The Washington Post

Forgetting Christmas as memories shift and change

I retain few memories of Christmas as a young child — the Holly Hobby doll “Santa” gave me at age 4, or maybe 5; the soothing sound of Nat King Cole’s voice; the aroma of pancake batter on the griddle. I’m not even sure if these recollections are from a single day or a composite or some combination of real and imagined life.

Memory, especially childhood memory, is tricky that way.

Earlier this year, researchers concluded that children's earliest memories shift and change continually. And, the majority of adults can’t recall anything from when they were 2 or 3 years old.

A crowd gathers in November at the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony near the White House. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

What does that mean for us parents with young children who have devoted much time and expense to creating a holiday season for our kids to remember? Given that they probably won’t remember much, if any, of it, should we have tried so hard?

About a year ago, I came across an answer to this question — or at least one that makes sense to me — in an essay that had nothing to do with parenting. It was about reading and tucked in the back of the New York Times Book Review.

In “The Plot Escapes Me,” James Collins described the common affliction (I suffer from it) of forgetting the details of every book read.

He posed the question, “Why read books if we can’t remember what’s in them?” to Maryanne Wolf, the author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” (Harper, 2007).

Her answer has stuck with me longer than anything else I’ve read:

“There is a difference between immediate recall of facts and an ability to recall a gestalt of knowledge. We can’t retrieve the specifics, but to adapt a phrase of William James’s, there is a wraith of memory. The information you get from a book is stored in networks. We have an extraordinary capacity for storage, and much more is there than you realize. It is in some way working on you even though you aren’t thinking about it.”

“It’s there,” Wolf told Collins. “You are the sum of it all.”

To you and your family, a wish for a holiday so happy there won’t be a need to remember the details. Merry Christmas.

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2011 Holiday Guide: Gift-guides, activities and more


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