The Familiar Strange

A Christmas Anth(rop)ology

For this week’s blog, we decided to each write some thoughts on Christmas, from varied anthropological perspectives. We come at this from the position of people who were born and raised in societies that celebrated Christmas in both secular and religious incarnations. In our desire to write to a more ‘public’ anthropology, we present our reflections as a way of showing how it is not only cultures other than our own that can be viewed through an anthropological lens, but also the ones that we have been raised in ourselves. First, Simon’s appreciation for Christmas social exchanges, which he had previously been disillusioned by, grew after he experienced the festivities away from home. Second, Ian reflects on the values of seeing christmas as a lowercase ritual that can be reshaped rather than idealised. Third, Jodie talks about the difficulties that academics, including anthropologists, have in stepping away from their work identities to be present/fulfil their other identities demanded by holiday time. Finally, Julia attempts to humanise how it is that mental health challenges skyrocket at this time of year in places like Australia, and she frames these around individual and kinship expectations and disappointments. We hope that these different takes might help you to think more curiously about such festivities, as we begin the transition into 2018! 

Simon: “Defending Christmas” (or, why ritual is actually quite nice)

It continues to surprise me that people who spend so much of their lives trying to distill the social worlds of others can find it so difficult to get along in their own social worlds. It’s something of a truism among anthropologists that the reason many get into the discipline is because they feel so out of depth in their own culture they have to find a sense of ‘social’ security in another. In tandem with this seems to be a general rejection of the pivotal rituals and celebrations of the anthropologist’s native culture. A number of academics working in anthropology, despite coming from backgrounds with an established ‘Christmas’ tradition, have told me that they “don’t celebrate Christmas”, choosing to get away, go overseas, or do some more data collection instead.

Until relatively recently, I would have counted myself amongst those people. Christmas sat on a trajectory of events in the ritual cycle that had increasingly lost meaning since my childhood. First Santa was stripped away, and then any semblance of belief in Christianity, until the Julfest sat as just a marker for the end of the year, something that required a frustrating trip to the shopping centre in search of gifts no one was likely to think of more than a week after having received them.

For the Christmases of 2014 and 2015, however, I was out of the country. In 2014 I was in Budapest, and spent Christmas day quietly wandering around the empty streets of the city with my girlfriend. In 2015, we were in Mashhad, Iran. In cities with notable Christian minority populations like Tehran and Esfahan, it was not uncommon to see signs from banks and celebrating solidarity on the occasion with ‘Armenian and Assyrian co-nationals’ [hamvatan-e armani va ashuri], and even shops selling Christmas decorations stripped of their ‘religious’ origins to the Muslim majority. In Mashhad however, with only one boarded up church, Christmas was a non-event, our friends struggling to distinguish between Christmas and New Year.

But Iran takes its own ritual celebrations very seriously. Islamic holidays and periods of mourning like Ashura are major events, while festivities once associated with Zoroastrianism like No-Ruz [New Year] and Shab-e Yalda [the winter solstice] continue to be widely observed among Muslim families, religious and non-religious alike. Despite their lack of knowledge of Christmas, friends encouraged us to make the most of the event. And so we did – decking our small apartment out with probably the greatest profusion of Christmas ornaments (all hand-knitted courtesy of my partner) that had likely ever graced such a small space, and producing the closest thing we could to a proper Christmas meal – pan-fried chicken and a Christmas pudding without alcohol. Friends joined us for photos with tinsel and elf hats.

But what the celebration really convinced me of was the ongoing relevance of ritual events in a yearly cycle. Amidst much talk in America about the so-called “war on Christmas”, and concern that the “true religious meaning” of the event is being stripped away from it, Christmas – like many other festvities – has a sensibility about it that transcends talk of correct interpretation and proper origins. As an undergraduate studying comparative religion, we were encouraged to make sense of ritual on its own terms, not as a kind of stand-in for belief, as a mnemonic for something else, or an empty ‘performance’, and I think this still stands. In Iran, days like Shab-e Yalda and No Ruz provided moments to participate in a sense of social solidarity and a reiteration of a feelings of collective identity that don’t need to be expressly related to questions of belief.

Don’t take this as prescriptive.  Christmas is obviously tough for some (as my co-writers Jodie and Julia make clear below). But for those of us with ‘Christmas heritage’ who might be secular, non-religious, and increasingly wondering what the point of putting up a tree or angels in the windows might be (especially in the southern hemisphere where it’s summer), be content in the satisfaction that rituals can be rituals for their own sake. Let them be, and embrace the opportunity for a sense of community.

Ian: A Merry Lowercase Christmas

As I prepare to attend an Australian Christmas BBQ, with its strange hybrid of northern winter imagery and southern summer heat, I can’t help but grow nostalgic, not for the uppercase Christmases of sleigh bells and carols, but for the secular, lowercase christmases of my youth, which offer their own separate, yet complementary, set of perfect images. That cliché of the lowercase christmas ritual is, I think, pretty well known, even in Australia: it is to gather with the people one shares a home with and would be seeing anyway, go out together for Chinese food, and see a movie.

I don’t know how many people actually follow this ritual, but in the community where I grew up — the Upper West Side of Manhattan — among the secular Jews that populated my nominally Episcopal school, this story of two non-Christian groups living their lives, like they would on any other day, had a Dickensian quality, like the carving of a Christmas Goose. It was an image of holiday perfection that was often evoked, but seldom enacted.  

In practice, this community performed uppercase Christmas in almost every particular. Some Jewish people I knew built gingerbread houses. Some ate hams. They purchased and wrapped gifts, then waited until December 25th to exchange them. They bought large, sweet-scented balsam firs, schlepped them over frozen sidewalks and into low-ceilinged elevators, stood them upright by the living room window, and then merrily decked their boughs with tinsel and baubles. And they set their menorahs thoughtfully apart, so the flames from the evening’s candles wouldn’t set the tree ablaze.

Perhaps the dissonance of those early christmases prepared me for the basic ridiculousness of Christmas in Australia, where the weather is hot, and people celebrate with a combination of English winter comfort foods, like steamed puddings, and a selection of light salads and seafood. Ritual, in the end, is an imitation, an attempt to recreate some ideal moment or image that is, ultimately, inimitable, often because it never existed in any real place. Somewhere, on some rare and imperceptible plane, people are celebrating the Platonic Christmas, with cold weather, a bright fire, and fellowship warmed with generosity and fuelled by brandy and eggnog. On another plane exists the perfect christmas, where the fortune cookies all bring good news, and the movie theater has enough free seats for everyone to sit together. Such perfection is, in this world, out of reach. Without the uppercase C, at least, I feel more free to pursue any christmas image I choose.

Jodie: Being Present for the Presents

Christmas – time to take a break, right? Well, maybe not. Personally, I have simultaneous guilt about the idea of taking time off AND about the consequences to my relationships with family and friends of NOT taking time off, so I’m kind of ‘damned if I do, damned if I don’t’, and that’s a crappy feeling. And if you have a vocation, or a career as opposed to a job, then perhaps you can relate.

So why is it so difficult for some of us to turn off at the holidays? There are plenty of people in the world who would find this question completely crazy, and I would posit that those people do not define themselves via their work. However, people who have a career, or who consider their work to be what Nigel Rapport would call their ‘life project’, often DO define themselves via their work, and derive personal satisfaction from doing so, so to move away from that during the holiday season can be a tricky thing.

Why tricky? Well, in anthropology, we generally define identity as being relational – in other words, we construct our identities from moment to moment in response to (and often in collaboration with) the people and context around us at the time. Anthropology generally also holds that individuals can constitute multiple identities – employee, colleague, parent, child, sibling, friend etc, but some of these will come more comfortably, feel more natural and familiar, than others.

At Christmas, the expectation that one will be ‘fully present’ in fact requires one to commit to a single identity – as a family member, or sometimes a friend – but certainly not any kind of ‘inappropriate’ identity, such as ‘anthropologist’ for example, as this implies that the appropriate ‘you’ is not ‘fully present’ (plus, family members don’t seem to like it when they think you are studying them at family gatherings). But what if the identity your family wants you to bring to Christmas is not your preferred identity? The one that makes you feel good about being you? Then it may take some work, negotiating between the needs of your family members and your own need to feel good about yourself, while also having your identity reflected back at you via people who see you very differently than how you see yourself.

Julia: Kinship Re-kindling, “Too Much Relativity” (and a call to be kind)

Questions of kinship have long concerned anthropologists, including how significantly our kin shape our sense of ‘self’, and how rituals like Christmas and the relationality that comes with being part of a kinship network play out. When we say ‘kin’, we don’t just mean blood relations, although these are perhaps the most sticky. During my fieldwork with schizophrenia patients, a cheeky phrase that my grandfather used applied nicely with some of their experiences as well:  “Too much relativity”. That is, when the number of relatives and the intensity of family time causes some kind of combustion. If you’re not used to being around your kin so much, kindred Christmas gatherings can heighten any entropy. If you are expected to participate in Christmas, it is rarely calm, and it can also be painful.

I quickly learnt that having a larger family in a Western culture doesn’t always make people feel “lucky”, in the way I had thought myself to be for having any family around at all (many of my research participants didn’t). Most of my participants were dismissive of Christmas, or else highly anxious about it (wanting to avoid that ‘too much relativity’ feeling). To have at least some sway over the degree of family contact available was important. But let’s contextualise this situation with norms around individualism and inconsistent expected gestures of reciprocity found in suburban and consumerist Australia, where a lot is crammed into the Christmas holidays. Seasonally it might make sense – to maximise Summer – but in terms of these holidays being an extendedly liminal and interpersonal pressure-cooker, they are rather questionable.

A psychiatrist recently pointed out to me how absurd it is that, in Australia, all the year’s ‘endings’ happen at once (bar the financial – although stresses like insurances and registrations expiring and the enormous amounts of money people spend while on ‘holidays’ do count). What’s more, there are multiple, dangling ‘unknowns’ for individuals that linger for up to 3 months – the end of the school year, job (or retirement) transitions, and people not effectively communicating with one another, if at all, during the festive annual reunions. Patients (of any kind) might well experience a health scare they had not got around to having checked out all year, like how people put off life admin, gardening and domestic work until there’s no more opportunities to put things off (think: the influx of holiday visitors or just wanting to finish the year with a sense of productivity so no one can question you). People often feel more accountable to someone else’s expectations of them having things in order.

But people often express their vulnerability rather than social defences (such as holiday smiles) in the company of non-kin, especially as most ‘mental’ troubles are embedded in a social matrix, often involving kin. The doctor (usually a GP) is someone people find themselves talking to, but there’s less time come December to negotiate matters properly – adding to frantic feelings and uncertainties going into the new year. Of course, many people don’t reach out at all, and suicide rates (and attempts, and various kinds of accidents) increase over the summer holiday period in Australia, especially (but not exclusively) amongst socially marginalised groups. Cultural and familial expectations around Christmas explain some of this.

People can put a lot of energy and high expectations into holidays and get-togethers, only to be disappointed, and then not know how to deal with that disappointment (because it can be pretty antisocial, uncomfortable and hurtful to talk about). I was both sad and glad for my research participants who had instead ‘dissociated’ from what might otherwise just be a shitty, sensitive and irreconcilable time of year that only evokes past pains and interpersonal tensions. And, in observing my own social world, it is no coincidence that expectations combined with the spatial compressions of get-togethers mean that many Australians indulge on the alcohol front during these times. Sure, there’s celebratory sentiments in there, but it’s also mixed with plenty of self (and social) medicating. I won’t judge anyone for describing it simply as getting into the ‘spirit’ of festive consumptions, as sometimes that ‘toxic’ release/relief helps us to embrace the present moment – as I have blogged about previously). But sometimes there are just too many bubbles.

Before I end on a more sparkling note, I want to remind you that, if you do find yourself feeling stressed or lonely (regardless of the company you keep, it’s your perceived connections with people that count) – and you haven’t already embraced a form of detachment, stoicism, medication (of any form), or simple anthropological ‘curiosity’ to deal with any oppressive angst brought on at this time of year – you are not alone. You might even refer to this ‘mental health first aid’ toolkit and think of it as some kind of ‘social first aid’ instead.

Suburban, consumerist, neoliberal, Australian culture is biased toward the self as an individual (individual gift exchanges requiring affirmations and negotiation of sensitivities being the case in point for Christmas time), making the incorporation of kin into our personal spaces perhaps more complicated than it need be. But if it’s the world you live in, you can only try to take it for what it is – a ritual with largely good intentions (as Simon said). I would add that the smallest acts of kindness can go a long way, and there are many kinds of kindred ties that can be appreciated despite their apparent superficialities and imperfections.

Now, here’s a classic Australian Christmas kin song that will either bring welcome nostalgia if you know it, or give you a laugh if you think urban Australians are weird. I give you, ‘How to Make Gravy’ by Paul Kelly. It’s a lyrical letter from a man in Jail to his family, on the 21st of December (timing nicely with this blog post). It makes me nostalgic, and grateful for my family and friends (no matter the limits of ‘relativity’), and it also normalises some of the anguish I’ve tried to communicate above.


[Image by Julia Brown]