Christmas is heavy on the signifiers. Festive window displays, novelty socks, mall Santas, Christmas playlists… everywhere you look there are blandishments coaxing out our Christmas spirit. Particularly if you live in North America. If you’re in the UK, John Lewis ads and Christmas jumpers do most of the heavy lifting, but the result is the same: that Christmas feeling.
For the Dutch, Christmas comes second
Living in the Netherlands is a completely different situation. Here Christmas isn’t a big deal – they blow their December wad early in the month, with Santa’s funhouse mirror reflection Sinterklaas. That festival involves presents, funny rhyming poetry, ginerbread and all kinds of merriment. It was weeks ago. Christmas is a post-script; a time to have a nice-ish family dinner, if you’re so inclined. If you’re not though, that’s also cool.
They also call Christmas First Christmas and Boxing Day is Second Christmas. That’s right: not only did they do away with Boxing Day, they also talk about Christmases as if they’re a rolling event that obliterates the distinct days that come after. If mission “Second Christmas” continues to creep we’ll eventually lose New Year’s Eve and end up referring to it as “Seventh Christmas”. Madness!
Regardless of whether that worst-case scenario comes true or not, the fact is that I’m not surrounded by a whole lot of Christmasness. And I miss it.
Signs of Christmas
This year in particular I find myself feeling the distance from Christmas. I’m far from my parents, my siblings, my nieces and nephews, and all that Christmasness that I grew up with, which is not that unusual. It’s also 14 degrees here – so no white Christmas coming.
Plus, for a variety of reasons, Chiara and I have been occupied with other things going on, so Christmas did not get a full run-up this year. So I’ve recently ramped up my festive efforts.
I’ve made a batch of Christmas egg nog, bought and decorated an – albeit very small – Christmas tree in our living room, put some Christmas playlists on repeat (including the excellent Wild Xmas with Bomarr vol. 10) and so on. But despite all of these efforts, it still doesn’t feel terribly Christmassy here.
The significance of the signified
I finally understand why: too many signifiers, not enough signified.
I’m no semiotician, but as I understand it, a signifier is (for example) a word (like horse), or a sound (like “the crack of the bat”). On their own they’re just a collection of letters and a sound, respectively.
But the signified (what they stand for) is where the good parts come in. The arrangement of squiggly lines that spells out the word ‘horse’ is nothing without the idea of ‘horse’. The sound of a home run being hit doesn’t mean anything unless you imagine the roar of the crowd, the circumstances, the mustard on your hot dog.
And playing a Christmas album or drinking some egg nog are not adequate in and of themselves to create Christmas (the idea, not the word).
We’ve got just a couple days left, and from now on I’ll be singing Christmas songs, complimenting people’s Christmas attire, and -whether they are interested or not – sharing my homemade egg nog.
And next year, I’ll be better prepared for a Christmas full of both signifiers, and the signified.