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We are in Tartu and it’s December. This seems like a simple statement but as someone who hail’s from the southern hemisphere this is no joking matter. If it’s not apparent yet, the combination of Christmas and winter is quite the novel one for me. Up until last year, my christmases involved ice cream at the pool and my uncle dressed as “Santa” carrying gifts in a tank top, a white and red stripped swimsuit, and flip flops. Very christmasy… isn’t it? So it’s no wonder that the first time I saw the Christmas market and the ginormous tree in the town square, I was quite awestruck. It was like being in a movie or living inside a snow globe. Pure Christmas magic. This is my second Christmas in Tartu and a bit of the foreignness has started to wore off. But while I still retain the sense of wonderment, let me tell you some of the things I’ve noticed about these very white Christmases.

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        Picture this. It’s December, it’s 35 degrees outside, the sun shines so bright it’s blinding, and you have decided it’s time to put the tree up. You take out the box and start to assemble the strange plastic contraption. You bought it last year, it’s light blue in color, all the rage at the time. Your best friend has a pastel pink one in their house, those were also popular. You assemble it and then start decorating. The ornaments come first, you have many of them. Some of them look like reindeers, you have never seen this animal outside of the TV before and you wonder whether it’s an actual animal or not. The next one is a sled, and you think to yourself that it must be hard to move it without any wheels, or does it just slip everywhere? Another one is a snowman, it’s made out of plastic and you cannot conceive it having any other texture. Some angels, some globes, and other miscellaneous ones and you are done. Then it’s time for the white plastic garland. Is it supposed to resemble snow? You are not entirely sure. Now the lights… or does it matter? They are not going to be turned on for very long… whatever, you decide to put them on anyway since you have them. You test the lights, they work. Lastly the star on the top. And then you are done. You admire your handiwork. Looks just like the one your mom used to decorate, well except hers was green. Now you are sweating from the heat and the work you have completed, and decide to cool off outside on the shade with some cold iced drinks. You start to think about Christmas Eve. You are in charge of the main dish, probably some barbecue you’ll be making on the outside grill, you should remember to wear shorts and a light t-shirt or the heat from the grill could end up being too much. Your siblings are in charge of the side dishes and the cold plates that accompany the meal. Someone is bringing ice cream for dessert and bags of ice for the beverages. What about music? It’s probably going to be some folk music, the same one you listen to on Sundays when the family gets together. And let’s not forget to clean the pool in case someone wants to take a dip to cool down. Everything seems to be in place…

        Does this description seem surreal to you? I had heard previously that Christmas was an “imported” festivity to the southern hemisphere (and probably everywhere but Europe). Though I did not get to really understand what that meant until I was standing outside on one snowy day in front of a massive Christmas tree, peppered with real snow. It hit me for the first time (like a bag of bricks to the head) just how strange my christmases had been. There’s no snow, and most people from where I’m from have probably never seen snow in their lives. There’s no real Christmas trees, just plastic ones that are so normalized that any sense of resemblance they once had to an actual tree has been lost through the generations. There’s no Christmas carols, we don’t even have a replacement for those. The weather is not cold, just the food and the drinks. Everything is just… out of season, slightly off. Not that I had noticed before. And it might just seem like a case of cultural syncretism… maybe. But once you get to experience a real white Christmas, it feels more like a knock-off version than an adaptation. Things that seemed meaningless before now make sense, and you can’t help but wonder why were all these traditions imported as such, without consideration to the ‘why’ of their existence. So many little things about the paradigmatic Christmas season experience do not make sense in summer that it feels like a waste of what, in my eyes, seem to be some very clever traditions, tailored to have specific effects on the community. Hear me out.

Photo credit: Andrea Barone Renolfi

         Back to Tartu in December. It’s cold, dark, and… very cold and very dark. Let’s not underestimate the power of temperature and light on the psyche. There are only a limited number of hours of daylight, the weather is your friend only as long as you stay inside with the heat on, and most of the colors seem to have been replaced by a distinct shade of white, snow white. It’s depressing and lonely. You look out the window and it looks desolate. But does it have to be that way? Enter Christmas. It’s dark, but does it have to be? Let’s hang up lights all throughout the town, even on the trees. It’s cold, but does it have to be? We can have nice themed special hot beverages and foods. It seems desolate but does it have to be? Let’s join together and celebrate. Celebrate what? Does it matter? You walk through the city and Christmas is there to remind you. There’s light when there’s joy, there’s color when there’s intention, and there’s warmth when in company of others. Christmas seems to offset the negative effects that the harsh winter wants to impose. It’s there like a balm to the battered up soul. And the big party is almost on the shortest day of the year, like waiting there to let you know that the darkness will start to rescind. The magic of Christmas is the power to remind you that you are not alone. That the harshness of nature can be overcome… together. Does it sound like an exaggeration? Maybe it is. But when the days are shorter, the temperature colder, and a slight sense of emptiness starts to set, colorful decorations and small little lights seem to pop up everywhere. Decorations and an underlying spirit that remind me that anything can be beautiful and that I’m not alone.

Photo credit: Andrea Barone Renolfi

        I’ll be the first to admit that Christmas by itself, is a bit of a tricky festivity. It used to be one thing that turned into another and then another. I will not get into what it means or where it comes from. All I’m trying to say is that while Christmas in the southern hemisphere seems to serve absolutely no purpose, with strange traditions that do not make much sense (religious sentiments aside), these white Christmases up here in the north feel purposeful. They seem to be there to replace something that is lost at this time of the year. Christmas lights to replace sunlight. Decorations to replace the colors of nature dampened by the snow. Hot beverages and sweet food to aid in combating the cold weather. Songs about happy things to fill the silence left behind by the stillness of the season. And community events that remind you that there are others going through the same harsh times. Like a doctor trying to treat the symptoms of a patient, Christmas traditions seem to be tailored to the harsh winters of the northern hemisphere. So my proposition is the following: I think us southerners should just move Christmas to June. Maybe that way we can start to understand the true meaning of Christmas magic, a cultural adaptation to the natural phenomenon that is winter.

hortus semioticus

Hortus Semioticus is a peer reviewed online journal of semiotics featuring new generation of semiotic researchers.

Hortus Semioticus on eelretsenseeritav semiootika võrguajakiri, mis on pühendatud uue põlvkonna semiootilistele uurimustele.


Our blog is a digital resource where everyone passionate about semiotics can share their knowledge, questions and experience on stuff that matters.

Meie blogi on koht, kus semiootikahuvilised saavad vahendada mõtteid ja infot kõigest, mis loeb.