For the past few weeks, a guilty secret has been lurking in my living room: a pine tree, about nine feet tall, with silver and gold ornaments and a wonky star on top. Yes, our Christmas tree. Still.
In “normal” years — the pre-Covid life that now seems so distant — my family would drag it on to the sidewalk as soon as Christmas was over. I presumed not doing so would seem sloppy and incur bad luck; a new year is supposed to be a fresh and joyful start, with no clinging to the holidays required.
But when I tried to take down our tree in early January, my teenage daughters howled that they wanted to keep it and its pretty lights because “it cheers us all up” and evoked memories of the jollity that we organised on Christmas Day, even when cooped up.
We aren’t the only ones. Many windows and trees on Manhattan’s streets still twinkle with lights, and Park Avenue and Madison Avenue have yet to take down all their seasonal displays. Even some restaurants (still open in New York for outdoor dining) remain festooned with holiday decorations to a degree that I can’t recall seeing in earlier — normal — years.
What’s going on? One obvious explanation is that my family, like others, is simply groping for some cheap and cheery joy in these dark and stressful times. Another is that lockdown has given us cultural permission to break convention: when no one is visiting you at home, there is no social pressure to take down the tree.
But a third, more interesting, explanation is that the shock of Covid-19 lockdowns and the regime of working from home has caused our sense of time to collapse. These days, when for many of us life is a jumble of images on a computer screen, it is hard enough to remember what day of the week it is. And since few have gone back to school or the office, the concept of a post-holiday world no longer seems so relevant.
Covid-19 is teaching us to reflect on the symbols and structures that give shape to our lives — and to recognise that, much as we appreciate them, they do not need to be set in stone. And while this is disorienting, it might yet turn out to be liberating.
One thing that most of us have realised during lockdown is how much our lives are structured around taxonomies, whether of time, space, people or things. Before Covid-19, we had reassuring rhythms such as year-end holidays and the daily commute, as well as clear distinctions between “work” and “family” spaces or “going out” and “staying in”. However, one principle that anthropologists, among others, emphasise is that there is more than one way to create these taxonomies, even in relation to factors we presume are universal, such as “time”.
Almost a century ago, for example, Benjamin Lee Whorf, a linguistic anthropologist, concluded that the Native American Hopi language has a subtly different way of talking about time and the calendar from what he called “Standard Average European” language (SAE). The latter offers up time as something that passes from past to future; the former, he argued, did not see time as something that moves or flows in the same way.
In SAE, a season is presumed to start on a fixed date (June 1, say, for summer); in Hopi, however, a season is defined by heat. Neither is better or worse — they are different ways of looking at the same thing.
Scholars such as Steven Pinker have subsequently contested parts of Whorf’s argument. But the key point is this: what each culture assumes to be natural or inevitable — its own idea of time, for example — is not.
Similarly, while western European cultures might see time as an arrow moving in a straight line, Buddhism sees it as a wheel. Is time a commodity we control, which we can thus “save”, like money, or something imposed on us, of which we are prisoners? When does the year even start? In China, it is February; in Iran and parts of central Asia, it is in March with Nowruz.
More intriguing still is that subtle distinctions can also exist within cultures. Three decades ago, business sociologist Frank Dubinskas reviewed studies of how US professionals, supposedly united by culture, talk about time: “Time — or, better, times — means different things to each of the communities of scientists, engineers, doctors and executives that we investigate[d],” he wrote in his book Making Time. “No one group or culture has a monopoly on the definition of time.”
So, the next time I look at my no-longer-Christmas tree, I will try to avoid chastising myself for “sloppiness” and embrace the spirit of cultural malleability. In recent days, I finally persuaded my girls to remove the ornaments, which has enabled us to redefine our tree as a cheerful light display or an innovative piece of interior design. It could well be with us for months.
But the question which intrigues me now is this: if we have started breaking once-rigid cultural rules, what will happen when the Covid-19 crisis finally begins to ease? Will we return to a world with the immovable patterns of old? Or will we also rethink other cultural norms, such as the structure of education or the concept of the working week? Therein lies a defining uncertainty for our post-Covid age. Our experiments around dead wood are, I expect, just the start.
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