Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed
The clocks have gone back again. That means Christmas is going to be here soon. Again. Where did the year go? It feels like only yesterday that I was getting out all my summer clothes, and here I am, putting them away again. It’s going to be back to fat socks and waterproof shoes, and wearing my winter hat again. This time of year I’m always reminded of the old Simon and Garfunkel song, the Boxer. It’s the only song I know of that mentions ‘laying out my winter clothes’.
I think everyone gets a little touch of the blues at this time of year. We arrange more-or-less jolly celebrations, with dark undertones, like Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night. Personally, I never liked the Halloween idea, not because of the ghosty vampiry thing, but because it always felt very made-up and commercial, and the whole trick-or-treat thing is capable of getting out of hand. And there are people who find it genuinely frightening.
Treason can be very bad for your health
Halloween has been tacked on to All Hallows Evening, the Christian festival to honour and remember the dead, which itself was tacked on to previous festivals, so it has history, at least. Bonfire Night was set up to remind people that treason can be very bad for your health, and that being Catholic, or Protestant, can also be very bad for you, depending on who sits on the throne. That practice still exists in many countries, and Christianity isn’t the only religion with a fine tradition of exterminating those who refuse to conform.
The other thing that happens at this time of year is the harvest, where all the food is gathered in and stored, against the cold and dark days ahead, until Spring reappears. I remember having to take various items of food to the local church as a boy, and having to sit through various seasonal hymns. This also has a fine tradition, stretching back though the whole history of humankind. The fact that we have central heating, and hardly any wolves, and supermarkets, makes it all less frightening, but its echoes are there.
We’re programmed to feel a little sad
The mere fact that the days get shorter, and the nights longer, and the sun sits lower in the sky – when it comes out at all – gives this time of year an elegiac feeling that’s reflected in these ceremonies and traditions. It’s the moment in the annual regeneration of life when things get stripped away, ready to make room for the restart of the cycle. I think we’re programmed to feel a little sad, and a little down-hearted, because that’s what the world around us is doing.
I feel that way myself in this season. It’s a comfort that everyone else is going through it, and the gatherings we go to help us to come together so we feel less alone. There’s a school of thought that thinks this is very good, and natural, and there are those who believe that sticking together with people who feel as bad as you do will rub off on you too. I can go with both. There’s an old Australian proverb I like to quote. “A problem shared is a problem doubled.”
Splicing dark things and joyful things together
There’s something very human about splicing dark things and joyful things together. Fear and joy seem to be very close neighbours in our minds. I once read a book in which laughter was discussed. Eventually, one character was asked why he thought humans laugh. “Because it hurts,” was his answer. I remember that, and I still can’t decide if I agree or not. We certainly love slapstick, and pratfalls, and all those short films of skateboarders throwing themselves to the ground on television in ‘You’ve Been Framed’. At the same time we create clowns, and tell ghost stories, and we tend to dwell somewhat unhealthily on the nastier details of certain crimes.
It’s no surprise to me that religion gets tied in so easily to these seasonal moods. Partly there’s a certain cynical cultural colonisation involved. Easter works well in Spring, with its connotations of rebirth, and Christmas was used to overlay the midwinter celebrations that pre-existed it. There’s been controversy for centuries about when Christmas should be, mainly, I think, because of the lambs. But the message is hope in the darkness, and midwinter works best, so that’s where Christmas is. It works so well that everyone does Christmas now, whatever their religion, and even if they don’t have a religion. Even I do Christmas, although I hold my breath when the J word comes up.
The various religious bodies apparently don’t mind
Does that make me a “Bah! Humbug!” person? I don’t think so. I see Christmas travelling farther and farther along the road away from its original meaning every year, and I don’t mind that, because it gains new value as it goes, so now it means something to everybody. It’s rather like the markets in India, where you can buy pictures or effigies of the leaders and prophets of every religion, all clustered together. Their attitude is that they’re all holy, so what’s the problem? I feel like that about Christmas. I’m only surprised that the various religious bodies apparently don’t mind either. Or perhaps they do.
We also have a habit of airbrushing things out because they don’t quite fit. We don’t really believe in devils or vampires or ghosts, otherwise we wouldn’t be so gleeful when we dress up in those costumes. And we either don’t make an effigy of Guy Fawkes any more, or we don’t talk about the realities of what was done to the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, which we recreate every year. And we tend not to think about the massacre of babies that occurred just after the original Christmas, although we do celebrate the Flight to Egypt. I can’t help noticing that the massacre was known about in advance, but only one baby was saved. I never quite got my head around that either.
What you or they believe is your or their own business
But I’m cheerfully not a member of any religion, so I ponder these things occasionally, but I don’t worry about them. What you or they believe is your or their own business, in the same way what I believe is my own business. I don’t know how I would react if the religious authorities decided to take Christmas back. Part of me would applaud them, and part of me would probably decide to join in an alliance of secular groups, happily continuing the whole thing without the religion. I wonder what we would call it? Midwinter would be good. We’d need some new songs. Or maybe new words for the old songs. Why spoil the habit of a lifetime?
Meanwhile, here we are at Halloween again, the precursor to Christmas. I have always wondered about America, where they make such a big fuss about Halloween, and then Thanksgiving at the end of November, and then they have Christmas, which they call ‘Holidays’, and seem to make much less fuss over than us. But then, not much fuss over there probably still amounts to a torrent of fuss over here, so it’s hardly a fair comparison.
They make no sense, because it’s all made-up anyway
Whatever it is that’s going on, and whatever we feel about it, these celebrations are here, and they serve a purpose, whether we choose to participate or not. And they make no sense, because it’s all made-up anyway. Turkeys are actually native birds of America, but we got confused because they were imported to England via Turkey, apparently. Santa Claus was originally St Nicholas, and he usually wore bishop’s vestments, until Coca Cola and others used him in advertising, and changed his colour permanently to red. This is how History is made. And so on.
None of that matters, because we’re here, and these are our festivals, and we love them. Like fans of football clubs, who often have no idea why they support one rather than another, but follow their team to the end of their lives. Every new thing appears at Christmas, and it either disappears the next year, or it becomes a tradition. In this way we keep what we see as the essence of our festivals, while continually updating them. If it is a system, I think it’s a good one.
A sort of current affairs Sealed Knot event
So you live in Australia? No problem. Santa arrives on a surfboard, and you have barbecues with fake snow by the pool in the baking heat. All over the world, in different time zones, people from completely diverse backgrounds and origins join in and make these festivals their own. Add to that all the different countries with their own cultures and celebrations, and it seems to me that humans generally like themselves and each other, and we enjoy having fun together far more than going to war and killing each other.
Perhaps we should start a new tradition of mock-war festivals, with music, and good food, and lots of dressing-up. I’d like to see that. A sort of current affairs Sealed Knot event.
If you have been, thank you for reading this. And be careful and safe on Bonfire Night.
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