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Shades of light: festival season around the world

Writers from Myanmar, Italy, Sweden, and Israel reflect on the festival season in their region

Swedish Christmas, Matilda Sidel

Holidays transport us out of our everyday routines and into their rituals. Whilst these occasions often elicit love and nostalgia, they also bring with them trickier sensations of nationalism and pride. Many holidays today are the manifestations of tradition and politics, where the past is interpreted and reinvented in light of contemporary ambitions. The suspension of quotidian expectations can offer time to reflect and imagine another self. They signal beginnings, running to rhythms and reason outside of the Gregorian calendar, and provide a shared vocabulary to express and experience connection during heightened turbulence. They can also mean a lot of food.

In this dispatch, Panoramic writers from around the world – Sweden, Israel, Myanmar, and Italy – share their thoughts on ‘holidays’ in their regions.

Sweden: Nostalgia in Södertälje

By Matilda Sidel

God Jul! – Merry Christmas – from my mother’s hometown, Södertälje, just south of Stockholm, Sweden. We celebrate on Christmas Eve, julafton.

The day has a strong sense of ritual, even routine. Nothing smacks directly of ‘institutional religion’, but it feels as if half the country is doing the exact same thing. A morning walk, in the snow if you’re lucky! Next, a big smörgåsbord lunch, or julbord, a hearty buffet with creamy potatoes, ham, meatballs, sausages, and pickled beetroot. Then, there’s a pungent twist. Pickled herring (my favourite with mustard), which you save on your plate to be washed down with Christmas drinking carols and ‘snaps’ – yes, shots – at the chosen moment. After seconds and thirds, we migrate to watch the same Disney medley that has reliably played at 15.00 sharp since my mum was little, at least.

The dominant tone of Swedish Christmas is folky, nostalgic for the pre-industrial. This televised program is a counterpoint, luring us into the cheerful mass production of Santa’s workshop, all technicolour American dreams and modern work ethics. Finally, we turn to presents, preferably with gingersnaps and glögg (mulled wine, but better). Santa (Tomten) often makes an appearance, but his smaller ancestors (tomtar) are the real creatures of the season. Tomtar are uncanny, troll-like characters who wear beards and red pointy hats. They have silly voices and an unpredictable capacity to turn snappy and threatening. Cute and ridiculous, but potentially dangerous neighbours, they belong both in dark fairytales and in decorations on nearly every available surface throughout December.

This year, as I wished my grandma goodnight before Christmas, her half-joking response was – ‘Sleep well. I hope you don’t dream of tomtar waiting for you, knocking on your door, and demanding to be given porridge.’

Israel: The myth, propaganda, and reality of Khanukeh

By Ethel Niborski

The Jewish festival of light, Khanukeh (spelled as pronounced in Yiddish, my mother tongue and the language in which I celebrate), is often associated with force and victory. After all, it originates in a historical Jewish uprising, the Maccabees, against Greek rulers in ancient Israel, resulting in Jewish regional sovereignty. In Israel, the country I live in, a common narrative during the festival is the myth of ‘the few versus the many.’ This comes from the precedent of the Maccabees defeating the stronger and better organised Greeks. Such narratives, whether utilised in festivities or politics, are easily manipulated. Often, during Khanukeh, I find myself continuously reminded of how a myth lauded during holiday celebrations is also used to justify the Zionist project, by depicting modern Israel as a tiny, persecuted state that manages, time and again, almost miraculously, to overcome much stronger opposing forces.

For me, however, the miraculousness of the holiday lies somewhere else. As I devour fried pastries and play the dreydl with my younger brother, he points out that usually, Israeli dreydls wear the letters ‘Nun, Giml, Hey, Pey.’ This stands for, ‘Nes Gadol Haia Po’ – a great miracle happened here. Our own dreydls, though, are diasporic ones, with a ‘Shin’ instead of ‘Pey’ for ‘Sham’. ‘Nes Gadol Haia Sham’ - A great miracle happened there. This is a reminder that our Jewish connection to the land should be metaphorical and spiritual, rather than chauvinistic and aggressive.

The light of the menorah candles, which we light daily for eight consecutive days,appears not as the hostile, all-consuming beam of a big fire. Rather, it is a fragile and thin glow, full of hope and tenderness in the darkest time of the year. This year, the season is even darker than usual, given the recent election of our new far-right government. Listening to the warm wisdom of the candles winking to me from my windowsill, while outside rain needles down a shivering sky, I think about my favourite Khanukeh tune: A Yiddish song by labour poet Avrom Reisen called, “Boruch Ato zingt der tate” (Blessed art thou, the father sings). The song tells of a poor, exhausted father lighting the Menorah, as seen by his son. While absorbing the knowing glimmer of the candles, suddenly “It seems that there still is something, that there still exists something to love, in this holy hour. The old sounds, long bygone – they still sound!”. The ancient rituals awaken analogies to the historic struggle. But for this song’s narrator, as for me, this is not a struggle for nationalistic control. Rather, it is a struggle towards a more just and honourable world for anyone familiar with the bitter taste of persecution – Jewish or not.

Myanmar: The Thing about Thingyan

By Hmuu Po Mo

Religious rituals. Water cleansing. Spring cleaning. These are just a few of the things that mark the beginning of a New Buddhist Year.

Every year in April, we, the Burmese, celebrate our traditional holiday called Thingyan. The focal commemoration behind this festival is to cleanse ourselves with water to wash away any bad deeds we might have committed unintentionally.

When we hear the word ‘Thingyan’ a few things come into our noodles. The first is the salient traditional flower called ‘Padauk’ the gathered bundle of bright yellow petals attached to the light green stems which release an aromatic scent, reminding us of love and youthfulness to embrace the new year. Forebye the flowers, being a Southeast Asian country enriched in culture, our traditional Thingyan food called ‘MontLoneYayPaw’ also known as Floating Rice Dough Ball is another essential in this celebration, along with Mont Lat Saung and Shwe Yin Aye.

Now, getting to the fun part of this holiday, is the water festival. The celebration consists of traditional group dances that will most likely leave the audience in awe. Free food is given out to all in honour of the New Year and most remarkably, the throwing of water to synergize everyone on this ecstatic holiday. In the wake of the 4 day-long holiday, people convene at the monastery and nunnery in hopes of achieving tranquillity and to reflect on their past year.

For me, the Thingyan Holiday is not only the way for us, humankind, to review our choices in life. It is also a form of self care that takes place alongside celebrating this joyful holiday with the ones we love and with the ones we don’t know. It is an altruistic way to bring all of us down to the simplest level and search for a sense of inner peace within ourselves, surrounded by all.

Italy- Enacting holiday traditions

By Riccardo Picciulin

In Italy, Christmas traditions revolve around the celebration of the birth of Jesus and the cultural customs of the Catholic religion. One popular tradition is the creation of a presepe, or nativity scene, which depicts the scene of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The presepe is typically set up in the home or in a church and may include figurines of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, and various animals, as well as a stable or cave to represent the place of Jesus' birth.

The presepe has its roots in medieval Italy. There, it was a popular way to depict the story of the nativity for those who could not read. It became a widespread tradition in the 17th and 18th centuries, and today it is a beloved and integral part of Christmas celebrations in Italy. The presepe serves as a way for Italians to connect with our cultural and religious heritage. It reminds us of the importance of the Christmas story and the values that it represents, being love, compassion, and the celebration of life.

Other Christmas traditions in Italy include the exchange of gifts, the preparation of traditional Christmas foods such as panettone and pandoro, and the attendance of midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Christmas in Italy is a time of joy, it is a time to celebrate and reflect on the values and traditions that are central to the Italian way of life.


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