Monday, December 11, 2006

Christmas

Ok, before Sarah accuses me again of 'dis-ing Christmas' out here I'd better get this post written to explain, partly prompted also by Kate's post and an article in the New Zealand Insider which arrived in my inbox yesterday.

Some of you will have heard my annual mutterings about Christmas for many years, they started back in 1988 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne when we arrived for Freshers week in late September to find the Local Council started putting up the Christmas lights up the next weekend. It doesn't take that many Sunday afternoons to put them all up (there were apparently so many complaints that they went up a few weeks later in subsequent years). The 2nd year I was there I was working for Age Concern and hearing from many people who couldn't afford it how much they were spending on the childrens' 'Christmas Box' - running into several hundreds of pounds per grand/child. These were people who like me were earning £38 per week plus some Housing Benefit (I'm talking collegues here not clients, altho they were probably doing the same on a State pension!). The children in question probably got far more fun from the wrapping paper and packaging than the hideously expensive toys inside.

I'd reached my late teens and cycnism about the over commercialisation of Christmas had sunk in hard and fast. It's never quite gone away. Coco-cola put Father Christmas into red and white, the toyshops and banks have turned it into a time of increasing debt and maximising their profits rather than goodwill.

When I worked for Garvald, a Steiner organisation in Edinburgh, we learned about the origins of the Christmas festival and it's connection to it's place in the year. Whilst I found much of what Steiner had to say hard to get my head around this made some sense...

Christmas is not a Festival of Christendom only. In ancient Egypt, in the regions we ourselves inhabit, and in Asia thousands and thousands of years before the Christian era we find that a Festival was celebrated on the days now dedicated to the celebration of the birth of Christ.

Now what was the character of this Festival which since time immemorial has been celebrated all over the world on the same days of the year? Wonderful Fire Festivals in the northern and central regions of Europe in ancient times were celebrated among the Celts in Scandinavia, Scotland and England by their priests, the Druids. What were they celebrating? They were celebrating the time when winter draws to its close and spring begins. It is quite true that Christmas falls while it is still winter, but Nature is already heralding a victory which can be a token of hope in anticipation of the victory that will come in spring — a token of confidence, of hope, of faith — to use words which are connected in nearly every language with the Festival of Christmas. There is confidence that the Sun, again in the ascendant, will be victorious over the opposing powers of Nature. The days draw in and draw in, and this shortening of the days seems to us to be an expression of the dying, or rather of the falling asleep of the Nature-forces. The days grow shorter and shorter up to the time when we celebrate the Christmas Festival and when our forefathers also celebrated it, in another form. Then the days begin to draw out again and the light of the Sun celebrates its victory over the darkness. In our age of materialistic thinking this is an event to which we no longer give much consideration.

(Rudolph Steiner, Festivals and their Meanings - Christmas)

Ok, so you've got my cynicism of the commercialisation of Christmas and it's distinct lack of connection to either the early historical meaning of Christmas or to the Christian adaptation of the festival and the symbolism of the light of Christ coming into the darkness of the world (which Steiner has much to say on if you can manage to get through the lecture!) or even the gifts of the Magi - which even my limited biblical knowledge tells me was on Twelth Night/Epiphany not Christmas Day. So why bother with Christmas at all given that the Christian calendar in itself isn't that important to me?

I like the idea of celebrating coming out of the darkness of winter and all the symbolic parallels life has to offer, both secular and spiritual. That makes sense to me and is what I hold on to. To combat in my own small way the commercialism Christmas presents were becoming increasingly ethical/environmentally sound (or books which are practically sacred to me anyway!), cards were homemade or charity ones, virtual presents like 25 trees planted up a Scottish Glen someplace started to join the list and various 'no presents' pacts were made. It was the spending time with friends and family rather than money that mattered, whether that time was spent actually in each other's company or writing/reading letters and cards.

I've yet to find someone here within the Steiner tradition to ask about how they reconcile the close relationship between the cycles of the earth and the festivals here in the southern hemisphere - Christmas is midsummer, St John's tide midwinter, Easter is in the autumn and Michaelmas spring. It's all topsy turvy. What about all the incarnating and excarnating of the earths energies tied up with the festivals? (apologies to those who taught me for that oversimplified statement!) It's all so northern hemisphere orientated.

I understand that for many Kiwis Christmas means BBQs on the beach, family/whanau time, sunshine and pohutukawa trees in blossom, that the European trappings and meanings of Christmas aren't what's important. Great, that's fine by me. Yet so much of the Christmas paraphenalia and imagery around is identical to that of the north - scenes of snowy forests and frost covered windows, reindeer and Victorian carolers - it feels so out of place when you are wandering around in boardies and jandals! (long shorts and flip-flops...). The same Christmas carols are pouring out of the shops sound systems - I mean who here is seriously expecting a White Christmas? If the snowman is bringing the snow then something has gone very wrong indeed (and 'Batmobile has lost his wheel on State Highway 1' doesn't quite fit the tune...)

Stuffing yourself with lots of rich food midwinter makes sense historically, it was a way to survive the cold and that fattened pig needed killing and salting down as food to feed it was running out etc. etc. It's one thing to have a traditions hanging over in a place where once upon a time they made sense on a practical level but when it's at completely the wrong time of year? When the early settlers came here from Europe they must have had the same needs with regard to food as their compatriots who remained behind, so it must have played havoc with farming practices to have birds and pigs fattened up for both the winter and Christmas. Maybe in the warmer climates it wasn't so much of an issue but in the likes of Invercargill and Dunedin winter really means winter!

This year like Kate I'm not doing Christmas cards as such, presents are more where there's something specific I want to give someone rather finding something to give to those on a list, Christmas is mainly a prompt to get organised to do it - as it is with writing to friends and family. Although as some of you will have noticed by now I'm not organised yet!

So, mutterings over... but I'm hoping Fran is planning another 'sproutfest' midwinter to balance the year out again.

4 comments:

Martin said...

It'll maybe warm your heart to learn that your godson's entire Christmas List (as divulged to Santa at MerryHatton) is:

* A Torch
* A Sledge
* A small model Lightning McQueen from 'Cars'

Anna Dunford said...

I've got such a cool godson =)

Any chance of Santa bringing me new photos?

Sarah said...

Batmobile lost its wheel on the motorway!!!! not state highway 1

Anna Dunford said...

I grew up singing 'on the M1 Motorway' you see =) Glad to know that the Batmobile Jinglebells made it to NZ (with or without it's wheels!) irrespective of seasonal topsyturviness!