Christmas, the most beloved holiday, has passed. Five days ago, the sun ended its southing and began its return, but still the days of darkness are upon us. The veil is thin between the worlds, and for a time, the order of things is turned upside down.
Now the calendar year is ending and there are festivals, but sometimes they don’t make sense because they have migrated beyond their origins. They grew up in one place, and are now celebrated in another. Christmas in Europe and America means snowmen and a roaring fire in the fireplace. Christmas in Australia means sunbathing, surfing, and a barbie on the beach. (That’s barbecue, not the excessively-skinny doll.)
Thanksgiving is an American holiday, full of New England foods like pumpkin pie, cranberries, and turkey. Right? Maybe. Under the microscope, it is exactly that. Looked at from a greater distance, it is one of a hemisphere-wide set of harvest festivals. This is not a global phenomenon, however. These festivals are tied to the temperate zone, where the cycle of the seasons rules all human life.
My interest in all this began with Christmas, but I came to realize that Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas, New Year, St. Nicholas Day, Boxing Day, and a host of other holidays are all variations on the same theme.
There are three facets which these holidays share, in varying degrees. First is food, precious, and only temporarily abundant. Before Santa Claus and Walmart made Christmas a lynchpin of the economic system, gifts were small, and often consisted of food: apples, oranges, and cookies or other sweets.
You might remember from any of the movie versions of A Christmas Carol, that Bob Cratchit buys apples for his brood, while Tiny Tim wishes he could have oranges. Oranges were imported from the tropical realms of the British Empire and would only be found on the tables of the rich. In agricultural Europe, the harvest season filled the larders of the rich, but not so much the larders of the poor. With the onset of industrialization – the world of Bob Cratchit – this disparity became even more pronounced.
This is the second facet of these holidays, that those below beg or demand their share from those above — wassailing, often riotous, in the past — trick-or-treat today.
The third facet is the thinning of the veil between the worlds, with visitations from the dead. We don’t usually think of Christmas that way, but wait. The sub-title of A Christmas Carol is A Ghost Story of Christmas. And there are the four ghosts. Yes, four — don’t forget Marley, who says:
“It is required of every man . . . that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world – oh, woe is me! – and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!’’
So mix and match to suit yourself, and you will see that all these holidays of fall and winter are defined by the same three facets.
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I polished my understanding of the interrelationship of the holidays during this last decade, but much earlier I understood to role of food and the onset of winter. Early in my writing career, I began the Menhir series, set in a realistic fantasy world where the hand of hunger lies heavy.
Midwinterfest was in a time of plenty. The tichan and cattle who were least valuable to the herds had been slaughtered as soon as the cold had set in reliably. Frozen carcasses hung in meatsheds all over the Valley – indeed, all over the Inner Kingdom. Hunger would come in late winter, as it always did.
The hardest months of winter are not the first, nor are the deepest the most cruel. As spring approaches, and the days lengthen, winter hangs on, well schooled in snow and ice and cold, and unwilling to relinquish its hold. Then, when the first green of spring is only a month away, comes the dying time.
An excerpt from that series, called Menhir: a winter’s tale, begins tomorrow.