Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A few thoughts on traditions and Christmas (and some personal memories)

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With Christmas upon us, I find myself thinking about traditions* again. This especially with regard to the Christmas traditions of my childhood, in light of this being the first Christmas after the death of my mother.

*Mostly in the limited sense of things that e.g. are done once a year on the same day or in a certain special manner, and as opposed to the other senses, say the ones in “literary tradition” and “traditional role” .

It has, admittedly, been quite a long while since I “came home for Christmas”, as she would have put it, and, frankly, the circumstances of my family had made Christmases at my mother’s hard for me to enjoy long before that. However, while the practical effect is not very large for me, there is still a psychological difference through the knowledge that some possibilities are permanently gone, that some aspects of those Christmases would be extremely hard to recreate—even aside from the obvious absence of my mother, herself. Take Christmas dinner: Even following the same recipes, different people can end up with different results, and chances are that even a deliberate attempt to recreate “her” version would be at best a poor* approximation—just like it was an approximation of what her mother used to make (and my father’s draws strongly on his childhood Christmas dinners). There is simply yet another connection with those Christmases of old that has been cut. In fact, when I think back on the most memorable, most magical, most wonderful Christmases, there are two versions that pop into my head:

*Note that a poor approximation does not automatically imply a poor effort. The point is rather that there are certain tastes and smells that can be important to us for reasons like familiarity and associations with certain memories, and that there can come a point when they are no longer available. I need look no further than my father to find a better cook than my mother, be it at Christmas or on a weekday; however, his cooking is different, just like his signature is—and even if he deliberately tried to copy her signature, the differences would merely grow smaller.

The first, predating my parents divorce, with loving and (tautologically) still married parents, a tree with a certain set of decorations, in the apartment we used to live in, and a sister too young to be a nuisance or even to properly figure in my recollections. I remember particularly how I, possibly around four or five years of age, used to spend hours* sitting next to the tree, staring at and playing with the decorations, and listening to a certain record with Christmas songs**. There was one or several foldable “balls” that I used to fold and unfold until the parents complained, and that fascinated me to no end. I have no idea whether the record and decorations exist anymore, we moved from the apartment almost forty years ago, the parents are long divorced—and I am, obviously, a very different person from what I was back then. With my mother dead, Father is the only remaining connection—and my associations with him and Christmas have grown dominated by those Christmases I spent with him as a teenager. (Which in many ways were great, but could not possibly reach the magic and wonder Christmas holds to a small child.)

*Well, it might have been considerably less—I really had no sense of time back then.

**In a twist, my favorite was a Swedish semi-translation of “White Christmas” by the title “Jag drömmer om en jul hemma”—“I’m dreaming of a Christmas back home”.

The second, likely* post-divorce and living in Kopparberg, where my maternal grand-parents resided, featured a setting in the grand-parents house and the addition of said grand-parents and my uncle and his family to the dramatis personae. Well, the house is torn down, most or all of the furniture and whatnots are gone, the grand-parents are both dead, and on the uncle’s side they started to celebrate separately relatively soon (and I was obviously never as close with them as with my parents or grand-parents). Again, I am a very different person, and with Mother dead, there is virtually no connection left.

*With the long time gone by and my young age, I cannot rule out that some pre-divorce Christmas also fell into this category.

However, memory lane is just the preparatory road, not the destination, today. The core of this post are two, somewhat overlapping, aspects of most traditions that I find interesting:

  1. What we consider traditional is to a very large part based on our own childhood experiences, both in terms of what is considered a tradition at all and what is considered the right tradition. Comparing e.g. my Christmases with my father and mother post-divorce, they had different preferences in both food and decorations* that often (cf. above) went back to their own childhoods. Similarly, U.S. fiction sometimes shows a heated argument over “star on top” vs. “angel on top” (and similar conflicts)—let us guess which of the parties were used to what as children…

    *Although some of the difference in decorations might be based less in preference and more in inheritance of specific objects.

    As for the very young me, I often latched on to something that happened just once or twice as a tradition, being disappointed when the “tradition” did not continue, say when the paternal grand-mother came visiting and did not bring the expected little marzipan piglet.

    Indeed, many traditions simply “run in the family”, and are not the universal and universally central part of, e.g., a Christmas celebration that a child might think. I recall visiting another family at a young age, thanking for dinner like my parents had taught me, and being highly confused when their daughter laughed at me. With hindsight, I cannot blame her: The phrase, “tack för maten och kamraten” (roughly “thanks for the food and the friend”), makes no sense, and is likely something my parents just found to be a funny rhyme—it is certainly not something I can recall having heard anywhere else.

    Even those traditions that go beyond the family can still be comparatively limited, e.g. to a geographical area. Christmas it self has no global standard (even apart from the differentiation into the “Christ is born” and “time for presents and Christmas trees/decorations/food” celebrations). There are, for instance, weird, barbaric countries where they celebrate on the 25th and eat Christmas turkey instead of doing the civilized thing and celebrating on the 24th with Christmas ham. The “Modern Family” episode dealing with the first joint U.S.–Columbian Christmas gives several interesting examples, and demonstrates well how one set of traditions can be weird-bordering-on-freakish to followers of another set of traditions.

  2. Traditions, even those that are nation wide, can be comparably short-lived. Christmas, again, is a great source of examples, with even e.g. the Christmas trees and Santa Clause being comparatively modern introductions, especially in countries that they have spread to secondarily. One of the most important Swedish traditions, for instance, is Disney’s From All of Us to All of You*—first airing in 1960 and becoming a virtually instant tradition, often topping the list of most watched programs of the year.

    *While this might seem extremely surprising, it can pay to bear in mind that Swedish children were starved for animation for most of the remaining year, making the yearly showing the more special. Also note the slow development of Swedish TV, with the original broadcast taking place in a one-channel system, and a two-channel system being in place until well into the 1980s—implying that the proportion of children (and adults) watching was inevitably large. That a TV broadcast of a movie or similar becomes a tradition is, obviously, not without precedent, even if rarely to that degree, with e.g. “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street” being prominent U.S. examples; and e.g. “Dinner for One” being a New Year’s example in several European countries.

    The entire concept of the U.S.-style Halloween is another interesting example, even when looking just at the U.S. and children (related historical traditions notwithstanding), but the more so when we look at adult dress-ups or the expansion to other countries, including going from zero to something semi-big in Germany within, possibly, the last ten to fifteen years. Fortunately, we are not yet at the point where we have to worry about children knocking on doors and demanding candy, but this might just be a question of time.

    Many traditions, in a somewhat wider sense, are even bound to the relatively short eras of e.g. a certain technology or other external circumstance. Consider, again, TV*: It only became a non-niche phenomenon in the 1950s (possibly even 1960s in Sweden); it was the worlds most dominant medium and one of the most important technologies by the 1980s, at the latest; and by 2017 its demise within possibly as little as a decade seems likely, with the Internet already having surpassed it for large parts of the population. By implication, most traditions that somehow involve a TV can safely be assumed to measure their lives in no more than decades. (Often far less, since many will fall into the “runs in the family” category.) If I ever have children and grand-children (living in Sweden), will they watch “From All of Us to All of You”, punctually at 3 P.M. on December 24th? The children might; but the grand-children almost certainly will not—there is unlikely to even be a broadcast in the current sense. (And even if one exists, the competition from other entertainment might be too large.) Looking in the other direction, my parents might have, but my grand-parents (as children) certainly did not—even TV, it self, was no more than a foreign experiment (and the program did not exist).

    *It is a little depressing, how many traditions in my family have revolved around food and TV—and I doubt that we were exceptional.

    Similarly, how is a traditional cup of coffee made? Well, for most of my life, in both Germany and Sweden, my answer would have been to put a filter in the machine, coffee in the filter, water in the tank, and then press the power button—for a drip brew. However, the pre-dominance of this mode of preparation (even in its areas of popularity) has been short, possibly starting in the 1970s and already being overtaken by various other (often proprietary) technologies like the Nespresso or the Dolce Gusto. The dominant rule might have been less than 30, certainly less than 40 years. Before that, other technologies were more popular, and even outright boiling of coffee in a stove pot might have been the standard within living memory*. Possibly, the next generation will see “my” traditional cup of coffee as an exotic oddity; while the preceding generations might have seen it as a new-fangled is-convenient-but-not-REAL-coffee.

    *My maternal grand-mother (and several other family members) was heavily involved with the Salvation Army. For the larger quantities of coffee needed for their gatherings, she boiled coffee as late as, possibly, the 1990s. While I do not really remember the taste in detail, there was certainly nothing wrong with it—and it certainly beats the Senseo I experimented with some ten years ago.

All of this runs contrary to normal connotations of a tradition—something very lengthy and, preferably, widely practiced. Such traditions certainly exist; going to church on Sunday being a prime example, stretching over hundreds of years and, until the last few decades, most of the population of dozens of countries. However, when we normally speak of traditions, it really does tend to be something more short-lived and more localized. I have e.g. heard adults speak of the “tradition” of dining at a certain restaurant when visiting a certain city—after just several visits… (It could, obviously, be argued that this is just sloppy use of language; however, even if I agreed, it would not change the underlying points.)

Excursion on other areas and nationalism:
Of course, these phenomena are not limited to traditions, but can also include e.g. national or other group characteristics. A common fear among Swedish nationalists (with similarities in other countries) concern the disappearance of the Swedish “identity” (or similar)—but what is this identity? More to the point, is the identity that I might perceive in 2017 the same that one of my parents or grand-parents might have perceived in 1967? Great-grand-parents in 1917? There have been a lot of changes not just in traditions, since then, but also in society, education, values, wealth, work environments, spare time activities (not to mention amount of spare time…), etc., and, to me, it borders on the inconceivable that the image of “identity” has remained the same when we jump 50 or 100 years*. Or look, by analogy, at the descriptions of the U.S. “generations”: While these are, obviously, generalizations and over-simplifications, it is clear that even the passing of a few decades can lead to at least a severely modified “identity”.

*Looking at reasonably modern times. In older times, with slower changes, this was might have been different. (I use “might”, because a lot can happen in such a time frame; and, at least in historical times, there was always something going on over such time intervals, be it war, plague, religious schisms, …, that potentially could have lead to similar variations.)

I strongly suspect that what some nationalists fear is actually losing the familiar and/or what matches a childhood impression: When I think back on Sweden, I often have an idealized image dominated by youthful memories, and this is usually followed with a wish to preserve something like that for eternity, the feeling that this is how the world should be, and this is what everyone should be allowed to experience. While I am rational enough to understand both that this idealized image never matched reality, even back then, and that it there are many other idealized images that would be equally worthy or unworthy, I can still very well understand those who draw the wrong conclusions and would make the preservation a too high priority.


Written by michaeleriksson

December 24, 2017 at 7:37 pm

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  1. […] In the first game of the European Championships came the ultimate blow: A humiliating loss against dwarf country Iceland… I wrote off the rest of the Championship, reflecting on how sadly similar things had happened in tennis and table tennis, and noting how well this matched some of my thoughts on how short-lived traditions actually often are and how the world can change from what we know in our formative days. (Cf. my Christmas post.) […]

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