I don’t think you can really appreciate what Christmas means in America until you spend the holiday season in a country that has no concept of the holiday. It’s now December 22 in Kazakhstan, and it feels like any other time of year. There are no lights on houses. No Salvation Army volunteers ringing bells for donations. No ABC Family movies about someone finding the true spirit of the season. There’s the Christmas music I play at work, a Santa Claus wreath I bought last week hanging in our foyer, and the thought of celebrating somehow this week.
In a way that almost makes it worse, New Year’s here is kind of like Christmas. They have a Santa Claus (Ded Moroz (Father Snow)) that gives presents to children. They put up yolka (New Year’s trees) with ornaments on them. They give small presents. They have friends and family over. But Christmas? It is not Christmas. So when I explain Christmas, I can’t begin to capture what it really means. The complex religious and secular struggle that occurs every year that ultimately results in a spirit of giving and charity whether its for the right or wrong reasons. I don’t know how to express that yet in Russian, and even if I ever learn, I don’t think people can really understand how much it permeates the culture of America. For them, they hear Santa Claus, trees, gifts. Oh, like New Year’s. And that’s their association.
But when you aren’t there, you realize what Christmas is. It’s an industry. From Thanksgiving until December 25, America focuses on Christmas. The outward appearance of houses changes for weeks. Stores decorate. Commercials incorporate holiday images. Store displays have to have red and green. Churches schedule events and nativity scenes. Charitable giving increases. There are holiday parties for the office, for the schools, and for the needy. Hundreds of songs are written, records are produced, and radio stations change their entire programming. Some (maybe most) of it is commercial, just another part of American marketing taking an idea and milking it for capitalist greed. But despite that, the “spirit” of Christmas is hard to avoid. The idea that this is a special time of year for giving and family and thinking of others. And this season lasts almost a full month. That’s about 8% of the year. Which is really a long time if you think about it.
And really, I think it’s great. And I miss it. I’ll probably buy a New Year’s tree tomorrow. Decorate it Christmas Eve with my host family and give some presents to my host-niece Toma. And it’ll be great to share “Christmas.” And I’m sure they’ll love sharing in this American tradition in a novel sort of way. But they won’t understand. They can’t understand.
They say that living in a new culture often teaches you as much about your own as it does about the one you are exposed to. And I’m definitely beginning to believe that’s true. I can’t help but think of that ridiculous song about African children knowing whether or not it’s Christmas. They probably don’t. And Christmas there wouldn’t mean what Christmas mean in America. It’s gone beyond religious and secular; it’s something that’s cultural. And while it can be easy to share culture, it’s a hard thing for others to really understand.