A primary intellectual tension energizing ethnographic study from its beginnings as a modern academic pursuit is the identification of deep cultural similarities underneath the teaming diversity of human societies on the surface.
Sometimes, the explanations for these similarities seem curious. The 19th-century German-British Indologist Max Müller formulated a set of theories known as “Solar Mythology”, which at root posits that all cultures observe the annual movements of the sun, which in turn informs their folkloric traditions, such that a hero slaying a dragon derives from the sun conquering the night.
Anthropologists have long since discarded solar mythology as a general theory of folk cultures. But as an explanation of seasonal holidays, it is still relevant today because it is true that all humans experience the movements of the sun and commemorate the corresponding seasons. Holidays marking the equinoxes and solstices are celebrated worldwide, even if those celebrations no longer directly correspond to astronomical phenomenon. Clearly, not everyone celebrates Christmas. But many cultures keep winter festivals that emphasize community, light, and rebirth.
This demonstrates that it is not only modern communication technologies that make international software development possible. This endeavor relies on that oldest of technologies: community. And community is what the holiday season is all about. Ultra Tendency has locations in different countries with different cultures, all celebrating this winter in different ways. But underneath all that, we can identify those deep similarities.
Holidays in Germany
Ultra Tendency started in Germany – a country which has given several Christmas traditions to the world. This includes above all the Christmas tree, but also the idea of the Christkind as gift-bringer, advent calendars, the Christmas market, as well as artistic accomplishments such as E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Christmas is a time for families to gather, exchange gifts, and eat good food together.
While it is commonly accepted that the Christmas tree comes from Germany, there is one other culture that lays claim to the use of evergreen trees as holiday decorations. Latvia had the first Ultra Tendency office outside of Germany in 2019 and the first documented Christmas tree in 1510. Clearly, the history of the Christmas tree is not so straightforward. Otherwise, Latvians celebrate Christmas with the exchange of gifts, church attendance, and shared meals.
Holidays in Iberia
Spain and Portugal are the fastest growing locations for Ultra Tendency in terms of employment. Families typically gather on the 24th for dinner and exchange gifts at midnight. Often, city-dwellers return to their home village to visit elderly family members and if they are religiously inclined may go to Midnight Mass. The traditional Christmas dinner includes much regional and national variety, such as Bacalhau (a cod dinner) in Portugal or suckling pig in Spain. Desserts are lavish, including turron de Alicante (almond nougat), churros, leite crème (crème brûlée), Rabanadas (sweetened fried bread), and many more. Often a second dinner is in order. On Iberia, it seems to be all about the food!
Holidays in Nepal
The most recently founded office of Ultra Tendency is in Nepal, where most people celebrate Christmas only as a secular imported holiday, with Christmas parties and decorations. The traditional winter festival marking the passing of the winter solstice is known as Maghe Sankranti. The period after the solstice is thought to be an auspicious period, with spring approaching and the days growing longer. In this time, families gather for traditional foods and take part in ritual bathing. Even if the celebrations are distinct and historically different than Christmas, the underlying features connected to the movements of the sun are nevertheless identifiable with Christmas traditions.
Holidays in the United States
Turning our attention to Ultra Tendency’s fledgling presence in the United States will take us right back to Germany. Particularly in the Midwest, heavily populated with Americans of German descent, we find a plethora of authentic German traditions. In Chicago, where Ultra Tendency has its US office, the German-American Chamber of Commerce holds a traditional German Christmas market on Daley Plaza. Many of the vendors are from Germany, so even if there are more skyscrapers than in Magdeburg, the atmosphere is not so different. Similar markets are to be found in other cities with strong German heritage, such as Milwaukee or Austin. Americans of German descent have furthermore developed traditions they believe to be from Germany but are unique to the United States. Santa Claus is identified as vaguely Germanic, even if the figure is an amalgamation of the German Saint Nicholas, the Christkind, the British Father Christmas, a Coca-Cola advertising campaign from a century ago, and other innovations of the culture industry. German-Americans will also hide a pickle decoration in their Christmas tree for children to find. The first to find it typically receives an extra gift. This is believed to be a German practice and there is even a German word for it: “Weihnachtsgurke”. But nobody has ever identified such a tradition in Germany. It is a German-American innovation.
The holiday season still performs a function similar to what early humans needed. It’s cold out. We need the familiar comforts, the social interactions, and the even just the lights to keep our mind off the depths of winter until we are close enough to spring to have something else to look forward to.
At Ultra Tendency, we wish you all a happy holiday season, no matter what, how, or if you celebrate!