Ancient traditions survive: Martha Stewart's 1997 Bay Leaf and Pomegranate Garland recalls the importance of laurel leaves at the Winter Solstice, when Romans brought potted laurel trees into their houses. Image Source: Martha Stewart.
Christmas is a holiday of palimpsests. Millennia of earlier festivals shine through opaque layers of tradition. The lighted evergreens, the feasts, the burning Yule logs, were part of pre-Christian eras.
You can see and hear some of that ingrained nostalgia below the jump, in the movement Balulalow, from Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, which he wrote in 1942 while sailing the war-churned Atlantic from the United States to Britain. The words, from the brothers Wedderburn, are in Middle English. 'Balulalow' is an old Scottish word which means 'lullaby.'
Benjamin Britten: Balulalow from A Ceremony of Carols (1942). St. Paul's Cathedral recording. Video Source: Youtube.
O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit,
Excerpt from Zeitgeist: The Movie (2007), Part I. Video Source: Youtube.
Excerpt from Zeitgeist: The Movie (2007), Part II. Video Source: Youtube.
O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit,
Prepare thy creddil in my spreit,
And I sall rock thee to my hert,
And never mair from thee depart.
But I sall praise thee evermoir
With sanges sweit unto thy gloir;
The knees of my heart sall I bow,
And sing that richt Balulalow!
Lyrics: James, John and Robert Wedderbum / Music: Benjamin Britten, from A Ceremony of Carols, Opus 28, 1942.
Perhaps Christmas is actually supra-Christian. It celebrates the point at which the days become demonstrably longer after the Winter Solstice. See videos below and at the bottom of my post, "There is No Going Back," which explain that Christmas really marks the sun's changing relation to the Northern Hemisphere's winter constellations (videos are from Peter Joseph's 2007 film, Zeitgeist: The Movie).
I don't agree with the Millennial conclusions Peter Joseph draws from his mythological and astrological critique of Christianity. He suggests that because so many older festivals are demonstrable antecedents for Christmas, Christianity itself is a hollow shell, an anthropomorphized parody of a sun god religion. That observation is academically interesting, but morally irrelevant. Although archaic astronomy, rituals, religion, myths and symbols can easily be deconstructed, and they all overlap at this time of year, they still retain their power for one reason. Christmas is a celebration of survival.
No matter how comfortable modern life becomes, Hurricane Sandy and recent UK floods were reminders that one need only see a cut in electricity, or lose one's home to the elements, to be thrust overnight into a very different reality, where charity is everything. In times of economic recession, demands on charities increase, while donations fall. A list:
- Charity Navigator for charities dealing with Hurricane Sandy aid
- United Way of Western Connecticut, for families of victims of the December 2012 Connecticut school shooting (Hat tip: Republic of Gilead)
- Charity Watch's index of top-rated charities in America
- UK top charities by reputation and by donation
- Council donations for St Asaph flood victims in Wales
- Unicef main page
- Oxfam International emergencies page, famines and humanitarian crises in Africa and elsewhere; Oxfam Unwrapped program lets you give charitable gifts abroad in lieu of presents at home
- Red Cross’s European Union unit and Caritas Europa, Catholic charity European national offices: Europe's poor, now at 116 million, look to charities for food aid and job search counselling
- The Salvation Army in Canada, one in 11 people in Canada lives in poverty; the Salvation Army in Australia and in New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga
This is why we feast with friends and family members. Gift-giving, even in the age of late capitalism, still signifies an effort to improve the lot of our fellow human beings, especially those we hold dear. It is a way of saying: you are still in the circle; you are not forgotten.
An NYPD police officer bought a homeless man socks and winter boots on 14 November 2012. Image Source: Facebook.
Caption for the above photograph: Jennifer Foster of Florence, AZ was visiting Times Square with her husband Nov. 14 when they saw a shoeless man asking for change. She writes, “Right when I was about to approach, one of your officers came up behind him. The officer said, ‘I have these size 12 boots for you, they are all-weather. Let’s put them on and take care of you.’ The officer squatted down on the ground and proceeded to put socks and the new boots on this man. The officer expected NOTHING in return and did not know I was watching. I have been in law enforcement for 17 years. I was never so impressed in my life. I did not get the officer’s name. It is important, I think, for all of us to remember the real reason we are in this line of work. The reminder this officer gave to our profession in his presentation of human kindness has not been lost on myself or any of the Arizona law enforcement officials with whom this story has been shared.”
In November, an NYPD officer's gift of winter boots to a homeless man went viral. In other heartwarming stories, this year and last year, Secret Santas paid off customers' layaway balances at Walmarts in the US. This is why this solstice festival has endured since ancient times. It's not about commercialism; it is about survival. Christmas recalls the need to help one's fellow humans survive through the winter of the Northern Hemisphere.
For many, basic survival is not an immediate concern. But the same concept of reaching out to others applies. Charity is about learning to think in a different way. If your perspective on the world's problems is fixed and obvious, you're missing something. Morality is an equalizer, a leveller, not a value which places anyone in a position to judge others. This holiday, please listen to someone with whom you vehemently disagree, rather than demonizing or dismissing them. Try to hear and understand their point of view, even if you think they are wrong, because everyone has a piece of the truth. It doesn't cost money: all it costs is time. In a global society, we are all in this together, and if one member of the community suffers, in the end, we will all suffer, sooner or later.