Americans’ Quest for the Christmas of Their Childhoods

Nostalgia isn’t just a feeling—it’s a commodity.


On an icy Maine pond one December morning, Chester Greenwood, a 15-year-old boy with oversized ears, was freezing. He cut a few strokes on his new skates before the ear-piercing cold became unbearable. Turning back to his grandmother’s farmhouse kitchen, a sudden inspiration blazed against the chill. The boy gathered a few scraps of farm wire, beaver fur, and cloth. In a moment, he fashioned a solution for the long winter cold: earmuffs.

Each Christmas, the residents of Farmington, Maine, have this story ready for visitors, along with plenty of earmuffs for sale at the local department store. The 140-year-old tale of Chester Greenwood plays to a nostalgic itch that locals, and visitors, reliably develop each holiday season. In Farmington, buying a pair of earmuffs is a cheery way to indulge in a yearning for the past.

To complain that Christmas has become commercialized is almost its own seasonal ritual. But what Americans have historically wanted to buy most is a connection to an idealized past.

Farmington, which bills itself as the “Earmuff Capital of the World,” is a particularly charming example of commercialized nostalgia in modern times. Even though the December weather was relatively balmy for Farmington’s Chester Greenwood Day parade this year, earmuffs were everywhere: on teenagers dressed up as Frozen’s Elsa, on an all-male juggling troupe, and even on things without ears— including a sign on Main Street and several police cars.

According to Penny Merservier, the parade’s coordinator and the executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, Chester Greenwood Day marks “the kickoff to the holiday season and winter wear.” If lumping “winter wear” in with “holiday season” sounds a bit commercial, well, it is—the town’s department store sees 30 times its usual earmuff sales over parade weekend. “The day creates a market,” says Gary Cross, author of Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism. “But it also creates an identity—it gives a town that’s maybe a shell of what it once was a moment of restoration and community.”

Ronald Greenwood, a great-grandson of Chester Greenwood, models a pair of ear protectors in his barn in Farmington, Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty / AP)

Indeed, earmuff production in Farmington is no more. Tourism is now the state’s main industry, and one of its only growing sectors. At its peak, Chester Greenwood’s downtown factory was producing 400,000 earmuffs a year and employed numerous residents. Today, it’s been repurposed into a community hall, and the local department store buys its earmuffs from out of state.

But that hasn’t stopped Farmington from holding an annual commemoration anyway. “A lot of times celebrations are really about what people wish they had,” Cross says.

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Today, the word “nostalgia” carries positive, daydreamy associations, but it was coined to refer to experiences that were terrifying and sad. In the 1600s, soldiers far from home during the Thirty Years War exhibited inexplicable signs of melancholy and homesickness, and some were driven to the point of suicide. The Swiss physician Johannes Hofer was the first to use the word—combining two Greek words for “pain” and “homecoming”—in 1688. In subsequent wars across Europe, nostalgia manifested as listlessness, depression, and loss of appetite. Military doctors and generals suggested the mysterious, and apparently contagious, “disease” could be cured through shaming, death threats, or simply death.

Pure nostalgia hurts—people only feel it when they are displaced, and acutely aware of what they’re missing. The sensation didn’t stay confined to soldiers for very long. In the mid-18th century, the Industrial Revolution disrupted familiar agrarian rhythms. With urbanization came new anxieties—seasonal festivals, and all the social meaning embedded in them, lost their importance, and a newly mechanized society created a class of people dislocated from their own context and heritage. Nostalgia spread to mass culture, and it carried a different pain—instead of just longing for a place, it now also meant a longing for a different time.

In the new industrial age, notes Karal Ann Marling, the author of Merry Christmas! Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday, “without the rhythms of the agricultural year to signal the turning of the seasons, city dwellers relied on merchandise in the shops to tell them when Christmas was coming.” In the 1800s, retailers in New England began selling greenery during Christmastime as a midwinter reminder of life in the countryside. They quickly discovered that city dwellers had a social appetite for remembering rural life, whether or not they’d actually experienced it themselves. Christmas trees gained popularity, as the idea of plucky young men cutting down and bundling pines was enough to evoke a natural and pure existence—romantic, contained, familiar. Soon, the same impulse popularized mistletoe.

In 1843, Charles Dickens’ wildly successful A Christmas Carol—with its joyful vision of the past, and a nervous window into the future—came to set the holiday’s nostalgic tone. By the end of the century, the iconic cardmakers Currier and Ives were mass-producing wintry rural scenes of cheer and charm, crystallizing a holiday aesthetic that reflected a “better,” pre-industrialized time in America.

“There’s a huge need for a massive commercial season,” says Gary Cross. And since Christmas’s associations had come to be so powerful, it was the natural day to anchor such a season. What is today a $600-billion seasonal industry, rooted in an anxiety about change and a yearning for a simpler world, was born.

Marling notes the “contradictory desires” of American consumers, who want an “an old-fashioned but thoroughly modern” holiday. Most Christmas accessories today are reliable callbacks to a bygone time, whether of the old-timey variety (sleigh bells, chestnuts, wassail, carols), or of 1960s-era synthetics (tinsel, toy trains, toy villages). That goes for music and movies, too: “White Christmas,” Irving Berlin’s 1941 song about longing for home, remains the best-selling worldwide single of all time.

The nostalgia of Christmas is in part a way to subsume fears of the future—today, the middle class is struggling, terrorism and poverty seem intractable, and mass shootings and xenophobia are commonplace—in a yearning for the past. “It’s a trend throughout history, to take one tradition and add new ones onto it until it becomes so encrusted that no one really knows what it was,” says Cross. “Christmas is a highly encrusted phenomenon.”

For many Christians, the celebration of Christmas comes as a resolution to the season of Advent, a time of hope and waiting. Perhaps to a lesser extent, the same is true for more secular celebrants and consumers at large, for whom the holiday is the conclusion of a marathon shopping season.

For just about everyone, though, those feelings of completion and wonder were likely strongest growing up. In some ways, Christmas may be less about the Christ child and more about longing for one’s own childhood. It’s a season of reassurance in the swirl of modern change—an earnest desire for everything to be well. “Christmas is a time when utter perfection seems within human reach,” writes Marling, and familiar Christmas scenes, whether tiny Dickens-esque villages or a local earmuff parade, “publicly stress the magical ability to control reality, or create a fantasy that does it one better.”

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My visit to Farmington earlier this month was also about nostalgia. I went to the Chester Greenwood Day parade more than once when I was in college—the first time, I was on a date, an early one in a sweet relationship. I was in a new state, in a small town, living on my own terms, for the first time. Coming back now feels like returning to where my young adulthood began.

I know a key part of the Chester Greenwood story is a myth. He didn’t actually invent the earmuffs—his patent is for a small spring that makes earmuffs collapsible. But here’s the story I’ll remember: This December, I drove back to Farmington, Maine, bought a pair of fluffy red and black earmuffs, and went to the Chester Greenwood Day parade. Watching the floats come down Main Street, I was hit with a double dose of sweet, painful nostalgia—for my college years, when I first tasted the world beyond my home, and for my own childhood, when I still felt the unbridled wonder of Christmas. For that, a $4.99 pair of earmuffs is worth it.