Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Solstice is a-comin'

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat
Please put a penny in the old man's hat
If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do
If you haven't got a ha'penny, a farthing will do,
If you haven't got a farthing, then God bless you!
This traditional English carol, frequently sung as a round, came to mind shortly after the first snow flurry here in Washington several weeks ago, then again upon reading Heartinsanfrancisco's blog post on the season, Oh come all ye spendful.

She is tired of the season already and no wonder.

In this economic-trough Christmas, with retail sales expectations crashing through the floor, Madison Avenue has unleashed advertising with full orchestration and four-part harmony weeks before Thanksgiving. Let's face it, in these times no one feels like shopping for anyone but children -- and then only to buy them practical things, like mittens.

In yet another piece of Christmas vitriol, 'Tis the Season To Be Incredulous by Christopher Hitchens restates, once again, his core objection to the holiday:
for almost a whole month, the United States—a country constitutionally based on a separation between church and state—turns itself into the cultural and commercial equivalent of a one-party state.
Replace Jesus with "the Dear Leader," as Hitchens does, and you'll get the idea of Christmas, North Korean style, which is a novel and humorous way of looking at it.

Sure, Christmas, from late Old English Cristes Maesse ("Mass of Christ"), is not, Heart correctly states, a particularly early Christian holiday. Still, I am unable to confirm the papal declaration from the year 320 of our era, which Heart cites, and would stay with the better known integration of the feast into the church Roman calendar around the 7th century.

Similarly, the December 25 Christmas feast coincides with the Roman sun-worship festival Natalis Invicti ("birthday of the unconquered"), which is believed to have roots in Mithraism. Still, direct links between the two are difficult to prove.

Finally, gift giving is traditionally linked to the largesse to children of St. Nicholas of Myra, located in today's Turkey, whose remains were taken to Italy, where he is known as St. Nicholas of Bari.

Thus, there is some support for the idea that Christmas is a religious feast of specifically Christian origin and content, even if some early Christian writers thought the birth of Jesus -- assuming it happened -- took place in April or May. Of course, it is hard to find the original idea behind the tree-worship of the Tannenbaum, the Druidic mistletoe and, of course, the commercial and cultural totalitarianism of shopping malls' piped-in carols.

Still, to this unbeliever, there seems little wrong with a holiday that is essentially an attempt to whistle in the dark and gloom of wintry nights. The solstice is when we are furthest from the life-enhancing and light-giving sun.

Why not wassail with some abandon? Why not hurl invectives at the night and cold and deadly bareness of the season? Why not purloin cheer and hope from whatever stories are closest at hand, without worrying whether the events they recount ever happened?

Have a happy solstice, everyone!
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