All right, I’ve managed to miss Saturnalia (17-23 December), the Islamic New Year (18 December), the last day of Hanukkah (19 December), the Solstice (21 December), old St. Thomas Day (21 December), HumanLight (23 December), and Festivus (23 December). The Islamic New Year is a wanderer that just happens this year to fall during Yuletide; the Islamic calendar is entirely lunar with no reference to the solar year, and so its holidays wander about, but the others are all solidly part of the season. The Solstice, with its longest night of the year, is the real reason for the celebration, at least here in the Northern Hemisphere where the bulk of these traditions originated. As the days get shorter and the nights get longer it’s hard not to start feeling oppressed. While even the most primitive of people must have noticed that the days eventually started getting longer again, it must still have been a relief to them when that dark corner was finally turned.
Much about the season is explicable as symbolic reminders that warmth and summer sunlight would eventually return. Evergreen branches recall the lush vegetation of spring and summer; the candles and lamps recall the great light of the sun and herald its eventual return, feasting and merriment in the cold barren wasteland give the finger to the ice and snow. And given the tendency winter has toward depression and despair, feasting and present-giving and lights and greenery probably offset the lurch to desolation.
But what about the other great theme of the year, the inversion of the social order? That’s of course Saturnalia’s special province—master and slave changing places and all that. But the Christian Christmas didn’t abandon that—far from it. Even setting aside the Boy Bishop frolics and all that, the whole damn season is one gigantic reversal of the normal order of things. For the rest of the year a sort of horribly perverse version of the laws of thermodynamics prevails—the economic law that says that no matter how much effort you put into something, you’re still screwed. Come Christmas all that gets set aside, and suddenly we give gifts to our fellow human beings, not counting the cost, not expecting anything in return. It is the exact antithesis of the capitalism by which we set our clocks the other three hundred odd days of the year. It is a perversion, or at least an inversion, of our most basic cultural values, and damned if we don’t make the most of it.
About Festivus and HumanLight, both celebrated 23 December, I know nothing; the former involves the display of an unadorned aluminum pole, and the latter involves lighting candles. Both are relatively recent inventions; the former was popularized by a TV show, Seinfeld, that as it happens I’ve never seen, and the latter appears to have been celebrated by a select group for the past decade or so. Both are intended as inclusive secular celebrations of the season, as opposed to what Garrison Keillor assures us is the for-Xians-Only festival of Xmas. Located midway between the Solstice and Christmas, each offers an alternative vision of the season, one not dependent on believing six impossible things before breakfast. I like the inclusive aspect; I don’t think I care much for the “Airing of Grievances” that is a traditional part of Festivus, but it ain’t a deal-breaker as far as I’m concerned.
Words To Live By? - Observed at the Hirshhorn Museum, D.C.:
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