In The Bleak Midwinter

Santa's Portrait TNast 1881
Image Credit: Thomas Nast [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As the annual Christmas advertisements come out, and we are exhorted to treat ourselves, wallow in consumerism and forget about the cost, my mind goes back to the best Christmases of my childhood.

My best present ever was when I was six. We spent Christmas with my grandparents and they gave me my uncle's old hardback copy of Robinson Crusoe. It was was probably the first book in which I felt the magic of being totally transported into an entirely new world. That my beloved uncle had read this very copy as a boy increased the meaningfulness of the gift.

I did not know that Crusoe had already been damned by Joyce as the "prototype of the British colonist" and Friday as "the symbol of the subject races". I did not know that it was possible for Crusoe to be considered the very model of authoritarian middle class capitalism.

Robinson_Crusoe_and_Friday (58K) from
Image source

What I got from reading it at that tender age was the idea of Crusoe as a serious recycler and the idea that civilisation was not the only way to survive. He found uses for almost everything that was thrown up onto his island and in his time there recreates a form of cooperation with nature that provided, after a bit of sweat, ingenuity and experimentation, the comforts of home. In those far off days of reading in innocence I did not know that there were any real alternatives to Christianity in the world and did not see anything at all wrong with him converting poor old Friday. Much like the author I thought he was doing the poor chap a favour.

This year the reading that has moved me is an article by the journalist George Monbiot. He is another advocate of recycling and green behaviour and often a lone voice in the wilderness. He points out that our consumerism has long ago passed insanity. Rather than spread joy and goodwill to all people, our Christmas habits are spreading destruction on a planetary scale. I think old Robinson would have, even as a colonial capitalist, deplored this.

Under the line one of the comments points out that Monbiot is not just talking about Christmas but the constant manic drive to exploit every single part of the earth.

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Image Credit: NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Traditional, Mysterious and Ancient

Christmas that year I first remember registering it was the Christmas tree, the lights, the holly, Father Christmas and the feeling of belonging. More than anything else it was the sense of plugging into a tradition and something mysterious and old. Christmas certainly is that: traditional, mysterious and old.

IMG_4151 (269K) My friend Mel Banks dressed as the spirit of Yule at the Nuneaton Lights switch on.

Many of the Christmas traditions come from older winter celebrations to rejoice at the turning point of winter. It was the start of what looked like the sun's journey back from the south toward Spring and Summer as the earth's axis tilts the northern hemisphere back toward the sun. With this in mind it is hard to find Christmas traditions that do not have their roots in older religions or cultures.

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Candles were lit to encourage and help the sun on its return. This is the origin of the Christmas lights whose lighting is an annual event in towns around the world. The next time you pass a house decorated for Christmas so that it can be seen from space think of the ancient ritual that is being enacted to call the sun back from its winter decline.

Yule Logs

Yule logs were burned to represent the sun and to encourage it. We still burn actual logs and eat chocolate covered cakes in the shape of logs at Christmas.
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Their ceremonial use or association with Christmas has been banned at various times by various Christian groups because of their association with paganism.

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Holly was considered to be the food of the gods before it was shoehorned into being a metaphor for the blood of Christ and his crown of thorns.


Ivy was a straightforward fertility symbol before the Christians reached paroxysms of rationalisation to explain its presence at Christmas as representing, by its need for support to grow, the Christian's need to cling to Christ.
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Mistletoe has been the symbol of peace and love for many cultures including the Druids the Romans and the Vikings. In Viking myths Balder was killed by Loki using mistletoe because it was the one thing on earth that his mother Frigga had not extracted a promise from not to harm him. In one version of the tale it is instrumental in bringing him back to life when Frigga's tears became its white berries. Thus it became the symbol of love and forgiveness and Frigga was supposed to kiss anyone who stands under it.

Christmas Trees

Evergreen trees were brought into houses in Scandinavia to remind people that the crops would grow again. The Ancient Egyptians, the Druids, The Romans and latterly the Christians saw in these trees and plants that stay green all year the metaphor of eternal life.
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Father Christmas

Even Santa, who is claimed as Saint Nicholas, bears a striking resemblance to the green man: a pagan personification of nature.
Greenman Graphics
Image sourceMagickal Graphics

Norse/Asatru/Viking Graphics
Image sourceMagickal Graphics

Flying men with beards on flying animals

Some of Santa's activities echo those of the Norse god Odin who was said to have led a wild hunt through the sky during the Norse midwinter feast. Apparently he was also fond of rewarding the nice and punishing the naughty. This would at last explain the bizarre flying deer.
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Image sourceClipartpal

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The red and white trimmings

As pretty much everybody knows by now, the red and white suit comes from the hugely successful marketing campaign by manufacturers of a certain sugary drink to mirror their packaging. This image exists to associate their product with Christmas.
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Have a cool Yule and try to remember the original meaning of Christmas!

Before it was hijacked the original message of the winter celebration was all about respecting the miracle of life and the ability of nature to die and then come back to life. Our ancestors in these northern climes saw that life went underground and froze and that the sun itself appeared to fall toward the edge of the earth only to be reborn on a journey that started at this time of year in the bleak midwinter. Our forefathers and ancestors did not lie in "sin and error pining". Not compared to us they didn't. They were pretty brave and hardworking souls who lived with hope in their hearts and the wisdom to know that they depended on the natural world for their continued existence.

While I am not advocating any religion, ancient, pagan or monotheistic, I do think it is important that we keep the wisdom that these religions either inspired or appropriated while we discard their bigotries against anyone or anything that dares question their dogmas. In the western world Christmas has become a time of the type of frenzied consumerism that increases the inequality in the world. It has become a celebration of all that edges us closer to ecological breakdown. This is ironic when you remember that it all started with an observation of what nature was doing and a desire to celebrate it and be glad for each other that life is possible.

To quote Monbiot's article "Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for God's sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don't."

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