A something in a summer’s noon –
A depth — an Azure — a perfume –
Transcending ecstasy. - Emily Dickinson
You may have noticed that this essay posted fifty minutes late today; that was fully intentional, because I couldn’t resist the opportunity to have the moment of posting coincide with the moment the apparent path of the sun reached its northernmost point at 10:51 UTC (5:51 AM where I live). I say “where I live” rather than “where I am” because as you already know I’m not at home right now, and the moment of solstice occurred well before sunrise here in Denver. Those of you who have followed this blog for a long time know that I’m not really upset about missing the summer’s heat at home; though it’s not as sweltering there as it is in New Orleans it’s bad enough (though as my body ages I find it easier to endure the heat and harder to endure the cold). And though I won’t be home to pick many blackberries myself, I hope to get at least a few while I’m home for Independence Day. Then it’s off again to the eastern half of the country, and by the time I’m home again summer will be dying and my beloved autumn will be on the way. I hope to be able to enjoy it the better for having had (I hope and pray) a successful book tour, and if you’d like to help that to happen please donate to my fundraising campaign on GoFundMe. I wish each and every one of you equal success in whatever summer projects you undertake.
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Hail, bounteous May, that dost inspire
Mirth, and youth, and warm desire! - John Milton, “Song on a May Morning”
As I’ve often stated, all of the great holidays are just old pagan ones with new names and new Christian or secular coats of paint; scratch that thin veneer and the heathen origin of the observance becomes obvious to all but the most willfully blind. But while festivals like Christmas, Halloween and even Valentine’s Day have thrived, others have limped along in some maimed form, while still others have simply fallen by the wayside. But Beltane is probably the only one which was actively suppressed: many of its features were transferred to Easter and others were banned after the Protestant Reformation, and the day itself was preempted by a dreary and ultra-serious labor rights observance which should actually have been held three days later. The reason for these concerted attempts to destroy the holiday is very simple: it’s the only one which is entirely about sex. Oh, lots of spring festivals have their sexual components, but “lusty” May Day was entirely devoted to it. And as Western culture became less and less comfortable with sex over the last two millennia, and more and more determined to suppress it, poor May Day just had to go. Other than neopagan rituals and a few European remnants like May Queen festivals and May Eve bonfires, the holiday has almost entirely vanished; even the pathetic efforts of leftover Marxists get more attention. And that’s just sad; perhaps sex workers and our supporters need to reclaim it, strip it of the false fig leaves with which some have tried to cover its nature, and once again herald it as a day to celebrate Nature’s gift of sex.
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Again rejoicing Nature sees
Her robe assume its vernal hues
Her leafy locks wave in the breeze,
All freshly steep’d in the morning dews. - Robert Burns
As I pointed out last year, most of the holidays Christianity took over from paganism and redecorated with a Christian rationale are still pagan to the core; this is especially true of Easter, which is virtually indistinguishable from the other spring festivals which preceded it all the way back to Sumer and before. Christians still celebrate with the ancient symbols of flower, hare and egg, Jesus’ coming forth from the tomb is just the old story of Tammuz or Attis or Adonis or Osiris with refurbished names and details, and (in English, at least) even the festival’s name is that of the goddess from whom Christ inherited the day. Before cute bunnies and the like become the dominant iconography in the early part of the 20th century, the goddess still appeared on Easter cards and other illustrations in the guise of an angel, a young mortal girl or even the Blessed Mother; no matter how much the Church patriarchy tried to suppress her, she just kept popping up out of the spiritus mundi like spring flowers from winter soil. And though the sheer joy of spring is severely muted due to the disconnection of modern urbanites from nature, her symbolism still persists; as this holiday reminds us, many things which have been buried are nonetheless not truly dead, and merely await the proper time to emerge into the sunlight once more.
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Come, gentle Spring! Ethereal Mildness! Come. - James Thomson
At 16:57 UTC today (just before noon where I live) the apparent path of the sun will cross the celestial equator on its way north, for the fourth time since I’ve started this blog, the forty-eighth since the beginning of my current incarnation, the two thousand and fourteenth since the beginning of the Common Era and the (roughly) fifty-nine hundredth since the arrival of spring became an important enough event to calculate, mark and celebrate. Obviously the event had occurred every year, unmarked on human calendars, since the Earth was born, and had come and gone uncounted times between the point at which we first turned our eyes to the stars and the point at which we began to count the days; however, until we invented agriculture and began to fear the winters, we never bothered to wonder about the specific moment of transition between one season and the next. For roughly the first four thousand years after we began to plant and harvest, the winters were so mild that the exact day simply wasn’t an issue; once it got warm enough we planted, and that was that. But after the climate change we still dimly recall in our myths of losing a primordial Golden Age or Eden, it became necessary to plan ahead to make use of the shortened growing season; furthermore, those ancient farmers needed to ensure they did not plant too soon and lose the young crop to a late frost. The dawn of the growing season was likened to the dawn of a day, so it isn’t too surprising that the Indo-European dawn-goddess also became the goddess of spring in many cultures; Eostre was what the Anglo-Saxons called her, and we still use her name for a slightly-later spring festival which has since been taken over by another god. But as we have seen many times in this blog, the old symbols never quite go away even if we create new meanings for them; the hare and the egg belonged to Eostre, and still persist in the celebration of that slightly-later holiday even if few who employ them understand why.
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All because it’s carnival time
Well, it’s carnival time
Well it’s carnival time
Everybody’s having fun. - Al Johnson, “Carnival Time”
As I’ve written before, “even though today isn’t a holiday for most of you, it will always be one for me,” and though I don’t live in the city any longer I always try to avoid going anyplace on Fat Tuesday (in French, Mardi Gras) because it’s just too weird seeing everything open and everyone acting as though it isn’t a holiday. See, even though the occasion’s rationale is strictly Catholic (it’s the last day one can eat, drink and be merry before the solemn season of Lent begins tomorrow, Ash Wednesday), the actual celebration is purely pagan and comes down in a direct line from the Babylonian Zagmuk by way of Saturnalia and medieval Twelfth Night celebrations. The mock king who was sacrificed in the true king’s place became for centuries the Lord of Misrule, then eventually a mock king again…wearing raiment made to last one day and a cardboard crown, seated on a papier-mâché throne and dispensing plastic largesse to people who are not his subjects. That’s why it’s so funny to hear idiots babbling about the ribaldry and excess of carnival and attempting to shame women for baring their tits; the misbehavior is exactly the point, and the deities who preside over the festival are not those associated with Christianity, but rather the ancient pagan gods who, in New Orleans alone out of this whole grim, Puritanical country, have never fully relinquished their rule.
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Oh, if it be to choose and call thee mine, love, thou art every day my Valentine! – Thomas Hood
Regular readers know that I’m fond of holidays; I believe that rituals are important, and holidays help to give the year structure (especially in these modern times when so many are isolated from the natural ebb and flow of the seasons). But as careful readers may have already surmised, I do not really care for Valentine’s Day. Even as a child, it struck me as a rather odd kind of celebration; even the symbolism associated with it always seemed weird to me, and that’s no less true now than it was then. Though I do like getting cards expressing sincere affection, the sort of sentiment touted by valentines is the polar opposite of sincerity. And while I appreciate good puns, those which infest Valentines are never good. And then there are the presents; it seems to me that most people believe the first rule of Valentine gift-giving is to get the recipient something she would never buy for herself, and the more expensive the better. Chocolates are not figure-friendly, and if a man got me roses at the dramatically-inflated price florists demand for this one day when he wasn’t in the habit of getting them for me at times when they were priced more reasonably, I always felt as though he was doing it not because he wanted to, but because he thought he had to. As I wrote last year,
An obligatory “gift” of a certain expected value which must be presented at a certain time in order to retain a woman’s sexual favors is not a love offering, but rather a whore’s fee. And while I obviously have absolutely nothing against that, I prefer for it to be an honest and consensual arrangement mutually agreed upon by two adults, rather than a coercive charade designed to mask the transactional nature of a sexual relationship.
Some of you may name me a cynic, and you would be correct. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that it was harlotry which so made me; I was already thinking about this in high school. I have nothing against sincere romantic expression, but surely (as today’s epigram implies) that isn’t something limited to a specific day.
There’s one other thing which makes Valentine’s Day different from all other holidays in my mind: while all the others are inclusive, this one is exclusive. Holidays are times for friends, families and others to gather and celebrate together, but Valentine’s Day festivities (except, perhaps, for polyamorists) are exactly the opposite. Lovers tend to seek every available excuse to be alone together anyway; it hardly seems necessary to set aside a special day for that, especially one on which the show is celebrated above the substance.
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Posted in Holidays, tagged anecdote, holidays, paganism on February 2, 2014 |
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Still lie the sheltering snows, undimmed and white;
And reigns the winter’s pregnant silence still;
No sign of spring, save that the catkins fill,
And willow stems grow daily red and bright.
These are days when ancients held a rite
Of expiation for the old year’s ill,
And prayer to purify the new year’s will. - Helen Hunt Jackson, “February”
Though in some climes spring may indeed start to appear soon after this day, it is almost never true in the center of North America; here February is often the coldest part of the winter, and where I live it’s often our snowiest month. So it matters little what any groundhog or other sacred animal supposedly predicts; here, there are still six weeks left of winter, even if it’s a mild one. I’m a little shy of predicting one way or the other this year; though I have a much better record than the famous Pennsylvania rodent (about 70% accuracy to his 39%), I was wrong last year and this winter’s weather has been so weird I’m not sure what to think. Ah, well, que sera, sera; it’s not like we make long-term plans based on such predictions anyhow. Since I’m not a farmer, early spring has no particular charm for me; though it is my second-favorite season after autumn, I’m content to let it come when it comes (unlike autumn, which I’m always happy to see arrive early). In these parts, winter is trickier than summer; though summer rarely makes a surprise reappearance after autumn has arrived, winter barges back in during early spring so often that I have come to expect it. And though I like winter better than summer, there is nothing I dislike more than a rude and unwelcome cold snap in April, just in time to kill the new flowers. Better for the spring to gather her strength and wait to make her debut when she’s good and ready, than to rush things and leave herself vulnerable to winter’s inability to make a punctual exit.
A happy Candlemas to you, dear readers, and Blessed Be!
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‘Twas Christmas broach’d the mightiest ale;
‘Twas Christmas told the merriest tale;
A Christmas gambol oft could cheer
The poor man’s heart through half the year. - Sir Walter Scott, Marmion
¡Feliz Día de Los Reyes! In other words, Buona Epifania! Or, S Roždestvom! Which is to say, Melkam Gena! In the English-speaking world yesterday was the last of the twelve days of Christmas, and last night was Twelfth Night, on which Yuletide gives way to Carnival; in these hasty modern times, most of those countries were done with Christmas days ago, rushing it out practically before it had found itself a comfortable seat. But in other parts of the world, the best part of the holiday has only just arrived. For those traditionally-Christian countries which use the Gregorian calendar, today is the feast of the Epiphany, on which the Magi were supposed to have visited the infant Jesus; it is thus also called “King Day”, and in the Middle Ages was the day on which presents were exchanged in deference to that belief. But while the gift-giving shifted back to Christmas Day in most of Christendom, Italy and Spain retained the King Day tradition, and it is still the custom in both countries and all over Spain’s former empire. Children in those countries awoke this morning to discover that Los Tres Reyes (The Three Kings), or in Italy the good witch Befana, left them presents during the night. But in countries whose churches stubbornly refused the Gregorian calendar, today is only December 24th (liturgically speaking), and tomorrow is Christmas Day. In Russia it’s even more complicated, because the officially-atheist Soviet Union switched the winter celebration to New Year’s Day; different families might be visited by Grandfather Frost on the night of December 24th, December 31st or January 6th. But whether today is for you the beginning of the Christmas festival, or the end of it, or the first day of Carnival (which ends this year on March 4th), or just another work day, may it hold many gifts for you.
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On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Two turtle-doves and a partridge in a pear tree. - Traditional Christmas carol
We all learned the traditional carol as children, but did you ever stop to think of what it’s actually about? Other than a rather improbable inflation of increasingly expensive gifts, I mean; just imagine how much it would cost to hire ten noblemen to leap at someone’s party on three successive days. I’m sure most of you realize that Christmas was originally a twelve-day festival, but you may not realize what that actually means: pre-industrial European society essentially shut down for twelve days while everyone celebrated. Other than the Church, virtually every social institution – banks, businesses, governmental functions, the lot – was closed until January 6th. Now, obviously things moved a lot more slowly in those days; crossing the average country took days rather than hours, and people (again, outside the Church) planned more by the calendar than by the clock. Considering that, the twelve-day hiatus was not much more inconvenient than a weekend was in my childhood, when virtually everything other than restaurants (and the Church) was closed from 5 PM Friday to 9 AM Monday. On top of that, it came midway through the slowest time of the year: though most modern people imagine that the agricultural lifestyle meant constant hard work, that was really only true in the spring and autumn; summers weren’t at all bad, and winter was basically a three-or-four-month vacation except for normal household chores.
That started to change with the rise of the towns in the High Middle Ages, but even then work during the festival was probably a lot like the Friday afternoon before a long weekend: lots of people out “sick”, and the ones who aren’t not really trying too hard. This was undoubtedly a large part of the reason dour work-until-you-drop-you-horrible-sinner-because-God-hates-you Protestants condemned the festival so relentlessly, even getting it banned in Britain under the Commonwealth from 1647-1660, and in Boston from 1659-1681. Industrialization and the breakup of extended families renewed the attack a century later, and though the influence of rural people and writers like Charles Dickens revived the holiday in the first half of the 19th century, it only survived as a shorn, domesticated, factory-friendly one-day celebration rather than a two-week orgy of eating, drinking, games, music and most un-Puritan laziness.
But today, we’ve regained some of that leisure time we started losing in the 18th century; though many of my readers returned to work today, many others did not (perhaps even using vacation or “flex time” to accomplish that). If you’re one of those lucky ones, I suggest you resist the urge to join the throngs at Boxing Day sales or returns counters; instead, indulge in the traditional activities associated with this day such as visiting friends or helping the less fortunate, or else just rest at home with those you love and eat Christmas leftovers. While it’s true that we can no longer put the entire world on hold for twelve days, I’m sure most of you can manage two.
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Christmas Day will always be, just as long as we have we. - Dr. Seuss
In “Visions of Sugarplums” I imagined a Christmas centuries in the future, and that’s probably the least-fantastic premise of the entire story: I am sure that Dr. Seuss was correct in asserting that the holiday will last for as long as humans remain human, because it has already lasted for as long as we’ve been civilized (and began just a bit before). What we now regard as the “jolliest” of holidays started out as a dead-serious affair involving human sacrifice and inspired by the event from which the myths of the Fall are derived, yet many of our Christmas traditions can be traced directly back to that dark beginning. But so much other lore has been added along the way that I couldn’t fit it all into just my Christmas columns; you might be interested in these discussions of the Christmas tree and other greenery, Saint Nicholas and other gift-giving figures, the traditions which grew into Carnival and official Christianity’s long crusade against the holiday, and that’s just a start. If you’ve got some time to kill tomorrow, there are quite a few items in every December that relate either directly or indirectly to the holiday that dominates this month so thoroughly that it’s impossible to even hear the word “December” without thinking of it. And since I have written so extensively on it in the past, I don’t think I have to feel bad about taking today off from blogging to commit myself to cooking for my family and then having a well-earned rest when it’s all done. Merry Christmas, dear readers!
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