Thursday, December 29, 2011

Holiday Greetings

Happy Yuletide! Keep in mind that Christmas officially lasts until January 6 (Epiphany, aka Twelfth Night). According to THE BATTLE FOR CHRISTMAS by Stephen Nissenbaum, in some parts of medieval Europe the celebratory season continued until February 2 (Candlemas, best known to us as Groundhog Day), when the agricultural labors of the new year had to begin. Nissenbaum's book reveals that the Puritans had good reasons, in their worldview, for banning Christmas festivities. The true "old-fashioned, traditional" Christmas wasn't what we think of. That family-centered holiday was invented in the nineteenth century. The REAL traditional Christmas would look to us like a combination of Halloween, Mardi Gras, Thanksgiving, and New Year's Eve. Besides the feasting that we've retained in our own customs, the season focused on heavy drinking, noisemaking, licentious behavior in general, reversal of social roles, and the lower classes wandering from house to house making more or less cheerful demands for food, drink, and money, as memorialized in wassailing songs. In most of premodern Europe (as Nissenbaum explains), December was the only part of the agricultural year when people had both leisure and plenty of food, the one time when fresh meat in abundance was available. It's interesting to contemplate how different life in that seasonal cycle was from our present-day culture, where refrigeration and global transport bring even the poorest of us a variety of foods even the rich couldn't have imagined in the preindustrial world. According to THE BATTLE FOR CHRISTMAS, it was just this pagan seasonal cycle that the Puritans wanted to obliterate. As Nissenbaum puts it, people had always celebrated the winter solstice with feasting and carousing, and the Church, in consecrating December 25 to the birth of Jesus, tacitly allowed the festivities to go on pretty much as they always had. Christmas "has always been a difficult holiday to Christianize."

From the very beginning of the family-centered Christmas in the Victorian era, commercialization has accompanied the holiday and observers have complained about greed obscuring the spirit of the season. C. S. Lewis in the 1950s wrote an essay about "Xmas" and Christmas, lamenting what he called "the commercial racket." Apparently some things haven't changed much in almost sixty years. Yet I realize in some ways Christmas as I knew it in childhood must have been quite different from my parents' childhood holidays in the 1930s. Likewise, our children and now grandchildren have had Christmases in some ways like "the ones we used to know" and in other ways clearly different.

Speaking of "the ones we used to know," how many people in the U.S. who grew up outside New England or the northern parts of the Midwest remember white Christmases? In most of the places we've lived that had snow at all, it was rare before January. Just one example of how culture and the media shape our expectations. My stepmother loved snow and always yearned for a white Christmas, something she probably never saw during her childhood in the tidewater area of North Carolina. Not to mention sleighs with bells!

Here's the full text of "Just Like the Ones We Used to Know" by Connie Willis, a humorous fantasy tale in which the wish for a white Christmas gets fulfilled all too thoroughly:

Just Like the Ones We Used to Know

If you watched the TV series BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, you’ll recall their solstice celebration, Winterfest, adapted for the conditions of their own small subculture. Imagine how our holidays will morph into new forms while retaining the "spirit" of their original meanings as we move forward through the twenty-first century and eventually travel from this planet into space.

And speaking of space, for a midwinter treat here's a page of links to holiday SF filk songs by Suzette Haden Elgin:

Ozarque's Journal

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I was recently deep into medieval research for my latest book, A Medieval Yule, and your post just hits home for me. I've been doing lots of medieval themed posts on my blog for this and since a Twelfth Night plays a part in my story, I've been talking that up too.

    Have a wonderful Yuletide season!