Friday, December 23, 2005

Yule is Cool

In this age of worshipping our craniums and picking apart our history and customs, looking down our noses at Christmas has become fashionable in certain circles. Yes, it’s not Christian. Yes, it’s basically pagan and thus rowdy and uncontrollable. Yes, it’s become overlaid with centuries of traditions to the point that it’s bulging set to burst. Yes, it’s not part of Quakerism.

But my argument always is: So is popcorn—and we still eat it.

What’s so wrong about having a nonChristian, pagan, nonQuaker, heavily traditioned, rowdy feastday?

Here in the north, our outer world has gone dark and cold. The snow is deep, and the wind has a particular howl to it that only leaves on trees can muffle. Survival is a real concept in the winter: only fools think otherwise. Who wouldn’t want to call back the sun?

What’s more important, our inner world has gone dark and cold too. We are a species of storytellers. We exist for myth and tradition. Without these, our minds and souls starve. And education has a way of nudging out myth and tradition, so that the story-hungry part of our psyche goes dark.

Christmas provides two ingredients we crave: myth and tradition. That these myths and traditions are ancient, predating history and spanning all nordic cultures, makes them all the more compelling.

The myth of the baby king born in the dark and cold of a stable, unwanted by all, but known to the lowly. The Godly in us, the surreal in the dirt, the frailty of greatness. People drawing closer in the darkness, led by something they don’t understand, to find someone for whom there was no room at the inn.

For children, the myth of Santa, reindeer, magic, baby Jesus.

These stories have helped create the landscapes of our minds, our collective unconscious in Jung’s terms. They’ve played again and again since our children, like a mantra repeated, or a hypnotism tape playing in the background. It’s time once again to visit them.

I know Quakers would rather not need myth and tradition, but we are no different than other people. We could choose not to have a Christmas tree because it’s wasteful, not to bake traditional foods because they’re fattening, not to sing carols because we don’t like the words, or tell stories because we don’t believe the events. But then, what would Christmas be? A day like any other day. And we would be impoverished for it.

I think of Christmas (and our other collective traditions and myths) as a chalice that’s been handed down from generation to generation, crusted with everything other ages thought was meaningful and worthy of celebration and filled with ideas, beliefs, fears. It’s now been passed to us. Our task is to take the cup, sift through the contents, touch them all, connect with the past, then put back in the cup--changed or unchanged--what we’ll pass to the next generation.

It’s about connection.

Having said all that, there are two relatively new traditions I could very much do without, and one old myth that I could do with.

The first tradition is materialism—a tradition that soaks the holiday and clouds the light. We try to change the focus on giving, rather than receiving; but to have a giver, you must have a receiver, so it’s really a bit of a cop-out. Sending shoeboxes of trinkets to third-world countries because we believe it’s so important to get stuff at Christmas shows how remarkably google-eyed we are about worshipping Mammon.

The other tradition is “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” This is from the people who would make Christmas copyright. “It’s only for us Christians,” they say, “so you others just stay out.” They take what was once everyone’s festival and then steal it entirely.

The myth I could do with is Peace on Earth. It’s now within our grasp. We have the teachings of Jesus and the model of Gandhi. New notions of global interrelatedness could make it happen.

We pray for it at Christmas. Then we need to go out and answer our own prayers.


PS Have a cool Yule, everyone.


At 5:29 PM, Blogger Anna Dunford said...

As one of the many feeling decidedly uninspired about Christmas I'll try to explain why.

A quick glance at my bookshelves will confirm that myth and tradition are very much a part of my life.

I'm not so sure about pagan = rowdy and uncontrollable! It is the pagan roots of many of the myths and traditions that hold for me a huge amount of significance. The passing of midwinter, the longer days returning, a chance (with hogmanay and the turning of the year) to look back at what has passed and forward to what is to come - these for me are what have made 'christmas' in the past. I can fully understand and appreciate the reasoning behind much of the food - lots of dried fruits as the fresh were all gone, feasting on huge amounts of meat as the poor animal had just been killed and lets face it it tasted better fresh than salted, feeding people up to keep them warm and illness at bay, spiced hot toddies and whatnot to keep spirits up and the circulation going.

These I can all relate to (albeit from a vegetarian standpoint), and definitely 'yule is cool'. What I struggle with is the Christian hijacking of the festival which tries to deny it's original meanings and symbolism, and places emphasis on the date rather than the season - so those of us (as I am now) in the Southern Hemisphere (or even in places where there is no such thing as midwinter) are left all out of kilter, basically celebrating midwinter at midsummer.

Personally I'll be celebrating when it feels right - our midwinter; when it is dark, cold, probably wet rather than snowy, when I feel the need to some extra warmth to keep spirits up and the darkness at bay, to share with friends and family the passing of the dying year into the rebirth of the new - even if the calendar begs to differ - altho' the Maori New Year - Matariki is linked to the rising of the Seven Sisters in midwinter so there will be plenty others to celebrate with!

I'm all for celebrating these things - in their own season, which for you in the north is now, for me in six months time.

However to me the teachings of Jesus are what has meaning to me, not his birth. As christmas falls on a Sunday I'll be spending christmas going to meeting, having lunch with friends and hopefully visiting family. Sure, it is christmas but it could be any other sunday too - you say that without it we'd be the poorer, surely we would be the richer as families and communities if we spent far more days in our lives sharing together like that instead? Do we have to rely on christmas still to remind people of the importance of being together, sharing time and meals, singing and telling stories? Celebrating our love for each other surely isn't dependant upon one date on the calendar is it? However as it is a day that so many peope are on holiday for why not make the most of it?

But for me that is a celebration of life and each other and doesn't need the gaudy trimmings and over commercialised hype that passes these days for religious significance. That is what I have a problem with and find hard to relate to. Is it really christmas? Is that what is being celebrated in truth - and don't we have a testimony on being truthful? But don't let that stop the party happening!

Have a cool yule, however you celebrate it =)

At 3:02 AM, Blogger Zach A said...

Nancy, yes! I think we are in a similar place on this. I just finished a post suggesting we go for solstice instead of Christmas, but I do agree with you that there is a real human need for tradition and holiday, and that this is probably an early Quaker blind spot.

I wonder though whether it's possible to de-Jesusify Christmas, which is why I am interested in solstice. (Just so you know I see a de-Jesusification as a good thing not because I don't like Jesus, but because I think we shouldn't celebrate his birth, as I wrote in that post.)

I appreciated your comment Anna (:

At 8:33 AM, Blogger Nancy A said...

Yes, Anna, what a weird space it must be to have to celebrate a nordic tradition in a southern place! I lived in Mexico and Central America for a while. Their Christmas traditions are simple one-day affairs. In Costa Rica, everyone goes to the main square and tosses confetti on each other. In Oaxaca, the people celebrate the Day of the Radish and eat traditional foods in red clay pots, then toss the pots over their shoulders onto the streets.

No trees, no lights, no gifts, no turkey. Heck, no solstice.

But these cultures are/were protected from English and northern European cultural invasion by their language (at least until the shoebox thing started). NZ and Australia are not so lucky. They've had nordic traditions imposed on their summer solstice.

I kind of feel the same way about California christmases. I see them on TV with their have-to-be-fake Christmas trees and not a flake of snow in sight. It doesn't make sense.

Rebellion is called for.

At 3:46 AM, Blogger Anna Dunford said...

Believe me, rebellion is being plotted - watch this spot next year!

Hope you all enjoy the day - I have, and bar a few pressies and free public transport you'd never even have known it was Christmas. The pressies I could have happily survived without, now the free public transport is an arguement for everyday being Christmas day if ever there was one - good on Wellington!

At 9:37 PM, Blogger Amanda said...

What a perfect post.


I have no thoughtful things to say at the moment. Just...I liked it, and I liked what Anna and Zack had to say.

At 11:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The more we analyze the less we can digest the spirit of Christmas. Does everything have to be dissected and analyzed to be enjoyed? Does it really matter that Jesus wasn't born on 12/25? That a pine tree is an item of celtic veneration? That St. Nick wasn't a nice guy?

Let's celebrate the life of Christ and be inclusive of all. Let's not put ourselves on a pedestal because we know the history of why Christmas has pagan symbols. Let's stop the nonsense that Friends don't let Friends believe in Jesus.

At 6:16 PM, Blogger Liz Opp said...

Nancy, thanks for your post. It stirred up some memories of my own and prompted me to post my own thoughts.

I see you've posted even more entries, and I look forward to catching up with them!

Liz, The Good Raised Up

At 6:43 PM, Blogger david said...

Happy Holy Days Nancy.


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