Back at the end of October, I noticed some holiday confusion at our local mall. Over at the kids’ clothing store, Halloween ruled. The fancy grocery store had a carved pumpkin. Meanwhile, over at the Body Shop, they had rolled out their Christmas Advent calendars. I had stopped to scratch my head over that — but that was nowhere near the headshake-inducing oddity of the Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales that took over Stockholm last week and this.
Swedes celebrate All Saints Day, and their costumes come out for Easter (the kids dress up as witches). They certainly do not celebrate Thanksgiving (though quite a number of Swedes moved to the US in the 1800s — one of ABBA’s members even wrote a rock opera based on some classic novels about that wave of migrants, Utvandrarna). Thankfully, the lights that come out here are usually for the darkness, and the Christmas decor still hits stores at the very end of November.
But there’s a sort of creeping Americanness that is seeping into Sweden’s celebration calendar. My goodness, do Swedes really want to embrace Black Friday and the crazy merchandising of American Christmas? I’m all for Santa Lucia and cozy candles in the windows, but I am not, no not at all, for the sales and Christmas shopping insanity and horrible Christmas music that inundates Americans starting before Halloween. Will the madness ever end? I suspect not. If it’s hitting Sweden, it’s only going to spread year-round.
But perhaps I am being Grinch-like.
Fair warning — I’m about to be even more of a downer. The above is pretty silly. But there’s something deeper here, my rant above masks something a bit more serious.
I find this cultural colonization a bit, well, frustrating. Swedes love American and British culture. I hear English spoken everywhere I go these days (last night on the T-bana I listened to the strangest British-accented conversation about clean-and-jerk workouts, and I eavesdropped on some Australians at the bar and some Americans on the bus). Swedes themselves don’t hesitate to speak perfect English to me, even as I am trying to speak Swedish.
Somehow it seems to me that Swedes also feel fine about adopting these exotic American non-religious holidays like Halloween and Black Friday without the Thanksgiving. Matt points out that these are commercial opportunities, to sell more stuff.
But I suspect it would not be okay if it the holidays were from anywhere else — say, the Middle East or India, or even China. Maybe it’s a little more common to wish someone Happy Ramadan or Happy Divali in the US these days, perhaps even to celebrate Chinese New Year, but it’s rare here.
And will remain so for a while: I am a little sad and obsessed at the moment with the most recent wave of migrants — the young teenage boys from Afghanistan, the educated middle class families from Syria, and so forth. It’s hard to be an immigrant here, harder than in the US (despite the horrifying rhetoric to be heard on the Republican presidential campaign trail at the moment). People are afraid of the incoming immigrants. I understand a bit where folks are coming from: Sweden, a small country of 10 million people, would like to keep its traditions. A huge influx scares them.
I am alternately frustrated by its willingness to adopt my home country’s silliness, yet its stodginess in being open to outsiders. I want Sweden to remain Swedish, to dance the “frog dance” at Midsummer and put candles in their kids’ hair for Santa Lucia. But I want them to learn to comprehend Swedish spoken with a foreign accent. I want them to not be afraid of Muslims (perhaps some of whom may be nearly as nonpracticing of their religion as the irreligious Swedes, who celebrate Christmas but might not be Christian) who are moving here in search of safety.
Perhaps my mixed-up feelings about this (immigration, cultural shifts) are slightly representative of how Swedes feel themselves: welcoming, yet cautious. Embracing of the other, yet worried.
Cultures change, the world is changing. It’s just that some of these changes seem sudden and that makes them scary, scarier than the slowly creeping ones. As Matt pointed out last night, if we were to go back 50 years ago, Swedes would have been aghast at some of the things we do here today, say, that their kids don’t go to church, or gay marriage. Americans would have been as well. Life is change, adaptation, adoption of the new. I — we — can only wait and see as how we adapt and change.