Lately, I was working so hard, writing funding applications, discussing and developing my screenplay, that when going to bed at 4 a.m. I had a really hard time slowing down the wheels spinning in my head. So I started watching brainless family Christmas movies to end the input of stimuli to the brain. When I get to that level of mental overdrive, the only remedy I’ve found over the years is watching very silly movies. They bring me entertainment, a warm fuzzy feeling, and require no brain activity, while being engaging enough to keep your mind from straying.
However, over the last week or so, something has been bugging me with these films. Aside from bad acting, which is apparently a necessary evil in this genre, what I find frightening is the uniformity of the stories. That a certain type of message should be promoted in these films is a given. They do tend to glorify a lot of what, incidentally, was glorified in Nazi propaganda, i.e. traditional values, family, country living away from the city’s “perversions” or “inhumanity”, and small communities as symbols of cultural health. Fortunately, not all the characters being portrayed are white Christians. But what’s new and disturbing is the absolute uniformity of the so-called traditions that are being promoted in these films.
I’m no traditionalist, and yet, I consider that much of the beauty to be found in the world today stems from the great diversity that exists in our cultures. Growing up, I loved the fact that if we wanted real Dalmatian honey, we had to carry it back in heavy glass jars from our grandparents’ place, over in Croatia. I loved that the Northern German Christmas traditions we celebrated were not at all like the ones my Belgian classmates shared. And when our parents wanted to have good coffee, they either made their Italian espresso in their old-style espresso maker, German filter coffee in a coffee pot or Turkish coffee in their cezve (or džezva).
Now, not only do we all drink our Nespresso (what else?), from Singapore to Timbuktu, but our kids run around in monster costumes come Halloween, whether we’re in Belgium, Croatia, Germany – or Taiwan. I am by no means afraid of change, nor do I dislike having Nespresso instead of some of the brown juice they used to call coffee in Brussels cafés 20 years ago. But my question is “Why do we do what we do?”
Why indeed, do we celebrate a modern American-style Halloween in Brussels, Zagreb, Berlin? It’s not like the world outside the United States lacks authentic traditions worth passing on to our kids. On the contrary, we have plenty, but are letting them slowly disappear to be replaced by an all-engulfing Halloween (for example). I find the pagan ritual of Samhain, which became All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween, fascinating. But why does its commercialised version spread, whilst Bulgaria’s Baba Marta Day, Germany’s Saint Walpurgis Night or England’s crowning of the May Queen disappear? Not to speak of the thousands of symbolically strong traditions that used to be celebrated throughout the world. The answer is: because Halloween is big in the US. And the world copies American traditions, which are mostly a mishmash – or, at best, a mosaic – of old North-Western European traditions. So why not keep the original traditions instead? I wouldn’t be surprised if, in ten years’ time, my Belgian neighbours were to roast a turkey on thanksgiving day and plant American flags on their front lawn on the fourth of July.
I am all for mixing nations and cultures, opening up borders and letting traditions evolve. By definition, I am myself a mix of cultures and traditions. But I am distressed by the takeover and complete uniformisation of culture and traditions as a consequence of unleashed capitalism. The way we dress, the expressions and gestures we use are also a reflection of this tendency. When I hear a Parisian school kid shouting out “WTF?” or see a Portuguese Brussels-born 7-year-old hitting fists with his buddies and going “Boom!”, I do wonder where I am: in Brussels or New York.
Very few things should, in my opinion, be unequivocally universal. Among them are Human Rights, animal protection, saving this planet’s ecosystem. But where the industrial world has succeeded in spreading mobile phones, bad R&B music videos and SUVs faster than the plague, the same cannot be said for gender equality or the protection of minors. So it is clear that this standardised monoculture I speak of is tied to money, rather than culture.
In that sense, I’m hoping that Europe will fight back. If not financially, then at least culturally even at the lowest levels of culture… for starters by having its diversity portrayed in its own family films and series. In the hope that these will be watched as much as American ones are. Because even within the United States, local traditions are giving way to a predictable checklist of all-American “traditional Christmas” activities, including a tree-lighting ceremony, decorating gingerbread houses, ice-skating and a big fat “Sandy Claws”(*) shouting out “Ho-ho-ho!”, regardless of whether you’re in Alaska, Utah, California or New Hampshire.
With that in mind, I look forward to lighting the first of four candles on my Advent wreath and watching my daughter open the first little window on her old-style beautifully illustrated (and chocolate-free) Advents calendar this December 1st. Those are two of our Northern German traditions I plan to pass on to my part-Croatian child, growing up in Belgium.
Et vive la diversité !
(*) as Santa Claus is called in « The Nightmare before Christmas »
(Title: Song written by Meredith Willson)