What Would Have Been

Visualizing Christmas traditions

Helena Klara Jambor
Jan 26 · 5 min read

It was disheartening not to go home for Christmas during this tumultuous pandemic year. Home for me is greeting everyone in the street. I am a country girl at heart, now living in the city. To find my village in the city, I wanted to use conversations and visualizations. I wanted to speak with one neighbor for every house at home. I wanted to learn what their Christmas would have been like in other years. I wanted to listen to their stories about rituals, food, and music that would have been. Where were their family members, loved ones that they would miss this year? I wanted to use conversations to turn strangers into familiar neighbors, and fleeting greeters into friends. And, I wanted to use visuals as a testament to the wealth of their Christmas traditions.

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I therefore set out to talk with 30 neighbors. Rapidly, I learned some lessons. Myself not being a journalist, I didn’t realize the scale of conducting 30 interviews. My conversations went far beyond what I wanted to collect data on. Also, with lock-down, knocking on doors was increasingly problematic. Instead, I included as ‘neighbors’ people I worked with in December, and with whom I usually would not necessarily have had personal conversations. I talked during walks, in the garden, via the door intercom, and email. And I am most grateful that not one person turned down my invitation to talk.

The data I collected is anything but quantitative and the respondents are not a representative sample of my city, and probably not even representative of my street. They just happen to be neighbors in Dresden, Germany — among the few people I met in December. I visualized these qualitative findings below.

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Right: Icon legend of Christmas rituals, sorted by its frequency across families. Left: Sequence of events for some families. Note that the main festivities in Germany are on Christmas Eve. Two interviewees stand out, an American opening gifts only in the morning of the 25th and an Argentinian, who opens gifts just after midnight.

Christmas is packed with rituals and traditions. I first asked my neighbors what normally would happen on their 24th of December. For the visualization, I encoded each Christmas day activity with an icon. The icon size in the legend indicates the frequency of the particular ritual across all families. For each family, I then lined up the icons in the order of their events. This revealed that no two of my neighbors share the exact same Holy Night. While every family opens presents and enjoys food at some point, a bath and fireworks were traditions reported only one respondent.

Every feast comes with food and I loved hearing about the goodies of my neighbors homes. The dishes served on Christmas Eve were surprisingly variable. I visualized this with chord diagrams. Each node is a food and lines connect what families combine into a meal. For dishes without sides, for example raclette, the lines end right away. I thought everyone in Germany had the (in)famous Frankfurter sausages with potato salad. Instead, it ranged from a festive dinner to a simple soup. On Christmas Day, the chord diagram on the right, almost everyone but my family settled on a variation goose with dumplings and red cabbage. (We simply are too many vegetarians for this option!). A curious tradition was similar in Poland and the Saxon mountains: a fixed number of dishes is served, representing wishes for the next year: in Saxony, it’s nine dishes (“Neunerlei”), and in Poland, it’s 12!

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Family meals served on Christmas Eve, which is the main festivity in Germany, and on Christmas Day. It turns out for Christmas, Germans eat German food again.

With one notable exception, everyone considers music important for Christmas Eve. Around half of the families sing a few songs in addition to listening to CDs, radio, or TV programs. Few families have a fixed list of songs. Instead, most sing the usual German Christmas repertoire of Silent Night, Oh Du fröhliche, or the ode to the tree, Oh Tannenbaum. Exceptions were one family singing the Bach choral Brich an oh schönes Morgenlicht and one family that insists on an a-Capella version of Wham’s Last Christmas. To show the sound of Christmas, I used an isotype-like chart in which a note represents one family’s music. The musical pause symbol encodes no music. (Colors and note variations are purely decorative, for which fans of isotype diagrams please forgive me!)

Many people still sing with their families or listen to a Christmas record, and one family does a karaoke. Each note represents one answer, symbol and color variations are purely to add a little festive spirit.

The decorated and candle-lit Christmas tree is still a must for most, but already three families abolished it, or plan to do so soon. Some for environmental reasons, others because they have a pet cat who would jump up the tree. Many have special decorative items that are family heirlooms or self-made, the most curious being a tiny Jesus figurine with a pine cone skirt.

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Many respondents have a favorite Christmas tree decoration. Typical in Germany: almost half of the families use real candles to light up their trees! Few families abolished the tree.

During the conversations I realized that most families have some peculiarities, funny habits, or curiosities that have become a Christmas ritual. Not wanting to hide a single of these amazing stories in a summary visualization, I ended up using a line of text for each answer. While almost every family enjoys special drinks, some have fixed times: champagne when lighting the candles or eggnog to end the evening. For some, Santa, animals in the forest, or their dog are treated to a special dish. And often, this odd family tradition revolves around the mom. As a mom myself, I can see why. Moms are the head of protocol for Christmas and try, often in vain, to keep everyone engaged on this day.

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My neighbors have families mostly in and around Dresden and in Germany. For a few the dearest are separated by oceans.

My conversations and visualizations allowed me to share stories and laughs with neighbors and acquaintances. It turns out that families have an amazing diversity in their Christmas traditions, except in their meals! Thus, in the end, I did reach my goal: to connect with people, to get to know their hopes and homes for Christmas, and to talk about all those relatives near and far, that we collectively missed out on meeting this year.

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Helena Jambor is a PhD scientist at the University Hospital Dresden. She trains scientists in data visualization, lectures in bioinformatics @BeuthHS, and sketches as a hobby. Connect on Twitter @helenajambor or mail:hjambor-at-gmail-dot-com.

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Thanks to Mary Aviles

Helena Klara Jambor

Written by

DataVis scientist, bioinformatics lecturer, PhD in RNA biology.

Nightingale

The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

Helena Klara Jambor

Written by

DataVis scientist, bioinformatics lecturer, PhD in RNA biology.

Nightingale

The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

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