Transposed Christmas

This piece, perfectly Christmas-y and reflective for this time of year, comes to us from Anna Koestenbauer.  Anna is an Austrian-Australian: born in Vienna, she has lived in six countries and now calls Canberra home. Anna loves the English language and looks forward to communicating with this global, new-media community about perspectives and our sense of place.

Late last week, I googled, “Why do people get emotional about Christmas”. I unearthed a wave of articles and comment feeds, mostly concerned with why people get depressed at Christmas and how to handle irritating in-laws. While I understand that Christmas is a complex time, I actually love Christmas and I was on a quest to understand its significance, rather than recipes for mixing Xanax and eggnog.

I found one article on LiveScience that hit the mark. The author, Wynne Perry, set out to discuss nostalgia and Christmas. He states, “[h]olidays bring holiday memories, and, often a sense of nostalgia for good times long gone, perhaps even loved ones long gone.” The article goes on to interview an expert on nostalgia, Krystine Batcho, and the more I read about nostalgia, the more my own third-country-kid experience of Christmas and its unique appeal made sense.


Sunset at my dad’s place in Mondsee, Austria

According to Batcho, there are two types of nostalgia: historical and personal. Historical nostalgia refers to feelings of longing for or identification with a past time, even a time that the individual may not have personally experienced.

Then there’s personal nostalgia, which draws on previous lived experiences. This feeling can cut across age, culture or historical periods and can serve as a powerful anchor for self-definition and identity security – an experience that I know to be profound for migrants and their children. At Christmas, Batcho says, “[n]ostalgia is almost like a psychological substitute for the real thing, if you think about the song, ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas,’ that is almost the quintessential holiday nostalgia that helps to re-unite us across time and space.”

It is difficult to describe the emotional gravitas that Christmas has in my household and perhaps it is unreasonable to expect those without my particular transnational experience to do so. But here’s my attempt:

I was born in Austria, to two Austrian parents from Catholic farming backgrounds. The Catholic calendar has two highlights: Easter and Christmas. While Austria and modern Austrians are increasingly multicultural, agnostic and/or atheist in their daily lives, the traditional celebrations and rituals around Easter and Christmas remain uncontested in public space and embraced in most private spaces.


Christmas markets at Rathausplatz, Vienna

Christmas in Austria is not a day, it’s a period. It begins with the first Sunday in Advent, four Sundays out from Christmas Eve. This year, it fell on 28 November. Every Sunday, a candle traditionally bound into a pine wreath is lit and a song is sung, reminding us to prepare for the coming of Christ. (I do not practice any religion, but my desire to participate in this ritual overwhelms any anti-theist principles.) Advent calendars are also popular, filled with chocolate or made of traditional paper, with window cut-outs for each day.

Next in the calendar is Nikolaus, the ‘original Santa Claus’, which involves a visit by Saint Nicholas and the Krampus (a devil figure) on 6 December to award fruits, nuts and chocolate to good children. And no, in case you’re wondering, we don’t have shopping centre Santa Clauses.

The grand finale happens on Christmas Eve, where around a tree, the assembled cast celebrates the visit of the Christkind (Christ Child, an angel or spirit) that has visited our homes and brought light to our lives. That light is reflected by the lighting of real (yes, real) candles on the (real) Christmas tree. About 8 years after we moved to Australia, my mother wrapped our tree in electronic Christmas lights and my brother and I proceeded to wail and lecture her about succumbing to the capitalist and gaudy tendencies of our host nation. She ignored us, pleased to have found a practical, long-lasting alternative to candles that we had previously imported via eBay Deutschland. I have since bought my own set of lights and wrapped them around my (plastic) Christmas tree.


My Canberra Christmas tree, in all its plastic-y goodness

I first left Austria when I was five, but as my parents separated and my father returned to Austria, I spent many of the ensuing holiday periods there, celebrating Christmas with an assortment of friends and relatives, comforted by the familiarity of the rituals, the songs, the food – and the scents. The other day, I was in IKEA and opened a seasonal candle. The olfactory memory that this “spiced cider” candle evoked is indescribable: I was transported to church yards selling Glühwein, coming in from the cold to a cinnamon-scented living room – it wasn’t a stretch to imagine roast chestnuts cracking on a drum fire in the background and snowflakes melting on my face. And yes, I know this sounds hugely melodramatic. But I felt the tears coming. In the middle of IKEA. So I bought the candle and went home wondering what was wrong with me.

I’ve reflected on whether I think Christmas in Europe is somehow inherently superior. I know this can be one of the side-effects of powerful nostalgia: an inability to recognise the benefits of the here and now. I know I thought this way as a child, when I felt huge loyalty towards Austria. But I don’t have the same conviction as an adult. Recently, instead of packing a suitcase every December and flying somewhere cold, I’ve tried harder to integrate my disparate sense of place at Christmas. I have set up a Christmas tree, or at least decorations, in each of my apartments (across three countries over the last five years). For me, doing this represents a commitment to that place, a decision to make my home there and to anchor myself in that country, by practising my little rituals. It comforts me and grounds me, to look at my red reindeer and my sparkly pinecones. However, I’m not going to pretend that it comes easy.

Heat in December feels wrong. It is pleasant to go to the beach on Christmas morning, but every time we do, I feel disoriented. My mother, who spent more than half her life in the cold comfort of a European December, loves it. I still feel a sense of loss.

Sharing Christmas with loved ones who don’t speak our language is hard. My partner and many others in my now-extended family are exclusive Anglophones. There’s no point teaching them Stille Nacht in German, because it sounds like murder. So when my mother and I chime into Alle Jahre Wieder, it creates a bond between us but it also reinforces the difference between us and those that we exclude. It shows us the price that we pay for choosing to share our lives with a new culture. We compromise by singing English carols sometimes, but we both feel the limits of this pleasure no longer shared.


My mantelpiece during a Christmas in Dublin

I also haven’t given up Christmas Eve. Abandoning the Heiligabend (Holy Night) in favour of a main event in daylight hours fills me with dread. Fortunately, my partner has been happy to accommodate me in this regard – probably because of the promise of a sleep in on Christmas Day. But I don’t know whether I will be able to impose my will on my future children, against the tide of a competing and perfectly valid Australian tradition.

Batcho notes that nostalgia is, above all, a bitter-sweet sensation. She says “the bitter part is knowing that the past is irretrievable” but the sweetness of a positive memory, a feeling of being loved and whole in another time or place can be enough to save us from unmitigated depression. I take this to heart. While it is bitter to see my beloved traditions become memories, I do try to focus on the sweet, sweet pleasures of the life that I am building here, in the now. I chose to become a citizen of this country and I love a man who was made in and by this place. I am lucky to be surrounded by people here who embrace my difference, people who say, “I’d love to see a white Christmas one day”. This year, I hosted Australian friends for an Austrian Christmas lunch. These friends come from all over the world, and with them, I can share my traditions and objects and rituals. And that’s a beautiful thing, even though I know that they are just visitors to a place that still feels like home to me.

© Anna Koestenbauer, 2016