Tuesday, December 19, 2006

My 32nd Winter Solstice

Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

-W.B. Yeats, from Responsibilities, 1916

Although I don’t usually go in for making a big deal of anniversaries – I hate birthday parties, for example – there’s something I really like about the underlying idea of seasonal holidays. I love that there are special songs and foods and color schemes and decorations for certain holidays. I spend months excited about the concept of Christmas and how nice it is that we have the holiday, then on the actual day of Christmas itself I can barely be bothered to remember that it’s not just a normal day. I like the fact that many holidays involve getting together with friends and family and eating a lot, but in general I like the idea of certain holidays more than actually celebrating them.

I think what I like is the idea of the holiday celebration as a time machine, where everyone pretends that they’re doing or observing something that happened a long time ago, or at least doing the exact same thing their ancestors did on that particular day. The best example of this might be Passover, which is actually a dramatic reenactment of something that happened way back when the latest in fashion was a little golden chin-mounted marital aid. Or beard protector. Whatever that thing was the Pharaoh used to have coming out of his chin. Anyway, the ancient Egyptians somehow lost their cultural memory to such an extent that now nobody can even agree on what color they used to be, while the Jews still faithfully rehash the story of Prison Break: Israelite Victims Unit every Passover. That may be the current duration record for a holiday-as-time-machine, and I can understand why Frank Herbert assumed there would still be Jews doing their thing in space 40,000 years from now.

I guess I imagine it as if the passage of time through the years is helical or spiral, and the holidays are times when we try to sort of open a window to something important that occurred on the corresponding point in the previous years. So each Christmas is in some sense every Christmas, every Passover is the first Passover, and so on.

The links that some holidays have to the seasons make this even more poignant, what with the holly and mistletoe and snow and solstices and equinoctes and so on. Plants and the sun go through the same thing at the same time every year, so people should too, is the idea, and the extension of that idea is that “we’re more or less the same as the people who went through this same point in the yearly cycle a thousand years ago. They spent this day in this way with these lights and songs and food, and now we are doing it too.”

One thing I particularly like about this historic dimension to holidays is the preservative effect it has on aspects of culture. Think of how old-fashioned the words to many of the Christmas carols are, or how medieval foods like fruitcake and mince pies are. “Wassail” is “wæs hale”, Old English for “be healthy”. Beowulf says it to king Hrothgar as “Wæs thu, Hrothgar, hal!” Eowyn says the same thing when she hands Aragorn his drink in Return of the King. If it weren’t for Christmas I seriously doubt whether anyone would still know the term “wassail”, and that would make the world a slightly less cool place.

I could probably go on forever but basically even though I’m not religious I’m a big fan of Christmas. Holidays have a lot of cheesy crap tacked on to them but they are also an effective way to maintain folkloric traditions unchanged for any number of years, and I like that. There is a dark side to all of this too, of course. This sort of thing is probably extra effective at fossilizing religious belief, keeping peasants in their place, etc. And cultural holidays can be exlusive or offensive to people from other cultures, those crybabies. But I’d rather dwell on the pleasant aspects of the whole thing. Wæs thu hal!


annaliese said...

Your pictures makes you look both sad and grumpy (in a very endearing way)

Happy holidays and enjoy Vietnam!


Jinna said...

Great post, very illuminating. Makes me think about weddings too (gee wonder why). I had no idea what the western or Korean traditions meant, but I liked the feeling that I was doing something that generations had done before me.