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Changing Into Your Christmas Culture

Jeff DeGraff: At Christmas, I change from one culture into another and yet another still and back again. 

What if you could change your culture? You know, culture, that invisible collection of beliefs and morals made manifest through your use of language, customs and rituals. Your culture informs everything in your life from how you select your spouse to what you believe about God. Anthropologists study it, business school professors proclaim its power, but few understand it, even fewer master it and fewest of all can change it. But what if you really have more than one culture that you could easily change into? Not just the picket fences that divide the various roles you play at work, home or school, but something altogether different. Think of it like your workout clothes in the duffle bag behind the door at the office that transforms you into a running fool at lunch or after hours. You dress and act differently. Of course you are an amalgam of cultures, a hybrid or mash-up, but you have a dominant culture that you use more often and effectively like your right or left hand.  At Christmas, I change from one culture into another and yet another still and back again. I believe many of you do as well and if you are mindful this simple transformation may provide some real insight as to how you can make your life better and new without the pain of denying or abandoning your personal history.

If you’ve ever seen the charming movie the Polar Express then you have a pretty good idea of what it was like to grow up in western Michigan in the 1960s. Christmas in the Dutch enclave of Kalamazoo was a rather restrained experience. Bronson Park, the city commons, was so tastefully adorned with all the proper trimmings that even John Calvin would have approved. The carolers from Dutch Reformed Church across the way sang beautifully and afterwards there was advocaat, think eggnog with more egg and less nog, for the adults and stroopwafels, reasonably sweet cookies, for the children. The holidays always felt under control as we celebrated the birth of our Lord and patently awaited Sinterklaas.

Presumed by my surname to be a good Dutch boy, little did my friends and neighbors suspect that in reality I had a second self that was something altogether quite different. You see my mother is part of a noisy, hand waving, passionate group of malcontents called Hungarians. My grandfather was the head of the family. It was as if he was the mayor of one block of little houses in Elkhart, Indiana, that all seemed to belong to family or assumed relatives. He took tremendous pride in being an American and yet, upon the first step into his little two bedroom palace during the holiday season it was clear that his was a uniquely ethnic interpretation. There were the telltale signs: The exotic smell of spicy Magyar cuisine, the garish bubbling Christmas lights strewn across all visible surfaces, the syrupy sweet Tokaji wine fermenting in large brown glass jugs that previously held some industrial compound, and of course a multitude of chatty great Aunts who wore all their jewelry whenever they left the house and seemed to talk in tongues at the same time. Like a scene from Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You, there was always some disheveled employee from the factory or an eccentric inventor dropping in to get my grandfather’s blessing or advice, or a maybe one of my grandmother’s powdery kiffles or a slice of kolache.  

Only sixty miles apart, Christmas in Kalamazoo and Elkhart were culturally on opposite sides of the planet with each deeply suspicious of the other. These views were forged in the fiery crucible of experience across centuries; not the easily dismissed trivialities the purveyors of self-help would have you believe. Knowing where I was and who I was talking with was essential to my well being. To confuse the two was to bring criticism and reprimand. So instead of joining the conflict on one side or the other, I learned to be a fluent translator. Though I didn’t possess any special gift or aptitude for such ambidextrous negotiations I somehow managed to competently make sense of the “other” without becoming a passive chameleon.

There are good reasons that people don’t believe the same nonsense that you do. Your culture greatly informs how you perceive the world. It determines what you interpret as honorable, good and true. Its intangible presence can be felt in most everything you do from the songs you sing to the food you eat. However, what you take to be your culture is as much a matter of what you identify with and value as the circumstances to which you were born.
So what can you do to change your culture this holiday season?

1. Acknowledge that you can’t really discard your dominant culture. Instead, focus on adjusting or updating your culture to be more useful to you. Replace the idea of change, a reactive concept that implies moving away from something, with growth, a proactive idea that suggests moving towards some desired destination real or imagined.

Example: It was customary in my house to give Christmas ornaments to relatives during the holiday season. It was a way of keeping loved ones near every time we reminisced around the tree. Yet, now many of our friends practice other faiths or are agnostic and don’t celebrate Christmas. So we find books or knick knacks throughout the year to give as keepsakes during the holidays. It also reminds us to make time to visit with the people we hold dear. 

2. Look around your house, office and even into your cyberspace for artifacts that reveal who you really are. Take note of themes or hot spots, things that evoke a lot of energy or emotion in you. Look for signs of your multiple cultures.

Example: In my office, I have paintings of four of my heroes that hang on the wall: Saint Thomas More, Pythagoras, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Santa Claus. Each represents aspects of my dominant culture as it exists now. They also reveal my blind spots, such as the fact that they are all middle age white men like myself, and encourage me to extend my range.

3. Consider which artifacts point to your past and which ones point to your future. Cherish the past for what it was and focus on your future. Don’t try to eliminate those parts of your culture that you no longer need. Instead, look for ways to honor their role in your development and supplement or adapt them in small steps to encourage your growth.

Example: I have many photos in my office of celebrations, events and vacations with friends and family, some now gone but not forgotten. I also have laminated images representing my long term goals. When viewed together I see the flow of my life and what part of my past has become my present as well as what part of my present I hope to be part of my future. These images help pull me forward with a sense of continuity.

4. Create a new tradition that accentuates part of your culture that has been overlooked or you wish to reclaim or has newly emerged. Maybe it’s moving some forgotten mementoes from the attic to your computer desk or making a pilgrimage to site of personal significance or composing a new prayer.

Example: I never met my fraternal grandparents even though they lived less than an hour from my childhood home. Only after they passed away did I learn that the family was largely Native American. I had no real relationship with their culture. But over the years long lost cousins have reached out to me during the holidays and given me pictures and stories of a family I never knew I had. I’ve included them in a shadow box above my desk. They are now part of my story.

Many years ago I married a lovely Chinese woman from Indonesia. We now have a new culture with a distinct Asian flair to add to our wardrobe: Clamorous season’s greetings are exchanged in fast foreign falsetto tones, bright orange and yellow are now part of the color palette of the holidays and the smell of Mandarin duck and shrimp shumai fills the air on Christmas Eve. And as if to connect the dots, she prepares palacsinta, Hungarian crepes, for dessert.

Though the places we come from have changed, the experience of belonging to multiple cultures remains relatively the same. We are a marvelously diverse people: Ethnicity, religion, orientation and language, just to name a few. So I’m guessing you too have multiple cultures hanging in your closet. While many are old and tired and better left on the rack, look to see if there are some that have come back into style or can be tailored to fit you now. If not, maybe it’s time to treat yourself to a new ensemble. If you can change your culture for the holidays, you can change it every day. Now that’s a gift you can wear all year.

Jeff DeGraff is a professor, author, speaker and advisor to hundreds of the top organizations in the world. To learn more about Jeff and his work on innovation please visit You can follow Jeff on Twitter @JeffDeGraff and Facebook @deanofinnovation.


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