Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘traditions

The effects of our base-line on perception / Follow-up: A few thoughts on traditions and Christmas

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Traditions [1] were the topic for a Christmas text last year. In the almost exactly one year since then, I have again and again noted various overlaps with the sub-topic of our perception of normality. More specifically, it seems that there is a point of “normality”, where something becomes so familiar that we do not notice or reflect upon it, or where we experience it highly differently from less familiar phenomena and/or from how others experience the same phenomenon.

A few examples:

  1. As children, I and my sister often stayed for prolonged times at our maternal grand-mother’s. She declined many wishes for pasta and rice with the argument that “we already had that once this week”—but had no qualms about using boiled* potatoes as the “staple” five to seven times a week. In all likelihood, she genuinely** did not perceive the paradox in this argumentation, being so used to potatoes that they were a standard part of any meal***—just like the glass of milk.

    *Mashed or fried potatoes happened on occasion; I am not certain whether she ever served French fries.

    **To which should be noted that she was not very bright—others might have been more insightful even in the face of ingrained eating habits. Unfortunately, back then, I took it to be just another case of dishonest adult “argumentation”.

    ***She was born in 1924 and grew up with a very different diet from even what I (1975) did, let alone what some born today will. Indeed, left to her own devices, deviations from boiled potatoes were more likely to have been e.g. kåldolmar (cabbage rolls) or rotmos (a rutabaga mash with some admixture of potatoes(!) and carrots) than rice or pasta.

    Consider similarly my own caffeine habits*: I drink large amounts of black coffee—no sugar, no milk, no cream, … This despite originally not liking the taste. When it comes to tea, I have tried repeatedly to use it as a substitute, but within a week or two of a cup a day, the experiment always ends, because I do not like the taste.** I have used e.g. Nespresso and Dulce Gusto machines, but eventually grew tired of the taste and returned to drip-brews. Similarly, when I ordered coffee in restaurants, I used to take the opportunity to have an espresso or a cappuccino—today, I almost invariably order a “regular” coffee. What is the difference, especially since I did not originally enjoy coffee? Simply this: I have drunk so much of it that it has become a taste norm. Tea does not have that benefit and other variations of coffee are implicitly measured as deviations from that norm. The latter might even taste better in the short term, but then I simply “grow tired” of the taste.

    *Also see parts of [1] and of a text on prices.

    **In fairness to tea: I have so far always used tea bags—some claim that they are a poor substitute for tea leaves.

    This item has some overlap with (but is not identical too) the concept of “an acquired taste”.

  2. Why does boy-meets-girl feel less hackneyed than childhood-friends-fall-in-love? (Cf. an excursion in [2].) Well, the former is so common that it does not register in the same way as the latter—despite the paradox. Or take teenage-girl-and-much-much-older-vampire-fall-in-love: Only a very small minority of all works of fiction has this theme, and it would likely amount to a minority even of the vampire genre. Still, it feels so hackneyed that my reaction typically is “not this shit AGAIN—I will watch something else”. A higher degree of rarity can even increase the perceived hackneyedness, because the concept registers more strongly.* Beyond a certain rarity limit, the recognition factor might be so large that the automatic reaction is not “hackneyed” but “plagiarized”…

    *However, another partial explanation can be that a theme has still not been explored enough, leaving works using a certain concept too similar. For instance, the overall vampire genre is much more diverse today than in the hey-days of Christopher Lee, because so many new variations of the theme have been tried over time—“vampire movie” does no longer automatically imply scary castles, big capes, the surreptitious biting of sleeping maidens, or similar.

  3. Virtually every generation complains about the music of the following generations. To some degree this can be due to actual falling quality (e.g. through increased commercialization or a shift of focus from music-on-the-radio to exotic-dancing-on-TV) or a greater filtering of old music (where only the great hits have survived); however, a major part is the base-line that we are used to (likely coupled with nostalgia). Notably, the hit music of a certain period appears to fall mostly into just several fairly specific genres, with a great internal similarity in “sound”. Those who grow up* with a certain sound will tend to see it as a norm, be more likely to be estranged by newer genres and be more able to differentiate within and appreciate the old genres. (Hence complaints like “it all sounds the same”.)

    *In my impression, most people listen to more music and more intensely in their youth than at higher ages, and they might be more easily malleable to boot (be it for biological reasons or because the prior exposure has been lower). However, I suspect that amount of exposure is more important than age.

    A similar effect is almost certainly present between contemporaneous genres that differ considerably.

  4. As a small child, I somehow got into a discussion with my parents as to why the clock on the kitchen wall was not audibly ticking. They claimed that it was, but I could not hear anything. On their insistence, I spent a short period listening intently—and there it was! I was simply so used to the sound that it had not registered with me, until I deliberately tried to hear it…

    In an interesting contrast, I often found the antique wall-clocks at both my father’s and my maternal grand-mother’s so annoying that I used to stop them—in turn, slightly annoying my respective hosts. This might at least partially have been due to my base-line being “tickless”; however, they were also much louder than the (modern) kitchen-clock, and might also have had a more irregular or prolonged sound. (The antiques used an entirely mechanical, crude-by-modern-standards clockwork with pendulums and whatnots; the kitchen-clock had a modern clockwork, ran on a battery, and likely used a balance wheel.)

    As an aside, this points to the risk that isolating one-self from disturbances can lead to an increased sensitivity to the disturbances that do occur, while increased exposure can bring greater tolerance—a dilemma that I have long struggled with as someone sensitive to noise. An extreme example is present in the movie “The Accountant”, in which the autistic protagonist deliberately exposes himself to very loud noises, strobing lights, and physical pain during shorter intervals, apparently trying to increase his tolerance. (I caution that said movie did not strike me as overly realistic.)

  5. When I lived in Sweden, German seemed a fairly ugly language with too strong (in some sense) pronunciations of many sounds (including “r” and “s”). After twenty years in Germany, it sounds just fine, while I am often struck by Swedish as bland and lacking in character. Back then, I heard how German differed from Swedish; today, I hear how Swedish differs from German.

    English is somewhere in between and has not struck me in the same way. However, it is notable that TV and movies have left me with a U.S. base-line, in that I mostly (mis-)register U.S. English as “without an accent”,* while e.g. any version of British English comes across as British**. This is the odder, since I actually consider (some versions of) British English more pleasant to the ear and have a tendency to drift in the “English English” direction, or even towards amateurish pseudo-RP, on those rare occasions that I actually speak English.

    *But many versions of U.S. English stand out as non-standard, including the heavy Southern ones.

    **Often with a more specific sub-classification, e.g. “standard”, Cockney, Irish, Scottish; in some cases, as something that I recognize as a specific accent but am unable to place geographically. (The same can happen with U.S. dialects, but is much rarer—possibly, because British English is more diverse.)

Outside of examples like the above, there are at least two areas that might be at least partially relevant and/or over-lapping: Firstly, opinion corridors and similar phenomena. Secondly, various physical phenomena, e.g. drug resistance, specificity of training, or how the human body reacts to cold: Apparently, Eskimos “in the wild” have the ability to work without gloves in freezing temperatures for prolonged times without ill-effects, pain, whatnot—but a few years in “civilization” make them lose this ability. Allegedly, Tierra del Fuego natives have (had) the ability to sleep almost naked in free air at low (but not freezing) temperatures, while the typical Westerner can feel cold at a little below room temperature without a duvet. I have myself witnessed two or three Westerners who walk around in t-shirt and shorts all year round (in Sweden and/or Germany—not Florida), at least one of which made the papers for this habit—he claimed that the body adapts* if one can push through the early discomfort.

*The exact nature of those adaptions are beyond my current knowledge, but at least some of them likely relate to how fast the body switches from a low-isolation to a high-isolation state and how strong the isolation becomes. That this is trainable to some degree can be easily verified through only taking cold showers for a few weeks and noting how strongly the discomfort is reduced in that time frame. Increase of “brown fat” likely also plays in.

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Written by michaeleriksson

December 21, 2018 at 9:27 pm

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