design theory: THE NOSTALGIA OF CHRISTMAS

Nostalgia is one of the most powerful forces in the design world.  Associating a sight, sound, touch, smell, or taste with a particular emotion or moment in time can have profound effects on how you perceive those senses.  It is the reason why the smell of suntan lotion or the sound of a lawn mower (not particularly pleasant senses on their own) can remind someone of happy summer days in the sun.  For a designer, nostalgia is a way straight to someone's heart.

However, nostalgia can also be seen as a crutch; it is much easier to appreciate a design that reminds you of a happy time or place.  This can lead to rejection of the new for nostalgia of the old.  The key for designers, as always, is balance.  Nostalgia is the basis for tradition, which helps define our cultures and civilizations.  It should neither completely dictate, nor be entirely absent from a design.


The Christmas season is full of nostalgic devices, developed slowly over time and borrowed from many cultures and religions to form what we associate with the holiday today.  There are countless sights, sounds, touches, scents, and tastes we associate almost exclusively with Christmas.  Many Americans this time of year will at some point hear Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, watch Charlie Brown decorate his little tree, drink eggnog, smell the strong aroma of pine trees, and feel the warmth of a fire on their face.

  image: stnicholascenter.org

image: stnicholascenter.org

In urban design, place-making is a term used to describe a community as a whole; building our neighborhoods around unified public spaces.  A sense of place is the feeling of belonging or being enveloped in a certain culture, aesthetic, or emotion.  A strong sense of place can be found at all scales; from large cities such as Paris and Rome, to tiny fishing villages in Maine and ranches in Texas.  Oddly enough, this very authentic sense of place is the exact feeling Disney parks try to capture when they create themed areas like Tomorrowland and Frontierland.  The design of everything from architecture to clothes to food creates a unified sense of place.

Perhaps the simplest way of expressing the idea of a sense of place, is by the phrase, "When in Rome..."

In this case, perhaps it should be, "When it's the Holidays..."  It is a wonderful season filled with lots of traditions and memories.  The holiday season is perhaps a perfect example and model of a well-formed sense of time and place.  Its sense of place has developed slowly over time; through many hands, from many different places.  It is a blending of cultures.  It is a time and place where nostalgia should be fully embraced.  Now, I think I might go listen to Bing Crosby and finish wrapping some presents...I might even drink some eggnog.

Happy Holidays everyone!