In many ways, I enjoy living in the US. But there are some instances where this gal from the old world feels like a real alien. One of those instances is the Holidays. What is up with the Christmas ornaments??? I just have never been able to wrap my head around them! Well, let’s not generalize too much – some of it isn’t too bad. But then there is stuff like THIS:
Whatever lens you look at the world through – be it pagan, Christian, or any other dominant culture – certain symbols make more sense and are easier to understand than others. Evergreens and lights, for example, I totally get that. Where I come from, pigs, stars, gnomes and goats are as ubiquitous as jolly Santas and candy canes are here. I can even usually stomach those mega-hokey nativity scenes that pop up here and there. The red balls of course, have sinister origins in and of themselves, but pink flamingos and blown glass renditions of styrofoam cups? Uum… whaaa…???
These kinds of seemingly arbitrary, contextually detached decorations make many of us outsiders regard American Holiday decor with a kind of bemused wonder. Some of us ex-pats have even adopted bits and pieces of it for sheer kitsch value. My mother for example, found this ultra-campy white little light-up ceramic christmas tree in the house they bought. Every year, she puts it in her guest bath as a seasonal joke. It flickers on when you turn on the lights, and its priceless campiness makes me laugh every time. I laugh, but even though it’s hilarious and phenomenally hokey, I still get the idea. Funny or not, it still reads as a christmas tree. I’m not trying to be an uptight snob. I’m sure each and all of us have some funny or cheese-bally stuff around that we’re attached to – I know for sure I do. Stuff that definitely would incur a roll of the eye, or two. But, I just don’t get the pink flamingo. Or the soccer ball. Or the fire hydrant. Or the cruise ship…
Then, just the other day – after 23 years of living here, I had a major – no, better make that MAJOR – revelation! I overheard a grandmother as she was filling her basket with ornaments – one appearing (to me) more ridiculous-looking than the other. “My grandson learned to ride his bike this year”, she said. “I’m looking for an ornament with a bike.” And then I got it! This type of ornament was never meant to have any significance whatsoever in terms of traditional symbolism, cultural relevance etc. – at least not that I could see. Suddenly I SAW… The attraction lies in that they are yet another mode of self expression – like bumper stickers on a car, except three-dimensional. So, I guess, in essence Christmas ornaments here DO have cultural meaning in that they represent the interests and allegiances of the individual. I just never realized it before. US culture is all about the individual, so I guess it makes sense. The only thing I haven’t figured out is why these kinds of ornaments – since they have nothing to do with Christmas anyway – aren’t left hanging up year round. Or, they could be switched out seasonally – you know, hang the football up in fall during football season, the scuba diver up during summer, etc. Anyway, this revelation is a big relief, as my new understanding brings me closer to tolerating what will unfold in the next month or so. Bring it on!
My next holiday hurdle is to try to figure out why absolutely everything has to be covered in glitter… Could it be the urge to bring the effect of real snow on a blue-bird day inside? Bear with me while I try to work these things out. Or, if you have any insights, please help me out!
Speaking of football – I saw something else which confirms my ‘individual expression/bumper sticker’ theory. It was a so-called flocked tree. Flocked trees in general rub me the wrong way for so many reasons. I figure with beautiful Mt. Hood less than an hour away, why not escape for a day trip up there to get your fill of real snow-laden trees?
Even if there were no nearby place to take in the pure, white loveliness of a snow coated landscape, doesn’t it strike anyone else as odd to put a fake snowy tree in an environment where nothing else is flocked? I mean, shouldn’t everything else be frosted too? It just seems kind of incongruous to me when it isn’t… Or, maybe I’m just an old fogey who needs to lighten up. Anyway, I digress… The particular flocked trees to support my ‘decoration as bumper sticker’ argument were flocked in the colors of Oregon’s two rivaling football teams – the Ducks and the Beavers. I just about DIED when I saw them! Really – you’re going to take a perfectly good tree down to do THAT to it??? Unsolicited, it made me think of the idea of ‘Death With Dignity’ – which apparently does not apply to trees.
That said – today is Thanksgiving – the day that officially kicks off the Holiday Season here in the US. It has none of the weirdness surrounding Christmas. Besides a reason to enjoy good food and drink in the company of family and friends, its name gives cause to stop and reflect on all the things we have to be grateful for. I think it’s a really lovely Holiday, and I wish all you readers a wonderful Thanksgiving. Savor it well – the madness that ensues doesn’t let up until January.
Happy Thanksgiving Anna! Americans are a narcissistic bunch, thank you for putting up with us!
Thanks also to you, Jennifer, for putting up with my curmudgeon-like qualities! Have a fabulous T-day!
Yes, I think that, for many people, Christmas is just an excuse to decorate their homes garishly in a way that wouldn’t be tolerable as a year-long practice. I agree that tree ornaments have become more about the individual than about the holiday itself (although I can’t begin to guess what message is conveyed by a flamingo – unless it’s a pink addict’s excuse to cover the tree in her/his favorite color). We live in an increasingly secular society and give less and less thought to the meaning of whatever holiday rituals we still hold on to. My parents were 1st generation Americans – my father’s family having migrated from Sweden and my mother’s from Finland – but little of the holiday descriptions you describe in your earlier post came with them. My mother offered a “smorgasbord” every Christmas Eve but, even during the course of my childhood, the foods and rituals of that meal evolved (or perhaps I should say “Americanized”). With the last of our parents now gone, my husband and I still present our own Christmas Eve smorgasbord but the link to even my family’s tenuous holiday connections are now mostly gone – it’s become a way to honor friendships, appreciate the winter season, and exchange gifts to convey the attendees’ importance in our lives. In other words, it’s materialistically American but still, in its way, heartfelt.
Happy Thanksgiving Anna!
Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Kris! Yeah, I think it is inevitable that traditions evolve, and I don’t really mind that they do. The way we do things in my own family is doubtlessly different from how we did things when I grew up – it’s just part of merging families and – in our case – cultures. You take your favorite parts and morph them into your own. I wish I had room to offer the smorgasbord my mother does – I do have a love for the food, although over the years, we’ve started spreading them out over a few weeks instead of offering them all at once. The lights, food, family and friendships are, and probably always will be, special. I don’t mean to sound as if it’s my way or the highway, but writing about it helps me process.
Oh, I love the holiday permission to unleash the inner decorator and treat everything as a stage set. Like you, I probably most appreciate the tasteful renditions, but over-the-top exuberance is worth a chuckle (and who can live without that?).
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Ricki! You make decorating sound like so much fun, and judging from your flower arrangements, I bet you’re awesome at it! ! I don’t know about ‘tasteful’ in my case… Some perhaps, but I do have some pretty silly stuff that resurfaces year after year… To each his own, I guess. Sentimental values are powerful, for sure!
I’ve never been a fan of that style of ornament but always thought the tradition of not-Christmas themed ornaments was what it was all about and that since they were referred to as Old World Christmas ornaments I thought the tradition went way back, and was not American. Granted of course the American knock-offs are especially bad.
Not sure about the rest of Europe, Loree – I can only speak for what was common in Sweden. We had lights, the usual, shiny balls, and different figures (stars, gnomes, goats, hearts etc.) made of straw and red yarn. Paper flag garlands and/or glitter garlands were common too. One year, I got three tiny little Russian figures (kind of like glass matrushkas but all the same size of about 1.5″), as a gift from my globetrotting aunt. They were super-special – nobody had anything like it.
The only other European countries I’ve spent Christmas in are Italy and Hungary. I don’t recall seeing anything like what Old World Christmas are cranking out – anywhere. The closest I got was at the famous Gerbaud cafe in Budapest, where all ornaments were made in-house – out of sugar! – but those too were in more traditional shapes. According to Old World’s website, the company was started in 1979, and all their stuff is made in China. I could be wrong, but I suspect their wares are “old world” only as a marketing ploy. Also on their website, they ask people to send in ideas for ornaments. Maybe that’s where the pink flamingo came from… Anyway, there may well have been blown glass knick-knacks in the old world, but I doubt they were usually dangling from trees. I could be wrong though…
Enjoyed this post Anna. When Brad & I were starting out years ago, we had no ornaments for our 1st tree. So in our family we now have a tradition of getting the kids an ornament each Christmas so they will have a something for their first tree. Each year we try to pick something reflective of that year and we have a description of ornament and the year it was added to their collection written on the box the their ornaments get stored away in each year.
I love to look at the decorations on the trees of our friends to see what themes emerge and to see what memories are held there. And, yes, sometimes laugh at the gaudy bobbles!
Angela – I bet that was what that grandmother I overheard was doing too! I can see it being a nice family tradition. When our kids were born, my mother-in-law suggested we do that for them. At the time I couldn’t see any reason whatsoever why that would be meaningful. It was such a foreign concept. As of my revelation from last week, I now see what she was getting at, but it never occurred to me to have personalized christmas ornaments. Christmas ornaments were always just that – christmas ornaments! The only decidedly personal christmas item I can recall from my childhood is that we all had our own little candle holder by our plate at the dinner table. Mine had a gnome and a pig. (I still have it.) I think this personal connection/narrative is a very American layer in the weave of world Christmases – just like gourds and pumpkins were added when Halloween came to North America. A cultural evolution of sorts…
Reblogged this on 3mart.
I like this article, I have reblogged this one, thanks for posting
I admit it..I’m a fan of the good old glitzy bobbles ! I love finding those old boxes of them in garage sales and the Good Will !
Linda, I like them too. Many are very beautiful, and the older ones have a very delicate feel to them. I also like that they are usually smaller. Many of the pretty baubles made today are so HUGE! I think I would like them a lot better if they were in a scale that complemented my tree. Garage sales rule!
What an interesting cultural analysis. I think you are correct. Birds are popular here as tree ornaments which is great until they brought out the battery powered chirping birds.
In Viet Nam the nativity scenes are everywhere, especially outside people’s home. Motor biking down one suburban street I saw over 100 nativity scenes with Joseph, Mary, Shepherds, Reindeer, Sheep, Tiger, a giraffe, Wise Men, Santa, Baby-Jesus and snow, snow, snow like you have never seen before in Bethlehem. This country has their own version of the Christmas star which is beautiful. They are placed on rooftops. I wish that I had bought one. Well I did buy one, lugged it around the country but they are large stars and too big to post home or to put inside a suitcase.
In Thailand I have seen the Christ-child lying in a halved and hollowed out durian as a manger.
The thing I like least is people who put their Christmas lights on fast flash which I call strident lighting.
Ohh – I abhor those flashing lights! I once bought some twinkling icicle lights by mistake, but was so embarrassed I had to take them down again. They were just so “not me”. In Sweden we hang large stars in our windows on the first of Advent. But stars on the roof sounds really nice!
Your mentioning of birds made me remember that we have those in Sweden too. Usually they are copies of what’s in the natural fauna. They are usually made with foam and real feathers in their natural colors, so they look very much like the real thing. They look very cute on huddling on their branches.
I enjoy my Prince Purple Rain guitar Christmas ornament.
Oh Greg – only you… 🙂