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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Commercialization and culture wars can only steal your Christmas if you let them. - Maggie McNeill
I’ve written on a number of occasions how important rituals are to human mental health, and how much poorer and sadder modern Westerners are for having largely forsaken them or, more often, allowed them to be replaced with other, synthetic rituals which serve the interests of the ruling classes (festivals such as “Super Bowl Sunday”, “Election Day” and “Black Friday” spring to mind). The mistake all too many secular and rational people make is in imagining that “ritual” automatically implies “religion”, which it absolutely does not (any more than irrational belief systems require a god).
As these examples of synthetic ones illustrate, rituals need not be organized around supernatural beliefs, biological families or anything else; the one thing they share is that they involve groups of people voluntarily coming together to do something in some specific way that doesn’t necessarily make logical sense. The event is not actually about what it is declared to be about; the Super Bowl could be recorded and watched later, shopping could be performed on some other day and no individual vote is worth the trouble it takes to cast it. What is most important to those who are devoted to such rituals isn’t the actual activity, but the sense of being part of something larger than themselves. To those who cluster outside stores on “Black Friday” the wait is part of the experience, just as it is for those who wait in lines to see long-awaited new movies or those who throng to an appearance of some admired leader.
The supposed reason for any given ritual is thus much less important than the ritual itself, and Christmas is a perfect demonstration of that. What began as an attempt to ensure the return of the sun after a long decline eventually became a celebration of that return, then a festival of various gods associated with rebirth, then a way to brighten the long winter nights, then a time for family and friendship, and now an excuse for spending a lot of money. But the major aspects of the festivities (such as their extraordinary length in comparison with other holidays, the giving of gifts, the feasting, the singing, symbolism involving plants and lights, etc) continued on through the centuries no matter what the current “official” reason was, and each place and time has made its own contributions to the vast heap of traditions and rituals which we now call “Christmas” (though it has had other names before, and will again). Some old traditions eventually drop by the wayside, and new ones are added; the pattern varies from place to place and even from household to household; but if we look at the big picture what we see is one large tapestry stretching back some 6000 years in time and across most of the Earth.
The takeaway from all this is summed up in today’s epigram: Christmas is there for you if you want it, and barring catastrophe or malicious action nobody but you can take it from you. How people celebrate Christmas next door or across town or in other cities makes no more difference than how they celebrate it on the other side of the world, or how they celebrated it 3000 years ago, or even what they call it or what reason they ascribe to the celebration; anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something. Take whatever elements you want from the vast Yuletide buffet, and leave the rest; add your own traditions, and cherish them year after year; call the festival whatever you want, and ascribe it to whatever excuse pleases you. The only important thing is that it’s all meaningful to you and those you care about, and that you refuse to allow the pressures of life and the behavior of selfish busybodies to rob you of something which rightfully belongs to everyone.
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Posted in Holidays, Philosophy, tagged holidays, paganism on December 21, 2013 |
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Have you ever noticed a tree standing naked against the sky,
How beautiful it is?
All its branches are outlined, and in its nakedness
There is a poem, there is a song.
Every leaf is gone and it is waiting for the spring.
When the spring comes, it again fills the tree with
The music of many leaves,
Which in due season fall and are blown away.
And this is the way of life. - Jiddu Krishnamurti
Today is Yule, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. If you read this within a few hours of its posting, the exact moment of solstice – that is, when the apparent path of the sun reaches its southernmost point – will not yet have happened; that will occur at 17:11 UTC, which is to say 11:11 AM in the Central time zone of North America. Contrary to the claims of Christians, this is the real “reason for the season”; most cultures have holidays celebrating it, and the roots of the celebration we now call Christmas go back at least 5000 years to ancient Sumer. I suspect it actually began about 3900 BCE, when the climate abruptly cooled and dried all over the world, thus creating the first really frightening winters those ancient people had ever known, and stimulating the development of planned agriculture, calendars, centralized governments, property rights and eventually even writing and math (to keep track of who everything belonged to, and just how much of it there actually was). In a very real sense, Christmas is literally as old as civilization, and we owe the majority of what makes us more than just high-falutin’ monkeys to that ancient event that we now only remember in myths of a time when life was easy. The resulting hardships shaped the human world, and though they were perceived negatively by our ancestors (and still are by those who want nothing more than to be kept like pets or “innocent children” by some all-powerful entity or institution), the truth is that existence without change is not life, but stagnation. Winter must come if spring is to follow, and spring must in turn mature into summer and fade into autumn. That is the real meaning of Christmas: though change and death are inevitable, new life to replace the old is never far behind.
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