Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Christmas for an anthropologist – an introspective ethnography

Published onNov 30, 2022
Christmas for an anthropologist – an introspective ethnography

December is here, the month of the year which my kids are looking most forward to, but which gives me ambiguous feelings. Why is that? What kind of stories and experiences do I remember and associate with Christmas? What do these stories say about Christmas’ meaning, for me as a person, as a Belgian living in Denmark, and as an anthropologist – and for others than myself?

I entertain a very close and personal relation to Christmas. In fact, Christmas constitutes half of my kinship identity. Noël, Christmas in French, is my mother’s maiden name. I am a Gausset on my father’s side, and a Noël on my mother’s side. If you ask me, father Christmas never lived in Greenland or in Finland. He lived in Brussels, his first name was Marcel, and he was my grandfather. Where does this family name come from? No one ever made a family tree, and I don’t know for sure. But the story goes that in the past, not so long ago, when children born out of wedlock were abandoned at the doorstep of churches or Christian institutions, these abandoned children were commonly given the family name “Noël”. Noël, in French, does not just refer to the birth of Jesus; it is also a joyful cry shouted since the Middle Ages to celebrate a happy outcome or some form of miracle, such as the birth of a new king or the defeat of a superior army. Calling one of my ancestors “Noël” has presumably been done to turn an utterly shameful social drama into nothing short of a small miracle, something akin to the birth of a new king, and to erase social disintegration by providing a new social identity to an abandoned baby. I am the descendant of a Christmas miracle.

Christmas can be a strenuous time for my family. Will it be spent in Denmark or in Belgium? Will it be spent with parents on the mother side or on the father side? Christmas is a time of centrifugal forces tearing allied kinship partners in opposed directions, and subtle arrangements must be made to find some satisfactory balance, lest strong resentment and social disintegration are unleashed. Christmas is a time when kids learn to distinguish between their father’s and their mother’s family. And yet, I realize how easy things are for me, and how they can be much trickier for divorced couples in which kids can be summoned to choose one parent over another one (the theme of last year’s Julekalender) or can be traded in legal arrangements - unless split families succeed in pretending that they can be reunited, if only for a night, for the benefit of the kids. Exchanging Christmas present is a mine field. Brothers and sisters, or cousins who exchange presents, must ensure that the exchange is carefully balanced, and that the value of what is given is neither more, nor less, than what is received. Christmas is about unions and families getting tested, torn apart, and having to restore equality in the face of difference. Keeping (or pretending to keep) kinship alliances and families united at Christmas is, in itself, a form of miracle.

Christmas presents are not always reciprocated, especially when they are given by father Christmas himself instead of family members. What one receives from Santa Claus can sometimes be truly astonishing. My grandfather Marcel Noël was the head of an orphanage in Brussels. It was a time, not so long ago, when miners commonly died in coal mines in Belgium, leaving chores of orphans behind them. In the orphanage, like elsewhere in Belgium, kids wrote letters to Saint Nicolas to declare that they had been good kids and to state the kind of present they wished to receive. The orphanage could not afford to buy presents for the kids, but there was a rich and childless man who came each year to the orphanage to collect the letters written to Saint Nicolas and to fulfill all the wishes of the kids. The story goes that, one day, one of the older kids asked Saint Nicolas for a motorcycle, which was very unusual, both because of the nature of the wish, and because older kids normally stop writing to Saint Nicolas around the age when they stop believing in him. And yet, Saint Nicolas heard his wish, and this young man received a new motorcycle, which cost a fortune at that time, in the 1940s. Christmas is a time when everyone can have one wish granted. It is a time when social differences between rich and poor are levelled out, and a time when childless persons can become surrogate parents of orphans, if only for a night. It is a time when three kings can travel great geographical and social distances to give gold, myrrh and incense to a baby born fatherless and homeless in a stable.

Hans Christian Andersen wrote several Christmas tales. One of his most famous, “The little match girl”[1], tells of a time, not so long ago, when some kids sold matches to earn some money, and could die of cold in the street. The saddest part of the story, however, does not derive from this depiction of hardcore poverty, which was, after all, widespread at the time. What makes the story truly heart-breaking is that, of all the nights in the year, it takes place on Christmas eve. The little match girl can see people rejoicing around a warm fire and a decorated Christmas tree. She can smell the roast goose in the oven. She can imagine how nice it would be to be part of the society. She lights a first match and feels some warmth. She lights a second match, and she sees herself dancing around the Christmas tree. She lights a third match, and she sees her dead grandmother, whom she misses dearly. She lights all the remaining matches at once, and she is joyfully reunited in heaven with her grandmother. What makes the story so sad is that it breaks away from the norm that Christmas should be a time when everyone ought to be provided with a meal, with a roof, with warmth, and with social companionship, if only for a night. Christmas is a time when inequalities on these basic human rights should be abolished for a day, suffering no compromise or exception.

As a foreigner, I was quickly taught that Christmas is something very special in Denmark. Is it because of the focus on the hygge? Is it because of the long winter nights? In any case, Christmas influences most activities in December. Christmas eve and Christmas day are highly ritualized and codified, and there is no place for unorthodox practices. I have been gently reminded that I don’t understand much about Christmas, and I have learnt that I would better refrain from interfering in Christmas planning. Whether people like it or not, everyone must conform to traditions. After 25 years in Denmark, I am now preparing for the nationality test. I would like to keep my permanent residence permit even if at some stage I decide to live more than six months in another country. One of the questions one is given in the preparatory tests is: What do the Danes do on Christmas eve? Three options are given: the Danes sing Christmas psalms while they sit down, or the Danes sing Christmas psalms while dancing around the Christmas tree, or the Danes neither sing nor dance. As is the rule with all the questions in the nationality test, there is only one correct answer. Christmas is a time of homogeneity and conformity, suffering no cultural difference.

Christmas in Denmark can be surprisingly beautiful, for example when jogging in cemeteries. Tombs are lit with candles twinkling in the dark and mirroring the stars of the celestial vault, an image reminding me of what I saw one night in Ouagadougou, taking off in a plane and watching thousands of petroleum lights on the ground, making me believe for a short instant that we were flying upside-down. Christmas in Denmark is a time to remember the dead, pay them a visit in cemeteries and have silent conversations with them. While the dead are given flowers and the warmth of candles, house elves, on their side, are given rice pudding. Christmas is a time during which the social ties broken by death, and the divide between this world and the outer world, are bridged through offerings and exchange.

Since early in my childhood, I have known that Christmas is a time of peace. Literally. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic church enforced military truces around Christmas and could excommunicate army chiefs who did not follow them. Closer to us, during the first world war, some soldiers from opposing sides, who had been slaughtering each other for months, disobeyed their hierarchy, made truces, and celebrated Christmas together. In Flanders fields, where “the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row[2], British and German soldiers played football together on Christmas day. Christmas is a time when entrenched enemies can transcend their thirst for revenge and recognize, in otherwise dehumanized others, some common and essential humanity that subsumes all antagonisms.

With my background in structural anthropology, I could conclude from this portfolio of family stories and personal observations that Christmas is an inverted mirror image of Carnival. Carnival celebrations are transgressive, chaotic, grotesque, and are based on the reversal of fundamental social categories – men become women, the livings become ghosts, and servants become kings. Christmas, on its side, is the realization of an egalitarian, homogenous, orderly and harmonious society, in which all forms of differences are levelled out. Carnival denounces the arbitrariness of social differences and inequalities by reversing them. Christmas denounces the same differences and inequalities by abolishing them. Christmas is about pretending that there is no homelessness and no hunger, no split families, no difference between orphans and other kids, between rich and poor, between cultures, between the dead and the livings, between entrenched enemies. Christmas is pretending that, across all social divides and differences, we are fundamentally equals in our shared humanity. Achieving this primordial and ultimate utopia, if only just for a night, is the essence of the miracle of Christmas.

Fulfilling this utopia is supposed to bring a feeling of joy to each and everyone. Yet, when I analyze the feelings that I associate most with Christmas, it is not pure joy, but rather estrangement and languor. Spending Christmas in Belgium always felt a bit awkward. The rituals and the obligation to be happy seemed artificial. And at the same time, despite some rituals, better food and more social activities than usual, Christmas in my family seemed abnormally normal, when considering the fuss made around it. The Christmas parties spent in larger groups during skiing holidays were certainly the most joyful of all but were characterized by having little to do with Christmas – they could as well have been to celebrate someone’s birthday. Christmas in Denmark is much more codified and ritualized, but these rituals do not feel like mine and I remain a stranger to them. The Christmas and new year celebrations I remember most vividly, however, are not those I spent in Europe, but those I spent when doing fieldwork in Africa or Asia. I remember clearly how weird and strange it was to spend one Christmas eve in Cameroon, eating Irish potatoes with a British missionary living in the neighboring village. I remember that celebrating Iban new year in Sarawak, and being surrounded by people drinking large quantities of alcohol and puking everywhere, was an utterly estranging experience, echoing a chapter written by Alan Campbell on the Wayapi of Brazil[3]:

I didn’t enjoy these days [of drinking sprees]. There was nowhere to disappear to, and by the end of the day I’d be feeling at bay. I’d be surrounded by my most kindly gentle friends turned into kindly gentle incontinents—howling and incapable. Picture a moment when on one side a man was flirting loudly and salaciously with another woman, who was vomiting repeatedly. On the other side a woman was crumpled on a stool, completely out of it, weeping for some inarticulate loss. One man was sitting on my hammock holding tightly to my arms, while his brother stood in front with his face close to mine shouting friendly blandishments through rotten teeth and spraying my cheek with saliva. Another man was going round and round the hammock pretending to be a spider monkey.

Even in the absence of drinking sprees, spending Christmas abroad, far from “home” (whatever this means) always brings in me this feeling of estrangement, making me realize that, quoting Alan Campbell again, “I am not ‘one of them’, and I can never become ‘one of them’ (…) I can’t pretend that I don’t have a past.

During one of the Christmas I spent in Cameroon, a masquerade was organized in my village. The masks, representing the spirit of the dead who have been errand for the past one or two years, come back one last time in the village to say a last farewell to the livings, before departing for good and finding eternal rest in the original fortified village where they come from. Widow(er)s who have been weeping and mourning for 1 or 2 years are now compelled to rejoice and celebrate. Widow(er)s must let go of the errand spirit of the dead by forgetting about them and letting them go back to the place where they come from and where they belong. On their side, the errand spirits must let go of the living and allow them to move on with their life. If the livings fail to forget the dead, or if the dead fail to let go of the living, this means that the ghost of the deceased will continue to haunt the livings, which will eventually make them loose their mind. It is easy to make a parallel here between these errand spirits who must stop haunting the livings to find peace at home, and the errand anthropologist, who must stop bothering his host community by his presence, and who must at some point suspend his questioning, lest he runs the risk of losing his mind and his way home.

Apart from estrangement, the other feeling that I experience most at Christmas is languor. The word “languor” is central in one of the most famous French poems, by Paul Verlaine: Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne blessent mon coeur d’une langueur monotone (…) Je me souviens des jours anciens et je pleure[4]. At Christmas, I remember my fieldworks in Cameroon and the friends and family members who died too young: Hamaonde, Guigbo, Bruno, Gabriel, my adoptive father Denis, and my adoptive mother Francoise, who passed away this year, leaving me orphaned. I remember the happy days spent together. And I weep. Silently because Christmas demands joy and suffers no tears.

Languor can be described as a kind of sweet and sour melancholia deriving from the mixing of two contradictory feelings: joy and grief. Languor is the feeling I experience when spending Christmas with a person who is dear to me, knowing that this will be the last Christmas we spend together before death do us part. In the book “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry[5], the fox asks the Little Prince to tame him. He cannot wait to become friend with the little Prince, but he is at the same time dreading the day it will finally happen, because it will make the inevitable departure of the Little Prince excruciatingly painful. And yet, despite the pain, the fox has no regret. He will cherish the memory of the Little Prince at the same time as he will weep his absence. This is for me a good example of languor. It is the same feeling I have experienced as an anthropologist, spending years “going native”, knowing that I would have to throw everything behind me at some point and go back “home”, and it is this feeling I experienced when coming home and remembering what I had left behind – something which, of all times, I am most prone to do around Christmas. Languor is a feeling that haunts me as a social anthropologist when I spend Christmas in the field, far from “home”, and when I spend Christmas at “home”, far from the field.

Of course, I can also experience languor at other times than Christmas such as, for example, when reading “The unwomanly face of war”, by Svetlana Alexievich[6], where she describes how female veterans cannot help but crying when they are supposed to celebrate on victory day, and where they remember how it is both immensely difficult and surprisingly easy to still recognize some humanity in Nazi monsters who have killed and tortured indiscriminately. It is the feeling I have when reading The Human Condition, by André Malraux[7], including the part in which a stoic child, suffering from mastoiditis at a time – not so long ago – when there was no antibiotics, must have his face bones broken one by one to survive. It is the feeling I have when reading Tristes Tropiques[8], in which Claude Lévi-Strauss concludes his long intellectual journey on the thought that there is no place for an “I” between an artificial “we” and a self-destructing “nothing”, and that the only way to assume one’s human condition is to choose the “we” and accept being part of a random and arbitrary society.

Yet, while I can read these books at any time, it is around Christmas that their questions haunt me most vividly, that I experience languor most strongly, and that I contemplate most closely the abysm of human contradictions, seemingly irreconcilable, and yet coexisting in us all. Christmas is the time of the year when existential questions on the essence of humanity, on the human condition, and on my place in the world, which led me to become an anthropologist, are at their solstice.

 [1] Andersen, Hans Christian (1845). Den lille pige med svovlstikkerne. In Dansk Folkekalender for 1846. København: Fred Frølund

[2] McCrae, John (1915). In Flanders Fields. Punch, December 8th.

[3] Campbell, Alan (1995). Getting to know Waiwai: an Amazonian ethnography. London: Routledge.

[4] The long sobs of violins of autumn wound my heart with a monotonous languor (…) I remember the old days and I cry. Verlaine, Paul (1866). Chanson d’automne. In Poëmes saturniens. Paris: Alphonse Lemerre.

[5] Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de (1945). Le Petit Prince. Paris: Gallimard

[6] Alexievich, Svetlana (2017) [1985]. The unwomanly face of war. New York: Penguin

[7] Malraux, André. La condition humaine (1933). Paris: Gallimard

[8] Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1955). Tristes tropiques. Paris: Plon

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?