Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Well, Christmas time is here and it is, as ever, an exciting time of the year. The wheel has turned once again and the days are getting longer with the Winter Solstice.

We all have our own traditions for this time of year, many of which have their roots in the very distant past.

I always think of our connection to the ancient and medieval worlds at this time, whether you call it Winter Solstice, Saturnalia, the festival of Sol Invictus, Yuletide, or Christmas. I am reminded of the strength of traditions, their importance in tying us together, but also in linking us to the past and our collective cultural identities.

Saturnalia Feast
In our house, we put up a tree and lights, but we also hang fresh evergreen about the home, holly, and  if we can find it, mistletoe. There is a steaming pot of Wassail on the stove (see previous post for a recipe) and the Wassailing songs to go with it. It all culminates in a feast with friends and family.

It seems no matter the stresses of daily life, of work and worry, this time of year lightens the heart and can crack a smile on the hardest of faces.

But then we also remember that this is a time when many others are not so happy or fortunate. Perhaps they don’t have the family and friends to celebrate with, perhaps they have lost someone, perhaps the season is forever spoiled by a bad experience…

Medieval Banquet
Makes you grateful for the blessings you have, but it also makes you think…

I’ve started a new tradition for myself. For the last two years I have been reading a copy of the original manuscript of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, in the two weeks before Christmas.

We all know this story, of course. It’s one of the most famous stories told. And for good reason.

I know Dickens is not ancient or medieval historical fiction, but Christmas is a time of long-standing tradition. A Christmas Carol is a wonderful story, brilliantly told, that moves me to no end when I read it. One passage in particular stands out. It is when Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, visits him in his office to wish him a Merry Christmas. Scrooge spits his humbug and mocks the season, but Fred counters with a wonderful description of the time:

I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.

It struck me this year, as I read the story, that in the long list of common traditions from the pagan past, all the way to the Christian present, the idea of Christmas being a time of charity and helping others is a uniquely Christian take on this ancient festival.

Sure, at Saturnalia the Romans gave their slaves the day off. But they didn’t free them. They also hung greens, lit lights, and gave presents to each other. And pagans in northern Europe had yule logs and trees, and made merry just like everyone else.

Scrooge and Christmas Present
Christianity incorporates all of these things, but its stress on charity and good will toward your fellow human beings, so expertly portrayed by Charles Dickens, is its most important contribution.

So, to you, dear reader, I wish you the very best of the holiday season.

May your plate be full, your celebrations joyous, and your heart light with kindness.

Merry Christmas!

You can download a free copy of A Christmas Carol on the Project Gutenberg website.

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