A Saxon Christmas

A Country Christmas - 1913 Vintage Xmas card I...
Image by IronRodArt - Royce Bair via Flickr

A Saxon Christmas

 

If Christmas Day be bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year”, Saxon Farmers Parable

The city along the Thames unfolds for the Christmas season like a flower opening to the sun. From Bond to Regent Streets on to Sloan Street and Kings Road, the twinkling white lights and the festive green of pine boughs are thoughtfully decorated along London’s main shopping arteries.  In small villages, the traditional high streets adorn lights and tasteful holiday cheer.  The West end of London transforms each year into a garrulous, friendly face like old Fezziwig grabbing you and twirling you around the open floor of his counting house.

Global warming has conspired to deny London its most famous winter accessory – a dusting of snow that accents ancient stone churches and sweeps through its narrow mews and lanes.  The pubs, now smokeless, become even more inviting – – deep cavernous hubs of good cheer and raucous debate.  Down to Trafalgar Square, a massive Norwegian pine is erected each year – – an annual gift of friendship from Oslo to commemorate the friendship and sacrifice the Brits extended to their Scandinavian brethren during World War II.  Skaters glide across opaque rinks near Marble Arch and Oxford Street.

Still, as with all things British, the holiday season is understated relative to America. Father Christmas is less inclined to appear on every street corner and instead runs a more discreet operation, much like MI5 does for domestic security.  Christmas carols are much more traditional and echo with reverence and deep religious conviction. Although less than 8% of Brits regularly attend church, great Norman and medieval churches are constant reminders of this country’s history of religious fervor.  The Protestants and  Catholics, now at peace, compete with many other religions, for hearts and minds at this special time of year.  Each vicar or priest is particularly attentive to their midnight mass or service.  The chill of a clear, December 24th night blended with a brisk walk across an ancient graveyard to Westminster Abbey, Southwark or St Paul’s cathedrals is enough to stimulate the most latent religious gene in anyone in attendance on Christmas Eve.

We know that the Christian holiday of celebrating Christ’s birth has its roots in the  ancient white chalk across the Plain of Salisbury, home to the mysterious Druids whose most enigmatic contribution to the history stands ominously as Stonehenge.  The winter solstice, known as “yule”, was a time of celebration as the dark days of winter were slowly giving way to longer days and shorter nights.  Homes were adorned with evergreens as a gesture of hope that warmer days and better harvests lay ahead. The celebration around the 22nd of December was an agrarian ritual.  Somewhere along the way, the Christian celebration of the birth of their messiah coincided with this festival set in the bleak midwinter.

The British celebration of Boxing Day which is on December 26th is one of many tradition differences that arise between Mother England and the USA. Other irregularities range from the harmonies of certain carols different and a much more subdued commercialism.  As I studied my English holiday tradition, I read in the London Times of some ancient yuletide rituals that had some how managed to survive centuries of transition and change.  In Devon, there is the tradition of the Ashen Faggot.  The faggot which can be a yule log or a traditional bundle of sticks is bound with bands of green ash branches and tossed into a blazing fire.  Each unmarried woman chooses a band and whichever band bursts open first indicates which maid is likely to be the next to be wed. The chaos carries on to Yorkshire in the most obscure seasonal cavorting called “Mumping”. Mumping involves going house to house with a Christmas tree followed by a resounding carol and then begging for a treat.

On to Herefordshire and wassailing ! Wassail comes from a mid fifteenth century English greeting, “waes hael”, which means either “Be well” or could be have been started by a very drunken, toothless Welshman who  forgot his toast and raised his glass of ale anyway and shouted ” what the hell!”  Irrespective of its roots, Wassail is a powerful ale based drink that was customarily mixed in a large bowl or tureen – – mixed with sugar, spiced apples, cream, spices and even small rodents (just kidding).  Saxon farmers drunk with holiday cheer (and copious amounts of wassail) would move from farm to farm greeting one another, occasionally attacking the odd Norman bystander.  At the end of December, the feudal Lord would herald the New Year and wish all good luck who belonged to the feudal family.  The serfs, in turn, “waes-haeled” back at him, and in doing so, confirmed fealty for another twelve months or at least until bonuses were paid.  The drunken spree took an even stranger turn in rural areas where the wassailants would begin to pound on trees in the orchards, bringing good luck and making it difficult for dormant pests to get a good night’s rest.  This often led to improved crops and several arrests. When reviewing this practice, the London Times went on to muse,“ and we wonder why they had such a problem recognizing that their cows were mad”.

We next travel across to Ireland, where we walk along the narrow streets and canals of James Joyce.  Tradition runs deep in this wonderful part of the world and the vigilant pursuit of good luck was always a priority.  The ancient tradition of The Hunting of the Wren is a strange Boxing Day activity.  A group of men would kill a wren, hang the dead bird on a pole and sell its feathers as lucky charms.   So, if you see drunken Irish men running around on December 25th trying to catch small birds, you have some cultural context.

The holiday season is inevitably about family.  Perhaps the Irish, more than most, seem to understand that anything can be overcome by preserving family, faith and good fortune.  As this Irish prayer conveys, a holiday is a time to give thanks and to ask one’s Maker for blessings and perhaps, the slightest edge:

May those who love us, keep loving us

For those who do not love us, may God turn their ankles

So we will know them by their limp.

Playing The Culture Card

 

Česky: West Germanic kingdoms (460AD)
Česky: West Germanic kingdoms (460AD) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

As I returned from visiting Europe this past summer, I was reminded of the cultural chasm that separates us.  Aside from political and foreign policy rifts which have gouged this divide, there has and always will be a separation between the US and Europe. To understand it and to effectively bridge it, one must acknowledge that it exists.

 

I recall attending a cultural sensitivity seminar conducted by a Dutch consultant.  She shared that the DNA of any culture is comprised of densely packed chromosomes of tradition, social class, its geography, history, priorities, values, way of life, weather, sports, music, religious composition, tendency toward tribalism, regionalism or nationalism and resources.  In Europe, a few cultural axioms always prove true:

 

1)    Smaller neighbors always resent larger neighbors

 

2)    Larger neighbors tend to patronize smaller neighbors

 

3)    What you see, is not necessarily what you get

 

4)    There is no culture of blame, focus is usually on the issue not the person

 

5)    The smaller the country, the longer the memory

 

In Holland, I was always fascinated by the Dutch and their attitude toward the Germans.  These countries are economically tied to the hip and there is a saying, “ if Germany gets a cold, the Dutch get pneumonia”.  However, those that live in Rotterdam will never forget their city being destroyed in WWII.  I recall a Dutch cab driver telling me that he always gave German tourists the wrong directions and he cannot wait for the men in Orange to beat the Germans in any national match.

 

To an average Dutchman, a German is fat, drives a Mercedes, nationalistic, arrogant, obsessed by details, inflexible, humorless, dig big holes in the sand on vacation and always arrive at 6am to stake out their area on the beach for the entire day.  They get up at 6:30 am and “ ja” always means “ja”.  Once they get a “no”, the Germans stop. The Germans arrive ten minutes early to meetings.  They are prepared. There are different definitions of quality.  For some in Europe, “ good is good enough”.  For the Germans, “ The best is just about enough”. Does this description sound familiar to you ? In WWII US soldiers commented that the one country whose citizens most resembled Americans in terms of work ethic, community stewardship, focus on initiative and directness were – -The Germans.

 

The Dutch are a trading nation where the Germans are an industrial nation. The Dutch speak in diminutives and constantly downplay their success.  “Oh, that little car.”  “It’s not much, that tiny house.” “ That is a nice dress you are wearing,” to which the response is always immediate, “ I bought it on sale “.  The Dutch do not show a lot of emotion.  When a Dutchman is upset, he/she has three phases of anger : “ I am surprised”, “ I am worried”, “ I am quietly furious “. The Dutch spent 80 years fighting Spain and have spent centuries fighting against the North Sea, and as a result they are by nature, stubborn, doubting Thomases that once convinced, loyally and effectively execute. After fighting together so long to hold back the sea, they are team players.  There is a deeply developed sense of consensus.  Decisions take a long time but commitment is also more sustained once the decision is determined.

 

Then there are the Belgians.  Belgium does not really exist as we know it – – it is in fact, two nations, Dutch Flanders and French Wallonia.  To a French Waloon, “oui” means yes in principal to be changed at any time in the future.  Where the Wallonians might be made aware of an obstacle, they will suggest that it be only be confronted when it presents itself.  The Flemish Belgians will insist that provisions be made now for the bridge that is 500 kilometers away. The French Belgians consider their neighbors the Dutch: arrogant, blunt, direct, stingy, assertive, always selling hot air, uneducated know-it-alls…Wait, isn’t that what the Dutch say about their neighbors the Germans?

 

Europe views the US as unaware of any other culture. We are viewed as arrogant and prone to shoot first and ask questions later.  We are seen as superficial, focused on quantity instead of quality, simplistic, naïve, prone to blame versus focus on issues, top down, poorly educated, dictatorial, mono lingual and short term focused.  Hmmm.  Seeing a pattern developing here ?  The US views Europe often as protracted decision makers, untidy, not result oriented, burdened with an unrealistic social system, confused over the difference between history and tradition, ambiguous, multi-lingual and passive/aggressive.

 

As we have seen in this continental food chain, the larger country in the end, always views the smaller one as passive aggressive and the smaller country views the larger as unilateral and arrogant.  It is important when trying to bridge these natural fault lines and cultural footfalls with humility and honesty.  In discussing expectations or intentions with someone from another culture, acknowledge your ignorance and think of the social opportunity as a small child.  The child must be nurtured and spoon fed.  Children adapt but we must recognize that culture is emotional and part of one’s identity.  To diminish the culture is to diminish the person.  To denigrate the person is to broaden the divide you ultimately will want to cross.

 

Whenever the culture card is played, acknowledge it and be direct about differences of opinion.  Those differences can be bridged.  The shifting loyalties and alliances that exist within Europe and the world are forever changing and it does not take much to move an entire continent into a direction where we are celebrating similarities instead of magnifying differences. As Thomas Freidman so aptly shares, the world is indeed flat.  However, to get from one end of the world to the other safely and intelligently, you need to understand how important the deck of culture cards is to your success.  We can either engage in an enlightened game of global understanding or end up playing “Fifty-Two Card Pick Up”.