Snow

victoria-xmas-cardSome stories demand attention.   Any writer can find them – or rather, they find him, eagerly salivating little gangs that pounce each time he opens his laptop and switches on.  Headlines, oddities, issues that invite comment, or exercise a turn of phrase.  Stories that beg to be told.

So here I am, staring at the keys.

Christmas stares back at me.

Christmas makes it abundantly clear:  it does not beg to be told.  All it wants is to be put back in its box.   Its greatest hope is to be left in peace.   Over the centuries it has been written about incessantly; it has been turned over, forensically examined, boiled down and put into test tubes, sculpted by the greatest, depicted by the painty-est (yes, I know it’s a new word – I just invented it) and sung without mercy.

There is nothing about Christmas we do not already know.

We know that St. Nicholas began a legend when (allegendly – another new one, do you like it?) he dropped bags of money down the chimneys of a deceased friend’s daughters to save them from penury.  We know the first Christmas trees were religious symbols Eastern European people hung upside-down from their ceilings (or medieval equivalent) as appeasement to evil spirits, just as ‘decking the halls with holly’ dates back to days when the dark woods were never far from our doors, and we needed to be sure our friendly sprites and fairies would feel at home when the party started.

We are aware our celebrations are intrinsically pagan, and early Christians hung their own festival of Christ’s Mass upon them for convenience, because it was easier to get converts if they didn’t try to impose additional celebrations on people whose winter resources were limited.   They understood even then that Jesus was not born on December 25th:  they argued about His actual birthday from the very beginning.

So where is the new angle?  What startling revelation can I bring?

I have seated Christmas on my window sill, hoping a little cold air will wake it up.  It just stares at me, blankly.  Beyond the glass, Washington Irving’s rotund red fellow ho-ho-ho’s at me before fading away; heading back, presumably, to his inhospitable den at the North Pole.   How the hell does he cover Australia in midsummer from there and still get home before dawn?   Albert and Vicky smile regally from their cardboard portrait, the first Christmas card, before disappearing into an envelope to be despatched by a postal service that hasn’t been invented yet, making me wonder – was it an ill-advised penchant for adorning our Christmas trees with lighted candles that stimulated creation of a national fire service?

“No.” Christmas assures me.  “Insurance companies created the first organised fire brigades.  Nicholas Burbon initiated one after the Great Fire of London to protect properties he insured.  The first organised municipal brigade was probably Edinburgh’s, in 1824.”  It squirms in a weak attempt at enthusiasm.  “That’s something new for you!”

“But nothing to do with Christmas.”

“Oh, well then.”  It appears to be dropping off to sleep.  I give it a prod.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, WHAT?”

“I want a new angle.”

“There isn’t any.”

“Just something – anything – a bit different?”

It tucks its chin into its chest, adopting the shrivelled appearance it always has just before twelfth night, when nearly all its needles have dropped off.   “Snow.”  It mutters.

Snow.

Snow, of course, is the great enemy in Eastern Europe’s icy winter heart.   The Germanic peoples of history knew all about snow – the white blast that drove them to huddle within their huts, sealed up and buried, for the winter of the year.   It was an enforced hibernation, a somnolent wait for the coming of spring, and a habit as old as time.

Equal in tradition was Yule (the Nordic houl), the time of the hunt.  It began once the huts-on-the-steppeharvest was gathered in, and, just like the harvest, it culminated in a great feast – the feast of Yule.  Carcasses kept frozen by frost could be stored, so as to provision the months of incarceration.  Given a good hunting season, whatever was left over was consumed in feasting, sending celebrants to their hovels with full stomachs and hopeful hearts.

The Yule Festival – kept more formally by the Romans as ‘Saturnalia’, equally an occasion for seven days of self-indulgence – had added significance, for peoples of early times, as the winter solstice; important for those who relied so heavily upon the mood of the sun, and therefore a religious occasion:  of course, wherever there was a religious occasion the witches could be expected to put in an appearance, so it was a time of superstition and fear, too.

Perhaps it was that weak underbelly of terror that the Christians, four hundred years after the time when Christ is said to have lived, latched onto in the spread of their gentler creed; but it took all that time before Yule could be reborn as Christmas.

So there’s my angle.  It isn’t really new, and I’m sure you knew it already, but I thought I should just remind you that whenever someone laments Christmas’s ‘commercialism’, and insists upon the ‘true message’ of Christmas, it is you who has the moral high ground.   It is the time of the solstice and it is a feast:  the Romans gave gifts at Saturnalia, and so should you.

Christmas looks at me archly.  “Can I go back in my box, now?”

“Yes, of course.  Until next year, at least.   Oh, and thank you for ‘snow’.”

 

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Mother’s Day – A Matter of Family Values

In my country, we have Mothering Sunday.   That’s today.

It’s the fourth Sunday in Lent, if anyone is interested in the jigsaw puzzle of the St. John of the ladderChristian calendar, and it remembers St. John of the Ladder, or St. John Climacus (Climacus – climb – ladder; gettit?  Don’t you just love Latin?).  It was once called Laetare Sunday, and is variously still known as Refreshment Sunday or Rose Sunday.  The latter because, apparently, of a golden rose traditionally sent by the Pope to Christian sovereigns.  Why?  Because Wikipedia says so, that’s why.

These days, Christian sovereigns are probably sick of an ever-growing stack of golden roses:  the pot in the royal throne room (the one just beneath the self-portrait of George W. Bush) is likely to be over-brimming with the things.   As for refreshment Sunday, that’s intended to mean refreshment of religious vows, rather than setting up a canteen in the vestry – or so I’m told.  Anyway, moving on.

In secular terms, as our beloved Archbishop is fond of saying, Mothering Sunday has simply become Mother’s Day, and though its origins are different to the American version, the essence of the festival is much the same.

It’s the day the chickens come home to roost.

For our grown-up chickens have a duty that must be fulfilled.  Our door must be visited, flowers must be presented, platitudes offered.

“Sorry, I know it’s not much this year, Mum.  We’re seriously short of money. What with the alterations to the house, the new Jacuzzi and Amanda’s kitchen makeover, there’s not much left to go round.”

“You’ll be planning your budget really carefully, then?”

“Yes.  That’s what the weekend in Florence was all about.  Just sitting down in a nice Trattoria with some wine and talking it over.”

‘I don’t suppose the 5K your father lent you entered your thinking?’  No, that’s a question that remains unasked; more because you fear the answer, than the risk of killing the conversation.

As for ourselves, we are past the age when we have mothers of our own, so Mother’s Day represents no major digression from our usual Sabbath routine.  Were we church-goers it might mean a service in a church where the faithful have made a bit of an effort:  a few flowers, some of what only a Christian congregation can call ‘gaiety’.  As it is, all we have to sacrifice is our sleep.  Rising at the crack of dawn is strongly advisable, because the progeny will be queuing at the end of the road waiting for sunrise.

The first knock comes at seven am.

“Hello Dad – not too early, is it?”

“My, those flowers look nice.”  (The all-night garage always raises its act for Mother’s Day).

The next knock comes at eight-thirty.

“Hello, Mummy, you look a bit pale.  Are you ailing?”

“Lack of sleep, dear.  My, those flowers look nice.”  (Discretion demands you conceal the first bouquet because the second one is likely to be identical).

By ten o’clock the fog of children will have dispersed and life will have returned to normal.   A day of creative flower-arranging beckons while we try to analyze our success-rating with our offspring (tricky, this one:  do we regard the very earliest arrival as the most ardent, or simply the one who wants to get the onerous event over soonest?)  and express our admiration for the innate sense of timing involved.  The earlier visitor will always contrive to be gone before the second arrives, because they do not ‘get on’ with one another.

What then, if anything, does Mothers Day signify – for us, the ex-parents, the holders of the torch everyone is waiting so eagerly for us to put down?  Enjoyment of a traditional family day when those we withstood for eighteen or so childhood years return to haunt us, briefly; or merely another clutter of cards, a few more needlessly sacrificed trees?   Or something in between?   Do the fruits of our loins observe the tradition because they want to, because they feel that need to reconnect to their roots, or rather through a desire to check that we haven’t sold the Ming vase that sits in their half of the will?

It is hard to give answers.  A wise owl on one shoulder might express the opinion 0wl 1owl 2that there are too many days in a year when family is meant to honor its obligations to its adjacent generation, whilst the wise owl on the other might claim that family unity is the cement that binds society together, and therefore cannot be reinforced too much.  (At which point I might remind myself that certain Sicilian families of recent history were very strong on the use of cement in resolving family issues).

My solution?  I accept what I cannot change.  I do not seek the answers.  After all, these shoulders are big enough for two owls:  why put one in a position where it has to peck the eyes out of the other – and which owl would win?

Which of our prodigal children will stay long enough to convince us they are happy to be here? Who will listen rapturously as we regale them with  details of our IBS symptoms, or try to persuade them to join our line-dancing class?  Who might even stay to lunch?

Ah well, tick the diary for another year.  Then cast forward to their next return to the fold – about a week after my birthday, perhaps.

Ho-Ho-Ho!

the V and A Christmas Tree
Victoria and Albert – the Christmas Card that started it all?

We are at that junction of the years when it is time to gather the strands of the family once more; to weave back together the hems that have frayed, re-kindle the flames that have guttered or died:  for those who can be with us will know our hearth will welcome them, and those who cannot (sorry, Uncle Francis, but we couldn’t make bail for you this Christmas) can be sure of our thoughts and prayers.

There is coming a day when all of us who thought we could cook are going to be proved wrong, and those of us who thought we could hold our drink are going to confirm what our friends and family already knew.  A morning approaches when normally well-behaved potatoes will emerge charcoal-black from the oven, parsnips will remain resolute no matter for how long we roast them, and the dining table we are extending to its full length for the first time will become unaccountably collapsible beneath the weight of a turkey.  That we should overeat is predictable, even mandatory, just as the afternoon when the ghost of the well-piled plate must haunt us and the need for an extra bathroom is proven once again.

For Christmas is a time of joy, and let no-one waiting at number fifty-nine in the queue for the checkout at Walmart doubt it.   Smile, for this is only the first of a hundred times your children will prove how many orifices they possess and demonstrate how many they can utilize at once.  Smile, for it is the season of goodwill:  the driver coming towards you on your side of the road is not a homicidal maniac, but simply drunk.

It is hard, sitting by the fire on Christmas morning watching the young ones savaging the wrapping on the year’s winter blackmail installment, to reflect upon the true meaning of Christmas.   Perhaps the Internet has made us too wise:  we know that Jesus was not born on 25th December, but more probably around the end of September (making him a Libra, possibly.  Sounds sensible, doesn’t it?) just as we know that even the year is wrong, because he was most likely conceived around 4-5 BC.   The Immaculate Conception of Mary doesn’t hold up in our minds any more than we can accept that Father Christmas somehow manages to pop out of several billion chimneys all on the same night.   So if all the myths have imploded, what is it about Christmas that makes it the biggest occasion in our year?

The answer, I think, lies in roots far deeper than the Christian feast.  Since time Burkhas at Christmasimmemorial the winter solstice has been a time to come out of hibernation – to honor the gods of the land and seek their beneficence for another year, ostensibly, but more probably as an excuse for everyone to enjoy themselves before ice and snow clamped them inside their houses, awaiting the thaws of spring.   It used to be known as Yule:  when the Christians overlaid it with their celebration it evolved into Christ’s Mass, and it never claimed historical accuracy; it was just a good time to celebrate.

So we do.  We join in applauding the good things in life, which may mean food, or gifts, or friends.  It is a chance to show ourselves as we really are.  Relationships initiated here and in the New Year will come to fruition in the spring.  We may satisfy our need to perform Christian duty by prayer, or, more practically by acts of charity.    It is a time to remember those less fortunate than we.

However you celebrate, I raise a glass to you.  I wish you a very happy and fulfilling Christmas and a brave New Year.  For now, I must let my blogging pen rest.  See you in 2015!