Tag Archives: Christmas

278. The Veil is Thin

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.

          *           *

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.


276. Wild Parties Never End

154px-uphellyaa7anneburgess30jan1973Wild parties never end, they just get organized. And maybe slightly domesticated. Consider Mardi Gras. Better still, consider Up Helly Aa.

It is said that fishermen can never get far enough north. Fishermen from Indiana go to Michigan. Fishermen from Michigan go to Ontario. Fishermen from Ontario head for the Arctic.

I found the same thing to be true when I visited Scotland. The first trip I made it north to Caithness. The second trip I made it to the Orkneys. Eventually I made it to Shetland, and once there I worked my way up to the northernmost point on the British Isles.

I didn’t see Up Helly Aa. It comes the last Tuesday in January, and in January I will always be in California, not standing in the wind off the pack ice. But I wouldn’t mind beaming in, watching the festivities, then beaming back before my liver froze.

Up Helly Aa is a relatively new celebration of the end of the Christmas season, mixed with a revival of old Viking themes. As early as 1824, on Christmas eve, a diarist recorded:

the whole town (of Lerwick, Shetland’s capital) was in an uproar; from twelve o clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting.

If you followed the posts on The Battle for Christmas, this will sound very familiar. Christmas has been domesticated since this report, but the spirit of riot is well represented in Up Helly Aa.

It began as “tar-barreling”. Mobs of masked young men dragged barrels of burning tar through the streets of Lerwick, often colliding with other mobs, and clogging the narrow streets of the town as they made their way toward the harbor. Sober citizens were not amused. The Town Council appointed constables to keep things in check.

About 1870, the participants themselves began to change the proceedings. They invented the name Up Helly Aa, began a torchlight procession, and introduced ‘guizing – going in disguise. Soon Viking themes became common. By the 1880, Viking longships were being dragged through the streets instead of flaming tar barrels, and the ‘guizer Jarl (Jarl is the Viking equivalent of Earl) had become master of ceremonies.

Is there anyone who doesn’t know that dead Viking chiefs were put on their longships, and the ships burned? That’s what happens in modern Up Helly Aa. The purpose-built longship is dragged by torchlight, by masses of young men in Viking costume, down through he narrow streets to the harbor where the torches are all tossed aboard for the fiery finale.

Then the drinking starts in earnest. Who wouldn’t love that?

The day after Up Helly Aa is an official holiday so everyone can recover.

274. Solstice: a poem

DSCN4794This is the day that the sun has turned it face furthest away from our northern lands. The veil between the worlds is thin today. Among pagans, there is expectation of visitation from those who have gone on before, and among all men there is an understanding that individuals, like the years they inhabit, have ends as well as beginnings.


It hardly seems an hour
since the sun rose up
into the crystal sky.

Now it sinks westward into clouds
like a crimson bird, descending
slowly into gray.

A bitter wind cuts deep.

I was young this morning
and worried already
about the end.

Now that I’ve known
both youth and age . . .
They are no different

Tonight I am cold,
        but I’ve been cold before.
I’ll sleep well under blankets
        that trap what little warmth remains.

Good evening, sun.
I thank you for the day you gave me.
Now the long night begins.

I will see you in the morning
           And if not
That will be all right, too.

273. Jesus and Joseph

I have a mental image that I would convert into a painting, if I had the skill. I don’t. I can draw; I can paint; but I lack the spark that turns such work into art. It’s frustrating — I’ll have to make do with words.

Imagine the interior of a carpenter’s ship, two millennia ago, somewhere in the middle east. Research won’t help much on this one. The best you can find is a painting from the European middle ages, or the Japanese middle ages, and then you have to reason backward with few facts to help you.

There will be two figures in the painting, and of course, you already know who they are. Joseph is planing a board he has just riven. Jesus is sweeping the floor. From time to time their glances meet, but there is little conversation.

If you have read many of these posts, you know I am not a Christian, but I started out as one, and Biblical images live in my bones. I have always wondered at the strangeness of the Son of God growing up apprenticed to his human father. And I’ve wondered how Joseph must have felt about it all.

Joseph gets little respect. Catholics give their affection to Mary. Protestants ignore him altogether. The ancient Cherry Tree Carol sees him as an insensitive doubter who thinks Mary is carrying another man’s child.

I have also wondered how Jesus must have felt. Even if you believe he was God, he was also a boy, with a child’s limitations, trying to understand his human father.

So . . .   Joseph and Jesus are in the carpenter’s shop. Jesus is sweeping the floor, since he is not yet trained. HIs father is planing the board he has just riven. Jesus looks up from time to time. There is affection in his gaze, even though he knows that his father’s love is limited by Jesus’s own strangeness. Then he drops his eyes back to his sweeping.

Joseph looks up in turn, stern and a little puzzled by the child’s silences. His hands pause a moment at his work. A traditional picture would fill his eyes with wonder. I don’t think so. I see them filled with frustration and resentment. And yet, with affection. The two sides of the moment are at war in his eyes. Then he draws back his hands and the plane moves through another stroke, because, for God or for man, there is always work to do.

Father – it’s a tough job description. Son isn’t much easier.

271. Here Comes Santa Claus

This is the last of three posts based on The Battle for Christmas, a book by Stephen Nissenbaum. You should read them in order.

Now we are on the verge of Christmas as we know it. Good old Santa Claus is about to take the stage. His midwife will be a group of stodgy old men who hated the rise of the common man, and longed for good old days that never were. Washington Irving was their leader, but a one-poem wonder named Clement Moore would be the one to change the world.

St. Nicholas and his companion delivered presents or coal to the children of Holland, but he never crossed the Atlantic to New Amsterdam. The notion that he did is a common myth, reading subsequent events backward.

John Pintard, founder of the New York Historical Society, played a role in establishing the Fourth of July and several other events as national holidays. He also brought St. Nicholas to the attention of America when he tried to make him the patron saint of New York City. In 1810, he published a broadside that showed a picture and accompanying poem with St. Nicholas delivering presents to children on St, Nicholas Day, Dec. 6.

Washington Irving’s Sketch Book came along a decade later. Everyone knows that Rip van Winkle, from that book, fell asleep and woke to a different era. Not many people remember that he hated the new America he found upon waking. So did Washington Irving and his cohorts, who called themselves the Knickerbockers, and patterned themselves after the old Dutch burghers they imagined to have inhabited New Amsterdam — all based on Irving’s fanciful Knickerbocker’s History of New York.

In the Sketch Book, Irving portrayed Old Christmas in England as a joyful celebration between good masters and their servants. In Knickerbocker’s History, he related a dream which included:

. . . and, lo! the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children. . . .  And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared.

St. Nicholas, giver of presents to children, had won over a group of grumpy old men, but the rest of America did not know him yet. He was still confined to the Knickerbockers who, despite their fantasies, were of British heritage, not Dutch, and were High Church Episcopalians, not post-Puritan religious conservatives.

Clement Moore changed that, not overnight, but over about a decade. He was not the first poet of St. Nicholas. You will find the text of an earlier poem near the bottom of one of last year’s posts. If you check it out, you will agree that it would never have taken the world by storm.

If you read A Visit from St. Nicholas (which I have tacked onto the bottom of this post in case you don’t have it handy), you will see that almost the whole modern Santa is there, repackaged from the Knickerbocker mold, and made charming and familly friendly. It would be wrong to say Moore invented Santa, given St. Nick’s Dutch origins and his twenty year history with the other Knickerbockers, but it would be hard to imagine Santa conquering the world without Moore’s poem.

The only major thing missing is his red suit. We can thank Thomas Nast and Coca-Cola for that.

Could even so charming a poem have so changed the world by itself? It is doubtful. It is more reasonable to see it as a perfect summing up of forces already at work. Wassailing had turned to riot, tinged with felonious assault. Peasants wandering from door to door had become masses of overcrowded urban poor spilling wildly into the streets. A few tipsy peasants had, by sheer population growth, turned into a dangerous mob.

The middle class was rising. Respectability had become something to strive for. Falling from middle class respectablity had become something to fear. Children were no longer just a source of free labor, but were quickly becoming the center of the family. Clement Moore’s poem rode that wave of change into the hearts of America.

Bacchus was still God of the street, but Santa was becoming God of the hearthside. Frankly, I like it better that way.

Postscript: They do it differently in Shetland. I’ll tell you that story on December 26th.

A Visit from St. Nicholas (AKA The Night Before Christmas)
by Clement Moore

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

photo by By Sander van der Wel from Netherlands (Intocht van Sinterklaas in Schiedam 2009) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

270. Colonial Christmas

puritanchristmasbanThis is the second of three posts based on The Battle for Christmas, a book by Stephen Nissenbaum. You should read yesterday’s post first.

The Battle for Christmas is not about the worldwide history of Christmas, but about American Christmas. The origin of the cult of St. Nicholas, the Christkindl, the black companion to Holland’s Sinterklass, Germanic Christmas trees and the rest are outside its view.

The Puritans of New England disliked Christmas. In fact, they outlawed it. The birth of Christ was of no particular interest to them. They were focused on his death and resurrection, and what that meant for sinners.

That was also the attitude of my childhood church. We had no Christmas services; if Sunday fell on Christmas, the sermon would begin with the story of Jesus’ birth, but would quickly turn our attention to his death and resurrection, with a full complement of fire and brimstone, and Hell to come for any who did not believe.

In point of fact, however, what the Puritans focused on was not their real problem with Christmas. They didn’t like it because it was a drunken party, with sex besides.

It comes back to leisure, full larders, and full kegs, and to the fact that the food and drink did not belong to the poor. It was the larders of the rich which were full. It was the poor who wanted some.

In agricultural times in Europe, it could be said that they wanted their share, because they had traditional rights to handouts during the season. There may have been a time when it was all respectful and friendly, as Washington Irving tried to portray it in Old Christmas (an excerpt from his Sketch Book), but the exchange was always tinged with threat, as in:

Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all

This, of course is wassailing, but it reeked of uppity servants, harrassment of their masters, and a general overturning of authority. Which was part of the point.

In Puritan days in New England, nobody was celebrating the nativity. The Puritans were going about their work, soberly and solemnly, with no acknowledgement of the day. The lower orders, especially the sailors down by the harbor, were making merry. Very, very merry, and the Puritans didn’t like that. They made the celebration of Christmas against the law, and you never make a law unless someone is already doing what you want to forbid.

The Puritans didn’t last, but the raucous celebrations they hated did. Newer, more liberal churches began holding religoius services on Christmas day. That didn’t last long either, the first time around.

A good, old fashioned Christmas is what a lot of people think they want today, but the real old fashioned Christmas looked a lot like what we now do on New Year’s Eve.

It got worse. As society moved from an agricultural base to an industrial one, the distance between the classes increased. The upper classes were less inclined to provide the handouts that the lower class demanded. What had looked like harmless, low level intimidation — not unlike today’s trick-or-treaters — began to look like a social revolution, especially in New York City shortly after the founding of the United States.

The rich stayed home on Christmas and feasted with their friends. It was an adult celebration; children were not yet the center of Christmas. The poor took to the streets. Where else would they have to go? Their all night, loud, drunken partying brought fear to the respectable upper crust. Gentlemen spoke of riots when they referred to the raucous Christmas season celebrations by the poor.

Riot is actually not a bad description of the state of affairs.

These poor were the mob that sometimes worried the staid burghers who wrote the Consititution. They were good at killing the British during the Revolution, but they weren’t respectable. By the late 1820s, the backwoods unwashed would put Andrew Jackson into the White House, and change the future of America. Decades earlier, their urban counterparts were already making life rough for respectable rich folks in New York City and elsewhere.

These rampaging mobs frequently broke into respectable homes, harassed the homeowners, and demanded food and, especially, drink. Wassailing, yes, but carried to a new level. One old wassailing song said:

We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbours’ children,
Whom you have seen before.

These new urban mobs could not say that. click here to continue the story

269. Old European Christmas

DSCN1839In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, when confronted by the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge says, “Long past?”, and the ghost replies, “No, your past.” We’re going to turn that on its head. You already know about your childhood; you don’t need me for that. During the next three posts, we are going to travel several hundred years into the past and watch Christmas evolve into what we enjoy today.

Last night I watched a DVD of Santa and Pete, in which Saint Nicholas leaves Amsterdam to visit the New World. There he finds his red hat and coat, learns to come down chimneys, trades his horse for reindeer, and they learn to fly after drinking an old African potion. It’s a sweet movie, but it has nothing to do with reality.

Christmas has a real history, which is not as sweet, but is absolutely fascinating. Our guide for this will be an academic history of Christmas called The Battle for Christmas, written by Stephen Nissenbaum, which I first mentioned last year in A Christmas Booklist.

Some historians are dry as dust: others have a novelists touch and bring history to life. Nissenbaum is one of the latter. If you like Christmas and you like history, you can look forward to a good time with him if you seek out the book for yourself. Of course, he is a historian, so the book is dense.

*             *              *

I imagine that everyone knows that many of the traditions of Christmas, like holly and the yule log, are pagan in origin. It is also widely known that the date of Jesus birth is not found in the Bible. Put those two ideas together, and it is no surprise that the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas in early New England. It’s all very logical, but it isn’t the whole reason – probably not even the major reason.

Puritans were little worried about Paganism itself. Odin and Balder did not enter into their thinking. Their world was strung between two poles – God on the right and the Devil on the left. They weren’t afraid of holly and evergreens, but they were afraid of disorder. And disorder was always waiting in the wings, locked into the agriultural cycle.

All across northern Europe, both before and after Christianity, fresh foods were available in spring and summer, and into autumn. Grains were planted in spring and harvested in fall. Some was kept to be ground into flour for winter bread. Some was preserved by fermentation to form a variety of beers. Cabbage was fermented into sauerkraut, which kept millions of German peasants alive through the winter.

In America, as late as the Revolution, apples were preserved as hard (fermented) cider which would store through the winter. Most of the excess grain grown anywhere west of the Appalacians went to market as the portable and storable product called whiskey. Alcohol may bring a tipsy smile, but it is also a food that does not spoil.

From peasants in the Middle Ages until the Industrial Revolution, the only leisure for the European lower classes was in winter, when farm work could not be done. Early in the winter, the season’s barley had become beer, the extra animals who could not be kept alive through the winter had been slaughtered, and the pantries were as full as they would ever be. It was time for a party.

*              *              *

When I first read The Battle for Christmas about ten years ago, finding this tie to seasonality was like meeting an old friend. I spent my youth tied to the Oklahoma-farmer version of agricultural seasonality, with planting times and harvest times, with putting up vegetables for the winter for the family and putting away grain and hay for winter feed for the animals. The season of cattle breeding was keyed to bring on late fall births, so there were new calves and new milk just in time to provide work and income during the winter when no grains were growing.

I had already based the entire Menhir series on a hero who grew up tied to the agricultural cycle in a land of peasants and lords, where drought and overpopulation made life a struggle for food. In such a place, early winter is a time of relative plenty and late winter is the starving time — a subject I will address here next month in an excerpt from those books.

*              *              *

So we have the onset of winter, enforced leisure, plenty of food and beer (at least for a while). The celebrations of this point in the year were raucous, with plenty of drunkenness and, no surprise, plenty of sex.

Along came Christianity — always the enemy of a good time — and tried to Christianize the holiday by tying it to Jesus birth. It didn’t work. click here to continue the story