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Ghouls, Santas, Nuts: Celebrating Abundance (Pile On 2)

The decorating season is upon us; Martha Stewart leads the way. Since September and until the end of the year we in America are going all out to adorne anything that can be adorned - and what can't? - with the accessories of Halloween, Christmas, and fall.

Right now it's about pumpkins, skeletons, ghouls but cometh November we will box those things up. We will make room for the symbols of Thanksgiving and fall, for leaves, turkeys, and nuts. (Admittedly, this second wave of decorations is not nearly as powerful as the Halloween wave, though it did seem to be gaining momentum in the wasteful years that led to the economic downturn.)

After Thanksgiving, on the following Saturday or Sunday, we get ready for the ultimate decorating show: Christmas. We will string lights along our roof tops, blow up plastic Santas and reindeer, plop them in our front yards, drape clouds of artificial snow around them. We will put up our Christmas trees with their ribbons and ornaments and set them smack in front of the picture window. This, unfortunately, ruins our view of the neighbors' decorating efforts but at least passers by can admire ours.

Christmas. In L.A. the weather around those final days of the year tends to be sunny and mild. The light is golden, the sky a deep blue; birds of paradise bloom. This is very different from the Christmases I grew up with in Austria. In my memory they were always white, but that's only because I have forgotten about the ones that were not.

I also remember the weeks before Christmas, advent, as being low key and quiet in Austria but that has changed. At some point in the eighties or early nineties Austrians picked up on US habits, albeit on a smaller scale. Halloween, which nobody had heard of before, became popular; Santas and reindeer started popping up in stores and public spaces; the more catholic and traditional accessories of advent in Austria, the nativities and the wreaths with four candles, became less important.

Thanksgiving has not found its way into the minds of Austrian consumers yet but I do not doubt it will. Where there are goods there will be markets, and once the US is saturated with turkeys and co. buyers will have to be found elsewhere.


So, this embellishing business, is it all about markets? No. People in America just like to decorate, and I am sure that was so long before Martha Stewart was living. They also love to pile on. They pile on when giving for Christmas, birthdays, and all kinds of showers; they pile on when cooking sundaes, salads, and sandwiches (see my last post, Another Word for Fast Food?). Americans live generously, abundantly, in a way that often feels strange to Europeans.

M. and I were debating the reasons for the difference in culture. We came up with this: Europe has been confronted with famine and war on its own soil throughout the centuries, and epidemics such as the Plague and Black Death often killed large portions of the population. (According to a Wikipedia entry Black Death killed up to 80 percent of the population in Southern Europe.) Piling on was not an option - at least not until recently, when a general sense of post WWII prosperity, the unification of Europe after the end of communism, and the promise of durable peace across the continent resulted in people slowly letting go of fruaglity.

In North America, by contrast, wars are rarely fought locally, there is enough space for everyone, and while outbreaks of influenza, cholera, and smallpox did happen morbidity was never quite as bad as with the Plague in Europe. (The fact that people go hungry in the US must be attributed to poor food distribution rather than more widespread problems such as epidemics or war.)

America is and always has been the land of plenty. It knows to celebrate it.


debi said…

I've never celebrated the holiday season in any other nation or culture, but I can only imagine how excessive we must appear to those who grew up knowing quieter holidays.

I, personally, experience a mixed feeling for the holidays. I love the fun of Halloween and embrace it 100% - there is no cast-in-stone expectation of anyone. We are allowed to ignore, sit back and watch or go ALL-OUT; no judgment involved concerning level of participation.

Thanksgiving is a wonderful time of family gathering, dining and drinking, and that's exactly what you'll get at my house - with not a single piece of decoration.

But, Christmas, wears me out. It saps my energy; I dread the shopping, the parties, the decorations.

I rebelled years ago: no tree, no lights, no decorations. I give gifts, but mostly because others will be giving to me. Through the last few years, gifts from me have evolved to things I make: beer, wine, salsas, jewelry, etc...

Oh boy, it all starts today and continues for two months.

Lorraine Seal said…

Your post brings a lot back. I think of our Newbury Park neighbour and his elaborate haunted house each Halloween, complete with amplified eerie laughter, lights and moving ghouls. I think of houses up and down the street with enthusiastically strung lights, the ones with the displays of Santas dolls in the illuminated windows, the enormous sign proclaiming JOY rising from one hillside rooftop, and its counterpart, the huge JESUS sprouting from another.

I appreciate the enthusiasm. It seems very American, now from Europe, where celebrations seem more organic, growing from tradition more than marketing. At the same time, it seemed all a bit much, too too much, as though it was pushed to an extreme. As well, I felt rushed each year, as though one couldn't savour the late summer because one was being pushed into Halloween just after Labor Day, and one couldn't savour late fall because there were Christmas decorations everywhere. And when while we tried to keep our Christmas lights burning through to Little Christmas -- 6 January -- the neighbours were busy taking theirs down on New Year Day. I always felt out of step.

Here in Salzburg, nature is providing her own decorations with trees still gleaming gold in the morning sun, sometimes the contrast of the blue sky making the leaves glow brighter. There are crimson leaves and copper and bronze ones too. These surpass the autumn wreaths and gourds that decorate some doorways. But in a few weeks the Christmas markets will open, and I'm looking forward to my first view of them, lights and colour in the fading light of early winter.

I'm lucky, I suppose. As a transplant here and one without the grace to speak German (yet), I can observe without feeling the pressure to conform.

I'm enjoying your reports from Southern California. Thank you.

Debi and Lorraine,

Thank you for sharing your perspectives as born and bred Americans.

It is interesting how many people will say that Christmas gets too much - and yet few of us have the courage to simply say no. My reason for sticking with our own family tradition which includes a tree and some lights is our daughter. She is still young enough to expect Christmas to be the same every year.

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday. It has that organically evolved feeling, and I love that there aren't any gifts. We have spent many happy Thanksgiving days with people dear to us since moving to Southern California in 1999 and missed celebrating it here the last two years.

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