We welcome back our Third Culture Kid columnist, Charlotte Day, for her final post of 2011. Melding together an interest in food with philosophical musings, she has crafted an ornament of love to what she calls her “triply displaced” Christmas.
Within the context of celebrating a displaced Christmas, my family offers an interesting case study.
In Australia, where I spent my first six years, my maternal grandparents always valiantly brought out a hot ham oozing brown sugar glaze, at a time of year when most Australians took to the beaches, celebrating over seafood and chilled beer.
In our vapor-filled family stronghold, we gathered about the fireplace, though no winter’s cold threatened outside, listening to carols from King’s College Cambridge.
Fired up by dreams of a white Christmas
My mother and I were forbidden from leaving the United States in December 2002, while our green card applications were being processed. So we settled on Jackson Hole, Wyoming, as a place sure to bring us the then unfamiliar Christmas apparition: snow.
Snow it did, forcing my stepfather on to the ski slopes for the first time — a foray into the unknown he hopes never to repeat.
In our hotel room kitchen, we managed to melt the plastic mould around the Christmas pudding, setting off the hotel fire alarms. Yet even this misadventure did not chasten our efforts to bring English tradition with us, wherever we found ourselves celebrating.
This year’s family cook-fest
Now ensconced at an English boarding school, I have come “home” for Christmas to New York City, where my mother and stepfather live.
What fresh culinary (mis)adventures await? The ham lies in its canvas bag, in anticipation of that most keenly felt indignity: pineapple and toothpicks. My mother has produced two gluten-dairy free Christmas puddings, determined that I should not feel shortchanged in a season that can be unkind to those with restricted diets.
Her mince pies, however, were a failure, after the dairy free butter and shortening could not be pummeled into a shapely dough.
My stepfather’s choice of fowl has diverged from tradition: he settled on a pair of Cornish hens and a duck after months of deliberation, spurning turkey early on but then toying with chicken and goose. My mother and I forbade him from using the barbecue, barring all vestiges of Australia from our emphatically English pageantry.
The “true” meaning of Christmas — the wrong question?
When considering my family’s triple displacement — an English Christmas, celebrated by Australians in America — I sometimes wonder: is there some kernel of truth we are missing out on, by not being true to the home traditions of the cultures we live in? And are we missing out on the true meaning of Christmas anyway, amid the holiday’s surface distractions?
Taking the second question first, my answer is no. For me, the sensuality of Christmas is one of the best things about it. Before we can seek truth and integrity, we must first acknowledge that the vast majority of us revel in the commerciality, the gluttony, the clichés and platitudes, no matter how much we may condemn them.
John Betjeman does an excellent job of stripping back the excess in his poem “Christmas.” It is not the holiday’s religious significance alone, but the disparity between this significance (regardless of whether or not this resonates with us) and our concerns with triviality, that should give pause.
And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare —
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
But whereas Betjeman emphasizes the inadequacy of mankind’s efforts to celebrate the wonder of Christmas, I think we should not be so hard on ourselves. Is it not enough that there is a time of year when we all seem to bear a little more good will towards each other than usual, when we couple shameless self-indulgence with generosity?
Trivial, exuberant, voluptuous — why ever not?
The Christmas truce of 1914, when unofficial ceasefires took place along the Western Front, involved no burdensome reflections on the holiday’s true meaning. Rather, simple gestures like sharing tobacco transformed these few days into a symbol of fraternity, exemplifying the best of humanity.
As it happens, exchanging things, often trivial things, is a very potent expression of human feeling. The medium is, without a doubt, inadequate, but it is one with which we are comfortable — and is therefore as profoundly human as any Truth, spiritual, cultural, universal or otherwise.
Returning, then, to my family’s Christmas mishmash: my family associates English stodge with the best of human sentiment, and indulge in it to the full. We do not attempt to deny our weaknesses and are shamelessly gluttonous and commercial. We may not be faithful to the holiday traditions of the cultures that host us, but we have at least remained true to our innermost desires, and to what seems natural to us.
For what would a celebration of the best of human sentiment be, untempered by these most exuberant and voluptuous of our follies? In asserting this, I do not mean to glorify the self-indulgent: we would do well to become less so. I simply feel that our self-indulgence is as deeply human — and reflects as pertinent a truth — as any more outwardly meaningful way of celebrating this oft-contentious season.
Readers, any responses to Charlotte Day’s thoughts on her triply displaced Christmas and the holiday’s true meaning?
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, the first of our 12 Nomads of Christmas.
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Related posts by or about Charlotte Day:
img: Charlotte Day surveying Trafalgar Square in London, this time with a jolly holly border (no ivy, though — that’s for next year!).
You may be a third culture kid, but you’ve given me a lot to think about this Christmas! It wasn’t until I was an adult that I felt culturally displaced at Christmas — particularly when living in Tokyo (but even British Christmases weren’t the same as my American childhood ones). I can’t quite imagine what it must be like to feel triply displaced from your earliest Christmas memory onwards!
And I’ve also been thinking about your musings on the true meaning of Christmas. A few years ago, I went through a period of “Bah, humbug!” over Christmas believing it had become just too commercial. Your post, however, has restored some balance.
But what I still can’t sort out is whether we should separate crass commercialism from the gluttony side of things — I find myself more in favor of the latter than the former. Hmmm…what do you think? 🙂
This is so beautifully written! I, too, went through a bah humbug phase with Christmas but as I get older and also now that I have a son who is three, the perfect Christmas age, I find myself taking more comfort in silly traditional things. For me that mainly means particular foods but also leaving the correct snack out for Father Christmas and his reindeer and also what things will happen when (when to eat, when to open stockings and under-the-tree gifts, etc.). I think Christmas has become much more about building our own little family identity through our own practices and I know that these are the things that will form future happy memories for my son.