Well, we’ve made it to Boxing Day; survived another Christmas. How was it for you?
As we settle down to read our books, play with our presents and think up ever more imaginative recipes for left overs, here are some thoughts about the real meaning of Christmas.
What comes into your mind when you imagine Christmas? Peace and Goodwill to all Mankind? Food and Drink? Family gathered round a roaring fire? Snow?
No, the real meaning of Christmas is Fear. Fear of the dark. Fear of starvation. Fear that this year the sun will not return and the world will end.
This is the reason that men hauled rocks half way across the country, to measure the midwinter sun at Stonehenge and passages in cold barrows were carefully aligned to mark the moment. Why calendars were developed, to calculate the day; the day when the sun turned and all mankind rejoiced that life would continue.
At a time when life depended on a good harvest and food was short in winter, it was a vital time; more so the further north you lived. Cold as well as the absence of light could be deadly, which is why most of the winter traditions originated there. Do people who live close to the equator and have no experience of short freezing days have any winter celebrations?
Winter comes and times are hard. Food must be hoarded, eked out to last the winter. Fuel collected to keep warm and the darkness at bay. How do you know when the worst is over? When the days lengthen again. What can you do to help it happen? Mankind has always invented rituals to control their lives; gods to pray to or bargain with; someone to thank when things go right – or make sacrifices to, when times are bad.
That is why we have Christmas and all the other winter festivals. I am not going into details. I’m sure most of us are sick of the discussions as to whether Christianity took over the Roman festival of Saturnalia or arguments about who invented Father Christmas or Santa Claus and whether his reindeer sleigh developed from Odin’s cart pulled by goats. Common to all of them is the moment when darkness was conquered and we could celebrate.
However, nowadays we seem to have lost the reason and celebration is everything. The early Christians turned necessity into religion, with Advent. A time of prayer and fasting, before the celebration of the Birth of Christ. The date was set as 25th December, disconnected from the actual shortest day and it lasted twelve days.
In the present era of plenty, people forgot the time of starvation and advent has become part of the preparation. Every year the period becomes longer, it now starts with Black Friday, in November and the shops start to fill with Christmas goods even earlier. Everyone complains it comes too early. There is the putting up of trees, sending of cards, the office parties and other premature celebrations. By the time Christmas Day arrives, everyone is sick of it, and so we sit here thinking “Was that it?” and start taking down the decorations.
Knowing there should be more, there is a final burst of fireworks and drinking. New Years Eve, when everything stops and we watch the clocks count down – to what? A moment accurately calculated by scientists to mark – an event nearly two weeks past.
This change is not recent. It happened long ago, when we lost our connection with the land, and time. Is it a coincidence that Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, and in the process “invented” the modern Christmas, at just the tipping point that more people lived in towns than in the country? When the agricultural cycle was forgotten by most. In cities, with industry and commerce, there was no winter starvation. If you were poor you could starve at any time of year, for everyone else food was plentiful all the time. But the mid-winter celebration was remembered.
Religion declined, and advent became a tinsel covered coat hanger on Blue Peter. People still go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, not even knowing why.
And we are discontented with Christmas. We feel guilty because, deep in our ancient brain we know it is wrong. Wrong to celebrate when we have not performed the penance, placated the gods.
Is that why, when it is all over, when the New Year has been rung in, then we make our promises? To give up alcohol, to get fit, to become a better person, to finish writing that book.
Wouldn’t we enjoy Christmas more, if we had done that first?
Is that why I read, and write, historical fiction? Because they knew how to do it right?
Happy New Year.