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When I moved to Europe, I could for the first time experience Christmas in the wintertime. Although it didn’t snow, for the first time I stayed indoors during the celebration, close to a heater and wearing a warm sweater. The most striking part about all that change is that it didn’t feel weird. I had spent 15 Christmases barbecuing in the sun. How was a sudden change like that not all that strange? Instead of that unsettling feeling of change, I actually felt it was quite right. Christmas should be cold and cosy, with hot cocoa and a fluffy blanket. But why?

Then I started thinking of what sorts of representations of Christmas I had been fed my whole life. My representation of Christmas came from Christmas trees. These are usually pine or spruce, which are conifer. If you look at the map to see where they grow, you will be – not so – surprised to discover that they cannot really be found in the tropical rain forests or grassland of Brazil. My idea of Christmas came from the movies playing on TV around that time of the year: Home Alone, Barbie in the Nutcracker, Love Actually, etc…

The construction of the modern Christmas celebration is very visual. The Holiday as we know it, the traditions and ideas that we have around it, date from the middle of the 19th century. And, as always, the new idea of Christmas was built around and manifested in artistic productions. Novels about the Holiday at the time conveyed the idea of plenitude, conviviality, family and winter snow. Plenty of illustrations accompanied these stories. The example par excellence of this phenomenon is A Christmas Carol by Dickens. It suffices a look in the book to know that Christmas is a time of the year when people should be joyful. Of course, the author carried a heavy social critique in all his stories that today have shifted their connotation to a contemporary morality: it is no longer about social injustice, but about the values that the date represents.

Although Anglophone oriented, the modern Christmas was born out of a syncretism of different European cultures. The trees came from Germany; the stockings are of Dutch origins; the Christmas cards were passed by the British; Santa Claus is an American product. Towards the beginning of the 20th century, the image of modern Santa Claus was shaped and spread. Several brands used the figure during winter campaigns. The most notorious one I believe we all know: Coca Cola. Little by little, the character inspired by Saint Nicholas was associated with a domestic warm setting that contrasted the cold outside. It became a widely popular campaign. It was part of the strategy to expand the brand globally. And it worked.

After the Second World War, it was Hollywood that made sure to dominate this visual industry by producing Christmas movies. The structure of the films is easily identifiable. Those who are not in the Christmas spirit are the characters who will go through a transformation by the end (think of The Grinch, the residents at Halloween town in The Nightmare Before Christmas or George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life), or those who don’t understand what Christmas really is are the antagonists of the story (the mayor in The Grinch, the Wet Bandits in Home Alone). Besides, the films usually show a tension between materialism and a more spiritual understanding of Christmas. Although giving gifts is shown as ‘not what Christmas is really about’, it is always validated somehow. If you understand the conviviality, love and social values of the Holiday, it gives you a free pass to the materialistic part of the whole event.

Even if Christmas has long lost its purely Christian nature, the religious background is carried on. The grudges we have to let go around that time of the year are very closely related to the Christian concept of forgiveness, for example. Research has shown that in the United States, the growing popularity and, one might say, secularization of the holiday celebration pushed, for example, Hanukkah to adapt. What used to be a minor religious holiday became a major one that adopted certain practices of Christmas to survive. And if you do some more research, you will see the number of alternative celebrations during this time of the year, either incorporating known practices or going against commercialism. The common aspect underling these phenomena is the acknowledgment of how huge and important Christmas has become.

It is very clear why despite my childhood reality I still associated Christmas with winter. And that is not really the problem, it is just a season. The problem is that Christmas traditions underlie a more global dynamic of European and American realities being the models that we follow regardless of our actual lived experiences. I caught myself this year normalizing Christmas to only then realize that many people who haven’t been raised in that culture feel pressured to celebrate a Holiday that is not part of their lives.

This fascinated me: the power the representations around us have in shaping our understanding of reality.

And it should fascinate you too. I’m not saying that you should stop celebrating the holidays if you do it. But next year maybe instead of asking “What are you doing for Christmas?”, you could ask “Do you celebrate Christmas?”. You might discover a whole new reality if you turn off your holiday spirit for a bit.

Designed by Nina Gueorguieva

Do you want to double-check the information you just received? Here are the sources the writer used.

Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture by Sheila Whiteley

A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish by Joshua Eli Plaut

Now You Know Christmas: The Little Book of Answers by Doug Lennox