On the arbitrariness of holidays

Here in Toronto we’re caught squarely in the middle of the holiday season, Christmas five days past and New Year’s Day just over twenty-four hours away as I type. Living outside of the gemeinschaft culture of Prince Edward Island where I grew up, I’ve been particularly conscious of the constructed nature of the holiday season’s particular rites, about how the holidays requires extensive planning. This year, I was struck by Jeremy Stahl’s article in Slate describing how a series of Disney sketches starring Donald Duck–Kalle Anka in Swedish–are a Christmas staple in Sweden.

Kalle Anka [. . .] has been airing without commercial interruption at the same time on Sweden’s main public-television channel, TV1, on Christmas Eve (when Swedes traditionally celebrate the holiday) since 1959. The show consists of Jiminy Cricket presenting about a dozen Disney cartoons from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, only a couple of which have anything to do with Christmas. There are “Silly Symphonies” shorts and clips from films like Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and The Jungle Book. The special is pretty much the same every year, except for the live introduction by a host (who plays the role of Walt Disney from the original Walt Disney Presents series) and the annual addition of one new snippet from the latest Disney-produced movie, which TV1’s parent network, SVT, is contractually obligated by Disney to air.

Kalle Anka is typically one of the three most popular television events of the year, with between 40 and 50 percent of the country tuning in to watch. In 2008, the show had its lowest ratings in more than 15 years but was still taken in by 36 percent of the viewing public, some 3,213,000 people. Lines of dialogue from the cartoons have entered common Swedish parlance. Stockholm’s Nordic Museum has a display in honor of the show in an exhibit titled “Traditions.” Each time the network has attempted to cancel or alter the show, public backlash has been swift and fierce.

[. . .]

The show’s cultural significance cannot be understated. You do not tape or DVR Kalle Anka for later viewing. You do not eat or prepare dinner while watching Kalle Anka. Age does not matter—every member of the family is expected to sit quietly together and watch a program that generations of Swedes have been watching for 50 years. Most families plan their entire Christmas around Kalle Anka, from the Smörgåsbord at lunch to the post-Kalle visit from Jultomten. “At 3 o’clock in the afternoon, you can’t to do anything else, because Sweden is closed,” Lena Kättström Höök, a curator at the Nordic Museum who manages the “Traditions” exhibit, told me. “So even if you don’t want to watch it yourself, you can’t call anyone else or do anything else, because no one will do it with you.”

To Kättström Höök, Sweden’s affection for Kalle Anka is tied up with older holiday traditions. “It’s the dream of the old peasant village before people moved to towns,” she said. “Kalle Anka is almost like gathering around the fire in old times and listening to fairy tales.”

But how did these tales become part of Sweden’s folklore? It was largely an accident of history, specifically the history of television in Sweden. The show first aired in 1959, when Swedes were just starting to own televisions. “You couldn’t have done this in 1970,” said Charlotte Hagström, an ethnology professor at Lund University and archivist of the university’s Folk Life Archives. “It had to be 1960 when television was new.” The fact that there was only one channel in Sweden until 1969 and only two—both public-service stations run by Sweden’s equivalent of the BBC—until 1987 helped, too. As did the fact that, for years, Christmas was the only time when Swedes could see Disney animation—or any American cartoons—on television.

Kalle Anka–seemingly arbitrary, yet still significant–is just one element. Rebecca Morrison wrote in the Times of London about how the “German Christmas” is a 19th century product of a modernizing German nation-state.

The celebration emerged from the nineteenth-century “family parlours of enlightened aristocrats and bourgeois intellectuals”, still reeling from the Napoleonic Wars, its central traditions, such as the Christmas tree, the products of the primarily Protestant milieu which ensured Luther’s translations of Luke’s verses became the Christmas story for millions of Germans. It was a society in search of a universal German identity and the gentle domesticity of a private sphere. In his The Nutcracker and the Mouse-King (1816), E. T. A. Hoffmann captured both salon mood and German Romantic yearning for “a magical but vanished childhood . . . the hidden but intense realm of the senses . . . romantic love and friendship, [and] a mystical and sensuous appreciation of nature”.

The Nutcracker, with its fanciful reenactment of the Franco–Prussian War, also highlighted the role the military played in the “German” Christmas. The term “War Christmas” first referred to the soldiers’ celebration during the Siege of Paris in 1871. Military toys became a popular addition to presents beneath the tree, as detailed in the 1835 carol by Hoffmann von Fallersleben (writer of the words to the German national anthem):

Drums, fifes and rifles,
Flags and sabres and still more
An entire army right for war,
That’s what I really want!

A burst of creativity in the nineteenth century brought the body of carols still sung today (some would be rewritten in subsequent decades to suit the messages of Social Democrats, Communists, or National Socialists) including “Stille Nacht” (1818) and “O Tannenbaum” (1826), while a wide export of “German” traditions ensued. The 1830s saw Christmas boom in the United States; Prince Albert brought the first Christmas tree to Britain in 1840; and by the 1880s, the majority of the world’s Christmas cards were made in Germany.

Perry returns time and again to the emergence of the idea that Christmas had roots in some ancient German past. The Protestant theologian Johannes Marbach wrote in 1858 “the Tannenbaum spanned pagan and Christian time, representing a nation with historical traditions extending back to the prehistoric . . . The winter solstice [heralded] a new era for the German Volk, the beginning of new life after the freezing winter night”: a compelling metaphor for political renewal and revolution, and a lesson not lost on future Nazi propagandists who would highlight the alleged racial superiority of the ancient Germanic tribes.

“Outsider” groups adapted to the national feeling aroused by the celebration. The Breslau historian Willy Cohn commented that “Christmas was not a Christian but rather a German holiday”. This reflected the view of upper-middle-class Jews around 1900, and the emergence of Hanukkah is depicted as a product of the Jewish Enlightenment’s reaction to Christmas.

And in the English-speaking world–at least–Charles Dickens managed to create the entire holiday season, overshadowing Easter and compressing the holiday from twelve days into one or two and making turkey the meat of choice.

All these holiday rites are arbitrary, product of Swedish television broadcasting formats and emergent nationalist movements and hits of popular literature. Had things gone differently–if Sweden went earlier for cable television, or the idea of a new German nation less popular, or Dickens hit by a cab–these elements wouldn’t be around. Present these facts to most people and they’d likely agree that they’re historically contingent. And yet, despite their highly contingent nature, human beings can take great meaning from them and take pleasure in the fact that others will do so, too.

Is it wrong for me to be somewhat reassured by this ability of people to build great and meaningful complexes of ideas of actions? I hope not; I like sharing in the spirit of humanity, in the human enterprise. I’m pleased we can do so much with so little

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One Response to On the arbitrariness of holidays

  1. It also demonstrates the amazing effect happenstances have on our culture.

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