As I have done in the past, I am “reprinting” my editorial for Saybrook’s Alumni Newsletter, the “Home Page” here for all to see…
January 3, 2011
Editorial: “Celebrations of Winter: Occupy the Holidays”
It’s January already, and while, for some traditions, the final celebrations of Twelfth Night and, for our British and Irish colleagues, the venerable day of Wren Hunting are still to be looked forward to: for the most part the boxes of tinsel and holiday fru-fru are returning to the basement and attics, the colorful paper put away, and the CDs of holiday music back on the shelf. There is still time, for a few words about the month just passed.
I have always hated the “vanilla-flavored” Midwinter Holiday season. The general : “go out and buy stuff” atmosphere, the TV ads that parody the jazz and rock catalog for “catchy” tunes to sell cars and refrigerators, the traffic, everywhere: a frantic need to “celebrate”. I especially object to the “multi – generational” liberal protestant services the Sundays before and after Christmas itself wherein the minister says a few not-to-offend-anyone words about inclusion and honoring all the traditions of Midwinter. Mentioning Chanukah, Kwanzaa and Winter Solstice in passing and launching into “Silent Night” (with or without the folk-y guitar) with the congregants.
It just gets worse and worse every year, doesn’t? I ask myself every year about this time: how can we change this? Not on the personal level (we all do that, anyway) but on the cultural level? Truthfully, I don’t know. If you do, write a letter and I’ll print it in the next Home Page.
Sure, I curl up with popcorn and – yet another – PBS holiday special. I call on the neighbors, attend a couple of favorite holiday events, send cards to friends and relatives, and search for The Tree under which are a few packages (bought in July) of items for beloved family and friends. It’s the rest of it I object to. It was the disingenuous obligatory visits to relations I don’t know (or never liked, anyway) that made the whole “holiday-thing” a nightmare for me as a child. This annual pilgrimage made the holidays something to be mostly dreaded rather than celebrated. (It still makes me shudder.) So, this year – and, every year since sometime in the 1970s, I stopped celebrating the same holiday the media carves up and serves to us wholesale on an “on sale today only!”-red-and-green-holly-bedecked platter. I began to look at the symbols of the season: the rich history and folklore behind all those sprigs of mistletoe; the oldest versions of the carols we all mumble through; and why we drag greenery into the house at mid-winter every year. The tale is rich, many-layered with cultural symbols and myth both sacred and … well… occasionally, naughty. (Such as that mistletoe mentioned above.)
There is of course, the beautiful sacred traditions of the world’s religions, be it the Christian Advent, the Birth of Sol Invictus as the Sun Child from darkness, or the tale of the Lamp in Temple burning on with only enough oil for one night, or the crossing of the sun across the equator: these traditions create a place in our hearts by observing and understanding their meanings with conscious intent. It is important to remember, when greeting one’s friends at this time of year, or planning that “multi – generational liberal service” that these stories passed to us over the centuries are not the same story. The unifying myth in the Northern Hemisphere is the return of the light and the hope of spring. Scratch the surface of even one of the stories, and you find very different meanings – and, layers of meanings – celebrated by the peoples who also mark mid-winter with a day of celebration. Otherwise one ends up with that aforementioned vanilla-flavored hash that does disservice to everyone across the board. Even more tragically, a moment for insight is lost.
Alongside these stand the folk traditions of mid-winter: for thousands of years, we humans gathered at the darkest time of the year around a feast table and danced certain dances, sang special songs, feasted on carefully prepared food saved for just this night, and warmed each others hearts (and, hearths) with the stories of who we are as a people, as a family, as an individual.
Long ago, the celebration would last a month or so, until the weather allowed for safe travel and no one knew if it would be the last winter for our elders or the very young. So we wished one another year of good harvest, peace, health, long life, and joy for the new year. We gazed into the dark winter sky, and if we lived far enough north, we gazed in awe at the dancing lights of the north and created a story about them passed on each year to ourselves and to our children. If we live in the warmer climes of the world, we made other stories and told them to our children. These are the stories that tell us who we are. We forget them at our peril. It often seems that we modern American have forgotten or misplaced so much in the head-long rush to create our Modern World. Therefore, in 2012 and beyond Occupy the Holidays. All of them, from Wren Hunting on St. Stephan’s Day through “the progressions of the Equinoxes” (and Solstices) and on into next harvest season. There is an ineffable quality of wonder and a sense of seeing into the vastness of time and culture in mindfully participating in the sacred and folk traditions of the seasons. As many have discovered, there is also a real danger that these traditions are being forgotten except by a few odd antiquarians such as myself, replaced by the tinsel and consumerism of “mall culture”. Whatever your tradition and heritage, I invite you to look to the meaning and the cultural wealth (literally) at our fingertips and discover, or re-discover, our holidays in a different light.
In this spirit, I will trek up to Muir Woods on Winter Solstice with friends who share my spiritual path and witness one of the oldest traditions of Midwinter: a performance of the Abbott’s Bromely Horn Dance. Afterwards, we’ll walk in the forest and remember why we celebrate the season. (To see a video of this dance performed by the Lord Conyers Morris Men in South Yorkshire go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=abewt3EWE-c)
And this I wish for you, as I write a small brace of days before another Solstice: May you find joy and good health in this holiday season and may your loved ones be with you.