Don’t let the light go out

St.-Lucia-Day-1024x585BY DEBRA KEEFER RAMAGE

The days grow shorter as they grow colder, and then, one or two days in December, the sun seems to stand still at its farthest point. For a few days, it seems that the days are not getting any shorter, but neither are they getting longer, and the winter will never end. From this vague impression comes the name of the “solstice”—sun in stasis. We who have been on earth know it will turn around and come back. The ancients knew it, too, but they were cautious and fearful nonetheless, and who can blame them? Don’t you feel, sometimes, the chill touch of fear in the long winter nights? Aren’t you glad there are the holidays—literally days (and nights) that are holy, sacred—to get you through to the return of the sun?
Wrap up in a cozy fleece, make a cup of something hot, and read about the ways the human family has celebrated its awe-filled understanding of celestial phenomena—varied and yet somehow the same, with these oft-recurring elements. Lighting candles and fires. Gathering the family. Eating and drinking. Staying up late. Singing and stories. Giving gifts and honoring saints and generous spirits. The holly, the ivy, the tree, the pomegranate … The what?
Pomegranate, because we begin in Iran, with an ancient Persian solstice rite, called in Farsi either Shab-e Chelleh  or Shab-e Yalda. It spread to Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, all the “-stans,” and  Kashmir in India, and its history is complex and disputed. “Chelleh” means 40, and that part of the tradition is because the winter there lasts 40 days and begins on Dec. 20 or 21 by the Iranian calendar (last day of the month of Azar). The early Persians believed that evil spirits were abroad on the longest night, so they must all gather together and stay awake all night. “Yalda” means “birth,” and that part of the tradition is a little more hazy. It may be a celebration of the birth of Mithra, a sun god who has been conflated in later years with both the Roman Sol Invictus and Jesus. Nowadays, they celebrate by feasting until past midnight, with traditional foods including pomegranate and watermelon, pastries, dried fruits and nuts. In Iran,  poetry is read, especially Hafez, the Persian equivalent of Shakespeare. The Islamic theocracy neither sanctions nor bans the holiday, and celebrations go on there as a purely secular feast, and are especially important to the Iranian diaspora.
St. Lucia Day in SwedenMeanwhile in pre-Christian Scandinavia, where the winter was a bit longer than 40 days, there was a similar belief that evil had to be fought against all through the Solstice night of Yule. This is where we get the tradition of the Yule log. Originally, this log literally had to burn all night and if your log went out, the sun would not come back and it would be all your fault. As a matter of fact, Yule itself was a sort of last-ditch effort to turn back the forces of darkness. Around about Dec. 13 was traditionally Lussinatta, when a malevolent female spirit called the Lussi, attended by her Lussifera, flew around the night sky, again requiring people to gather in their homes and stay awake all night with the fires burning. A presage of that jolly old elf, Santa Claus, the Lussi rewarded good children and punished bad ones with a “gift” of coal. In fact, the whole period from Lussinatta to Yule was dangerous and you didn’t want to go out at night.  Lussinatta’s memory is probably why the Sicilian saint St. Lucia, whose feast day is Dec. 13, is celebrated in modern Sweden, with borrowings throughout the Nordic countries and in Swedish Lutheran communities in the U.S. Now instead of the evil Lussi, there is a young and virginal and supremely good Lucia, whose name means light. With her wreath of candles on her head and her plate of saffron buns, there are no longer echoes of fear in her celebration, just a jolly Neapolitan tune and a chance for young girls to dress up and play a major role.
As humankind has matured, we have modified and syncretized all these winter holy days, and with the influence of triumphant capitalism, there is always the feeling that we have somehow bastardized them, too. Christmas is not the only one. St. Lucias are now chosen by municipalities in Sweden and appear on TV and at shopping malls, with corporate sponsorship. And here in America, we have rather cynically invented a purely secular and commerce-driven “holiday” called Black Friday to usher in the Christmas “shopping season.”
It was partly this unease about the commercial ascendancy of Christmas that led pan-African activist Maulana Karenga to create the holiday Kwanzaa in 1965. The name is the Swahili word for “harvest” —kwanza—with an extra “a” so it would have seven letters, to correspond to the seven principles, which are also Swahili words. In English, these are Unity, Collectivism, Self-  determination, Cooperation, Purpose, Creativity and Faith. Since in Equatorial Africa the winter solstice roughly corresponds to the harvest, and the length of days does not vary so much through the year, Kwanzaa has more of an autumnal than a hibernial feel to it. But it still includes the vital elements of candles, gifts, family and feasting. At its height in the 1970s, it is estimated that several million families celebrated Kwanzaa, which starts Dec. 26 and lasts seven days. Now it seems to mostly be kept alive by elementary schools and libraries, although no one knows for sure how many families do celebrate it. (Maybe a survey could be done?) Certainly its deliberately anti-commercial emphasis has been a factor in the decline in profile.
Native Americans throughout both continents recognized and celebrated the solstices. There is evidence all over the U.S. of mounds, stones with iconic inscriptions and other artifacts of the knowledge and practices. That the exact specifics of these traditional celebrations are now lost to us is just part of the appalling cultural genocide that European descendants have wrought. But there is some resurgence and revival taking place even here in the U.S., while some Central and South American groups have managed to continue their traditions uninterrupted. One North American group that has kept alive its Midwinter ceremony and the memories of its traditional way is the Iroquois Confederation.  One remembered tradition that survives only in a streamlined form was like an inversion of the Persians and the Norse practice of staying awake to fight the dying of the light. The Iroquois traditionally lived in large communal longhouses. On the first night of the nine-day midwinter festival (they used a lunar calendar, so dates varied) the village would have an early feast and go to bed at the first darkness—and dream. The next day, each person from the youngest talker would tell the intricate stories of their dreams and the entire village would offer interpretations, help with realizing the positive dreams and healing if there were signs of illness in the dream.  Subsequent rituals in the Midwinter Ceremony focused on purifying both individuals and the community in preparation for the new year.
Another winter tradition that was originally about purification is the Jewish minor holy day, Chanukah, which hearkens back to the success of the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire in 165 BCE. The priests implemented these new holy days to celebrate the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, which the monarch invader Antiochus III had defiled with statues of Zeus and the sacrifice of pigs for many years. This is the one winter celebration that is almost certainly based on historical fact, apart from the miracle (which was not always an essential part of the story). The dedication ceremony required an unextinguished lamp to burn with a special undefiled oil, but there was only one day’s supply on hand and it would take eight days to produce new oil. The miracle was that the tiny portion of kosher oil did burn for eight days. The oil miracle story has led to some seriously delicious grub being a necessary part of the celebrations. Ashkenazy Jews eat latkes, scrumptious oily potato pancakes, while the Sephardim  indulge in fried jelly doughnuts. The celebration also involves lighting a nine-branched candelabra called the “menorah.” (There are eight branches for the eight nights of the celebration, plus a separate branch called “the attendant.”) The holiday also involves play—spinning a wooden top called the “dreidl”—and gifts given to children, especially Chanukah gelt, which was originally actual small amounts of money, but nowadays in the U.S. can also refer to foil-covered chocolate coins.
Which brings us back to what Marenga called “the dominant culture.” There is a school of thought, particularly evident in the jokes and practice of the “Chanukah bush,” that the elevated importance of Chanukah in America is due to the pressure of Christmas, which, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, non-Christians persist in believing is a Christian holiday. All of which is kind of debatable, and perhaps no element more so than the quintessential element—the Christmas Tree.
O, Tannenbaum!  Did you ever wonder why there is no Christmas tree in Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol”? This novella of 1843 has many lavish descriptions of the traditional Christmas feasts and church celebrations, but no indoor tree, and yet a mere seven years later, Dickens, “the man who invented Christmas,” wrote a rapturous essay about the Christmas Tree, which by then was fast becoming a staple in all but the poorest households. Officially, the first Christmas tree in Britain was erected in 1800, by “good Queen Charlotte,” the German wife of the mostly German George III, for a party for the children of the village of Windsor. The idea caught on in a big way, but only with the royal family and the pinnacle of the aristocracy that partied with them. When Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, who is credited with bringing the Tannenbaum tradition to England, put up their family’s first tree in 1840, the nobility was not surprised or impressed. But then a new force had entered the picture—the mass media in the form of cheap newspapers and magazines with illustrations. The general populace was encouraged to aspire to live like that model “English” family, the Saxe-Coburgs, and by about 1850 the practice of putting up trees began to catch on. We would say that it went viral, but they had not actually discovered viruses yet, so nobody said that. It probably took another five to 10 years for Christmas tree fever to reach American shores.
Whether we celebrate Christmas in all its green and gold glory, or light Kwanzaa candles and tell African folktales, whether we pen thoughtful Solstice meditations over a bowl of pumpkin soup, or combine Yuletide feasts with latkes on the side, whether we fill our homes with the sounds of Bach and Handel or with the Pogues singing Fairytale of New York, we all need our rituals to roll back the darkness. We need hearty, celebratory food to hold back the memory of winter’s threat of famine, and we need to give gifts, whether we make them ourselves, buy them at the church art fair, or spend an excruciating half day at the Mall. So gather together, be generous and kind, eat, drink, sing and pray for Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All. And don’t let the light go out.

MN-Capitol-Tree copy

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