Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

Recently I reread (again) parts of a fascinating book called THE BATTLE FOR CHRISTMAS, by Stephen Nissenbaum. It explores the shift from the REAL old-fashioned Christmas celebration to what WE think of as a "traditional" Christmas, the family-centered holiday invented in the nineteenth century. What the New England Puritans, like their English counterparts under Cromwell, objected to when they tried to abolish Christmas had little in common with our "traditions." To us, the medieval Christmas would have looked like a combination of Mardi Gras (masquerading, revelry, and inversion of the normal social order), Halloween (begging from door to door), Thanksgiving (overeating and over-drinking—well, a lot of us still do that at Christmas), and New Year's Eve (more drinking and revelry, noisemaking to drive away the dark; nineteenth-century American Southerners still heralded Christmas by firing off guns). All these elements combined at the winter solstice festivities because, in the northern hemisphere, December was the one time in the agricultural year when abundant fresh food (especially meat, because animals couldn't be slaughtered until the weather turned cold, and then the meat had to be either eaten quickly or preserved by salting) and leisure from heavy labor coincided. For modern people who complain about the holiday season starting too early and going on too long, this trend isn't a new invention; in some parts of Europe the Christmas-centered revelry extended from late November to Candlemas (early February). Complaints about the pagan roots of Christmas and its being celebrated in a secular rather than religious manner go back quite a few centuries, too. 'Tis the season to reread Terry Pratchett's HOGFATHER, which includes an abundance of incisive reflections on both the commercial and the ancient seasonal-cycle dimensions of the Yuletide festivities.

I'd like to post a couple of Madeleine L'Engle's moving Nativity poems, but quoting them in full would be copyright infringement. I think it's permissible, though, to quote part of one, "The Risk of Birth, Christmas 1973." It begins, "This is no time for a child to be born" and ends:

"The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth."

Happy midwinter holidays to all!

Margaret L. Carter (

No comments:

Post a Comment