Share this article

print logo

How to create lasting holiday memories

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,” said Lee Kehoe, a licensed counselor in Rochester. “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.”

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. “Some of our most meaningful family traditions can come from the simplest acts of togetherness,” said Esther Benoit, a family counselor in Williamsburg, Va.

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,” said Alison Preston, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Texas.

When rituals involve the whole family and are repeated each year, a “gist memory” is formed, said Kehoe, which means someone may not be able to place a memory specifically in time or remember specific “peripheral” details.

Things that surprise are important. 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., said that if that “memory” is meaningful to you – or to your child, 20 or 30 years from now – the gist is enough.


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.