By Sarah Pridgeon
Contrary to what you might have assumed from last week’s grumpy column, I am a sucker for all things holiday (except the adverts). After a wonderful family Thanksgiving, I’m thrilled to hear the jingle of sleigh bells and I’m just going to put it out there that I’m firm believer there’s no real need to take all those lights down until the evenings get lighter.
But I’ve been musing this week on the idea that, when it comes to the “real meaning of Christmas”, there are so many different concepts floating around. For me, it’s the time to give thanks that we are halfway out of the dark. Permit me to explain.
We Westerners tend to think of Christmas as a Christian tradition, but that’s not entirely true. It was only in the year 340 AD that Pope Julius I set the date of Jesus’ birthday, as I understand it. Before that, his coming was variously thought to have occurred in March, January and even June.
That it was eventually fixed on December 25 doesn’t surprise me, because if you look back to historical times, people have always thought there was something special about this time of year. The Romans celebrated Bacchanalia (or Saturnalia) with copious amounts of whatever passed back then for eggnog, and also the festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invictis, “the birth of the unconquered sun”.
Meanwhile, the word “Yule” comes from a feast celebrated in Norse countries connected to Odin and the Wild Hunt and the Saxons knew Christmas Eve as Night of the Mothers. Today, Hindus celebrate Pancha Ganapati for five days, people in the old Persian regions celebrate Shab-e Yalda for the longest night of the year and, of course, the Jewish people enjoy Hanukkah.
What is it that we are all so drawn to? I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface, so how is it that so many cultures and religions throughout history have felt the need to mark its passing?
I have a theory that I feel can fit snugly alongside almost any interpretation of Christmas’s real meaning. Please do not immediately throw out my hypothesis on the basis I feel compelled to once again share the wisdom of Doctor Who, during the festive special a few years back:
“Wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact mid-point, everybody stops and turns and hugs. As if to say, ‘Well done. Well done, everyone! We’re halfway out of the dark’.”
For proof less tied to pop culture, look no further than the tree you will either be dragging out of the attic as we speak or planning a date with an axe to go fetch. All of us will plonk one in the middle of the living room, and we’re not alone: people have dusted off the tinsel once a year since time immemorial.
In my part of the world, the evergreen was more than a handy place to hang a glass bauble. In the depths of winter, it was about the only thing still showing signs of growth.
The evergreen was a symbol that life continues onwards; the cycle will go on. The ground may now be barren and subdued, but winter will not last forever.
Much as I moan about having to wear snow boots and only ever being able to find one glove, the importance of that symbol has been trampled by the march of progress. The stark truth in ancient times, you see, was that not everyone would make it through the winter.
Before we had central heating and fast vehicles, sealed packaging for our foodstuffs and water guaranteed by public works, the winter was a frightening time. Particularly if the harvest was poor, there was always the very real possibility that food might run out before the next growing season, not to mention that the weather could deal its harshest punishments more readily.
At that moment when the light seemed closest to failing and the cold had reached their bones, my ancestors decorated with branches from the evergreens to remind them that life will always find its way. The sun would indeed prove unvanquished and tomorrow its warmth and light would begin the annual return. It was a manifestation of hope for the coming days and relief to have made it this far.
And as they gathered by the evergreen, if all had gone well, our ancestors looked at one another and felt the gratitude of knowing their loved ones were sitting right beside them, where they ought to be. Everyone had made it; love was still intact.
Those old fears may trouble us less today, no matter how quickly the evenings draw in, but I suspect that something deep inside us still responds to the moment of solstice. It is, and will always be, the turning point.
It is the most dangerous moment of the year and also the most optimistic; from here on out, things can only get better. Is it any wonder, then, that all across the northern hemisphere we have staved off the darkness with twinkling lights, sated our hunger with feasts and given gifts to cheer away the chill.
For the ancients, it seemed only natural to mark the birth of sun deities at the solstice, from Vishnu to Dionysus, Buddha to Osiris and Frigga, the Norse goddess of the Mother Night festival. What all of these had in common was a trust in our star to come back to us, ushering life in its wake.
And in today’s world, I think we still feel that moment of gratitude that we and our loved ones are safe and together once again, though we perhaps no longer realize from whence it comes. In a couple of weeks, once the shopping is done and the decorations are hung, we can face each other with a smile and those same unspoken congratulations, for we will once again be halfway out of the dark.