Patty gets to blog on Christmas Day, so I hope she doesn’t mind me talking about the festive season here, and perhaps reflecting on times past.
The most interesting thing to me, about the festive season, is the proliferation of pagan icons that have stood the test of time, in fact, that reflect the power of the feast of Saturnalia. Given that biblical historians believe that Jesus was in fact born around September (that star is a dead giveaway), one might ask why we are all spending a fortune honoring the giving of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus - in December. The answer, as many of you know, is Saturnalia. Saturnalia is the Roman word given to the winter solstice celebrations.
Those early Christians were a clever lot – we could certainly learn a bit from their PR skills. Noting that pagan peoples had a strong regard for nature, and worshipped, among other things, the evergreen tree (a tree that never seems to die, that signals everlasting life), they saw that their rituals often took place under or close to an evergreen. So they set up shop in the same place, in order to attract custom. Ditto with that most important Christian ritual, a remembrance of the birth of Christ – they moved it to the winter solstice, that time when the pagan peoples lit fires to give strength to the sun, when they ate of summer’s harvest to honor the sweetness of the year to come, and when they honored the evergreen more than at any time of year because those trees were looking the same in Winter as they did in Spring. And of course there was lots of jolly dancing and making merry at yuletide.
So, when you go to Britain, for example, that ancient PR campaign is why you’ll see a yew tree right next to an old church. And it’s also why people decorate Christmas trees (though historians point to the tree being called a “Christmas tree” as something that happened in seventh century Germany), and why, in most northern European countries, there’s a tradition of eating foods that contain the sweet dried fruits of summer – in Britain we have rich Christmas pudding, which is traditionally made in July and left to stew in its juices, which include rum and brandy. I love the bringing together of traditions, the links to an ancient past.
One of those less common traditions is that of stealing your Christmas tree. When I was a young child, my parents lived on a farm in the middle of what is known as “Crown” land – which means that the land upon which the farm was built (we lived in a 13th century house) was owned by the monarch. The farm was surrounded by acres upon acres spruce plantation, so we never had to go far for our Christmas tree. However, when we left that house to live in a nearby hamlet, my father really didn’t like the idea of having to buy a tree when he knew exactly where to get a good one. About a week before Christmas, usually as it was getting to be dark on a Sunday evening, he would leave the house wrapped up warm against the winter’s chill. The dogs at heel, he would make his way across the fields under cover of darkness to bag us a good one.
My brother and I were allowed to stay up until he came home with the tree – we’d rush to greet him as he came through the kitchen door, straight to the old coal range to warm his hands. Then, once he’d had a cup of tea and some toast, he brought in the tree and as a family we would decorate our contraband, waiting for that moment when mum turned off the main light and dad plugged in the tree lights. “Ahhhh,” we said in unison, as if real stardust had settled upon our tree. At that point one of the old tree lights usually blew a fuse.
One year Dad let John and I go with him, which was great fun but almost turned into disaster when my brother yelled into the silent, misty woodland, “Over here, Dad, what about this one.” I took him down in something akin to a rugby tackle to shut him up. Of course, we laugh about it now, but we could have been nabbed.
But one thing I’m eternally grateful for, in that small community where I grew up, is that, though we only celebrated Christmas there, because in those days there were no neighbors who celebrated Hanukkah, or Kwanza, for example (though, to be honest, I think there might have been a Wiccan or two disguised as ordinary people), in our small school the teachers made sure we knew about the rest of the world, that we understood that, though we lived in a less than diverse place, there were others who did not celebrate as we did. (I remember one time, when one of the teachers came in dressed in the chador, one of the boys said, “You look like an amoeba, miss.” You couldn’t actually blame him, because we had been learning about amoeba’s in biology just that week!)
So, having shared a few thoughts and a little history, here’s wishing you Happy Holidays, wherever you are in the world, and however you choose to share this very special time of year. More than anything, I wish you peace.