, who teaches at Reed College in Portland, Ore., says that if that “memory” is meaningful to you — or to your child, 20 or 30 years from now — the gist is enough.
Putting memory to work
Reisberg recommends that if you want your family to remember specific details of a holiday or any major event, it helps to pull everybody together and revisit what happened soon after and often, even using photos as a guide.
“The more you reinforce the memory,” Reisberg says, “the longer it will be etched in your brain accurately.”
Even famous savant Frank Healy, a therapist who can remember everything in great detail because he has larger frontal lobes in his brain that account for his phenomenal memory, still takes mental notes throughout the day. In other words, practice alone can make the most lasting memories, both Reisberg and Healy say.
“Rehash it in your mind a few times every day for at least a week,” Healy says. “You will improve your (long-term) recall of any event if you do that.”
Gwynn Morris, associate professor of psychology at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., says she has made a picture book for each of her children about their first Christmas.
“It highlights many of our family traditions, like decorating cookies, having an eggnog toast after decorating the tree, and putting baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas morning,” she says. “Reading about these events sets up a script in their minds about what to expect, so that when we actually do these fun things each year, they are better able to understand and contextualize them. I hope this will strengthen their memories. Although I don’t expect my (18-month-old) to remember our eggnog toast this year, my (3-year-old) is already eagerly anticipating it.”
For Rapini, it wasn’t just the random act of icy nature that helped supply her indelible memory of that long-ago Christmas morning. Her good-natured father, and his rallying of her family, also was key.
“My dad, who was a horrible skater, decided everyone should put on skates and, holding hands, we all skated into town,” recalls Rapini, who also remembers his falling frequently. “I had so much fun and was so grateful for my family I didn’t feel sad anymore, and I’ve never forgotten that morning.”