The Witchery Within

It must be something in the sky!   The mild clouds, perhaps, dove grey to break winter to us gently.   Moving fast – they have so much to bring and so little time.  Or some newly created homeland in the earth beneath, layered, filo tier upon filo tier of leaf, carpet and roof, food and bed to the millions, the small unseen.  Indoors, the spider harlot waits upon the white enamel of the bath:  advertising cheap sex for the hungry wanderer, with a price too high for most.

Walking beneath the shedding trees, shoes cloyed with mud, face refreshed by the cleansing breeze, I need no reminding that every season is a cause for celebration, autumn as much as any.  ‘The summer fair, she has grown old’ – Nature takes a broom to the detritus of another year, and that’s excuse enough.   Amid the gathering gloom of evening I glance up into the tangled black of a half-naked sycamore beside my path, then glance again.  A part of a high bough is suddenly separated and an old woman’s cackle rattles through the branches as she flits away into a distance written for her by ten thousand years of superstition.  Speaking of brooms!

For my part, I will celebrate.  For as long as men can remember, All Hallows Eve has been as close to a night of overindulgence as their village could afford, when everyone huddled together for safety, lest a passing witch should pay them too much attention.

We don’t believe in witches now, yet we dress as though we did.  It’s as well that we don’t because we loose our children onto the streets in our defiance and imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but a feast of such morsels may be all too tempting for those watching crones.  Somehow (we need not look far to discover how) the solemn authenticity of Hallowe’en has been violated and reassigned as a night of gaiety and mirth.

Like each revel of legend – like Christmas, like Easter, Hallowe’en has become a plundering ground for the Barons of Consumerism.  No festival can be a festival now without a ‘retail experience’, a market for the usurers, the vintners, the purveyors, the costumiers (I flatter them – it is an enormous stretch to hinge a far eastern sweatshop upon the title of ‘costumier’), all no more than an ‘Enter’ keystroke away.   Hallowe’en is an instant inducement to buy and then cast aside.  Few know why they celebrate, but worse, even fewer will encourage their children to enquire.  The off-the-shelf costumes that drag our beloved progeny away from their video games for a couple of hours cost no more than a few dollars, a smattering of pounds, to provide.   84% of them will be glittering in the household trash within a few days.

A sizeable proportion of those costumes, those millions of costumes, is plastic.  Masks are almost certainly plastic, as are most cheap black cloaks and other accessories.    Pumpkins will be hollowed out and their perfectly edible flesh discarded without thought for how it might be better used.

In Britain, to add further insult to our already over-stressed environment, we will celebrate a second orgy of consumption within a week by releasing plentiful quantities of low-grade explosives into the ether while we cavort around as large a bonfire as we can possibly construct.

We should not be proud.    Many thousands of tons of plastic microbeads will be generated as a result of this Hallowe’en. They will pollute our rivers and our oceans for generations to come. The food we waste is not just our food but food for the world. The smell of cordite in the morning of November 6th should be enough to remind us the air we breathe is rationed.  It does not go on forever.

One of the few redeeming features of Guy Fawkes Night in the UK was a tradition whereby children earned a few coppers by constructing an effigy supposed to be of Guido Fawkes – which they trailed around the neighborhood, knocking on doors to beg a ‘Penny for the Guy’.  This seems to have died out, now, which is a shame because for the children to make a presentable Guy effigy took imagination and effort, and their use of straw and old clothes was creative recycling.  A similar creative experience awaits in the making of Hallowe’en costumes if we are prepared to grasp it,

So in your celebrations this Hallowe’en raise a glass to those families who have joined together in creating costumes from reusable materials, rather than buying them from a rail.  Spare a thought for those whose supper tables include at least one pumpkin pie.  If you must observe Guy Fawkes Night, think a little about the distress you cause to pets (and many people) for the sake of a few expensive bangs:  take your children to an organized display.  Save yourself a fortune, and help to minimize the environmental damage as much as you can.

Here’s a post which began as one thing, then took an unexpected turn, though when you dissect the subject matter the connection is obvious, really.  The glory of autumn, or fall, is not in its colours or its earthy scents, or even in the changing of the seasons, mud beneath our feet, relief from the oven of summer: no, it is in a different kind of celebration, a celebration of perfection.  For Nature of herself exhibits, in these few months, an act of crucial balance in which everything that was brief is changed, and all that is permanent remains untouched.  She does this with the absolute reassurance of power, which at times we are so arrogant as to believe we have conquered.  We have not.

As we enjoy our festivities – as well we might, for every year gets a little harder than the one before – we would do well to remember that for every blow we strike to the planet upon which we live there is a riposte;  in the end, all our debts must be repaid.

Photo credit:  Colton Sturgeon on Unsplash

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

 

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’.”

 

f

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!