How Holiday Memories Shape Identity


I’ve spent the majority of my life in northern Florida, where a white winter only tends to come from fresh harvested cotton littering the roadside, or maybe a glass of dry white wine. I can only remember snow falling around the holidays twice in my life -- a flurry here and there. While it may not be very cold during any time of the year, it doesn’t hinder my family from getting into the holiday spirit. The smell of cinnamon coming from my mother’s kitchen, my grandmother’s century old handmade German decorations building a pop-up paper town in the window sill, and most of all, the fire my father seems to constantly stoke outside, are all artifacts of my little family’s holiday celebrations.

All of these artifacts were part of how my family celebrates the holidays before I began to consciously take part in the festivities -- but I’m still intrinsically connected to them just the same. In addition to these artifacts, stories are a huge part of the holidays for me. Whether it’s reading the Christmas story, or retelling the same old family stories around my father’s beloved outside fire, these shared memories help shape my identity as part of my family, and how I view past experiences with them. In fact, I can’t remember any personal holiday stories that don’t involve someone else.

We often talk about how our memories and experiences become part of our personal stories. The same is true for social or collective memories: recounting our shared moments and interpersonal interactions help define group identities and shape perceptions of the past. It provides a filter for interpretation, a merging of memories into a family story or experience.

For example, when telling stories, my brother and I often quibble about the details until we agree on our shared experience. This reinforces the story as we negotiated it, and creates a bond when it is positively received. I think this process also contributes to how we can perceive times with family during the holidays as fond memories (or memories that we’re not so fond of revisiting). Regardless, this social storytelling helps to define our group identities, and collectively perceive shared stories.

This can happen among all kinds of groups, not just family units. For example, telling stories about shared experiences aids us in forming “tribes” or figuring out our identities compared to the rest of the world, and the groups in which we perceive ourselves to belong.

Storytelling can be a bonding experience, so we hope that you share stories with your friends and loved ones during this holiday season, and make a few more stories to tell for years to come.