Friday, 14 December 2012

Christmas, Yule and Family

It can't have escaped anyones notice that we are fully in the teeth of the Holiday Season. For some people, mostly myself and other Americans around the world, we have been this way since October because if there's one thing America loves it's bouncing from one holiday to another (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, Valentines, St. Paddys day). Even Britain has, in recent years, started pumping out the Christmas tunes in malls as early as November and this year even had a number of 'Black Friday' sales. A concept which both baffles and tickles me in the absence of turkey day.

What may come as a suprise to some of you, because it certainly suprised me, is that a significant minority of people have apparently taken normal holiday angst and cranked it up to 11 by drawing sides on a so-called 'War on Christmas'.

The battle lines are familiar, one group thinks that the seperation of Church and State (enshrined in the US, a bit more blurry in the UK) means that religious displays should be banned from public spaces while the other group believes that Religion is what the season should all be about. Both groups are far too upset about a time of year we should be concentrating on family and friends.

Now some of this is fairly familiar, we've all seen sides of this before whether it's kids missing out on Charlie Brown play because it's at a church or Santa Monica, California having it's Christmas festivities blocked by a judge because Religious and Non-Religious groups just couldn't play nicely.

Then, there's this guy:

Yes, that is a Fundamentalist Christian telling us not to celebrate Christmas. Yes, that is Meta as hell.

Now as loathe as I am to say this, he's actually right. Not about the not celebrating, but about the fact that Christmas and the holiday season; that is, the time we choose to celebrate the birth of Christ, has been decided not by an actual birthday but by millenia of tradition. Why? Well because it's freaking cold outside.


Back before electricity and gas made living a normal life year round fairly simple, our entire lives were decided by the seasons. People worked like dogs in the Spring and Summer to be able to plant enough food to make it through the winter because when the winter hit you pretty much did nothing.

Seriously, particularly in Northern Europe it was pretty common practice to hole up in your Hall or Roundhouse with all your family (and your livestock) and do as little as possible over the winter months. As you can imagine, in a Scandanavian climate this very quickly got depressing so to remind people that winter would eventually pass ancient peoples began to have Midwinter festivals.

For the Celts there was the winter solstice (December 21st this year) where they may have hung mistletoe due to it's believed magical properties.

For the Vikings there is Yule which was celebrated around December and mostly involved animal sacrifice, heavy drinking and fertility rites (because we're vikings, it's what we do). This may or may not also be the origin of the Yule Log, a large hard log that burns for days while the men drink (Skal!)

We also get the tradition of bringing evergreens into our homes from this period (christmas trees) to ancient Pagan peoples, the forever green leaves were a symbol of life in the midst of the largely dead winter and may have symbolised a hope for a return to summer.

All of these traditions have one thing in common, they all involved groups of family and friends together in the worst time of year. The idea has always been to remind you of whats important while the dreary winter weather makes you think the worst of the world.

Whether we do this today through Christian practice or not surely it's still a thing worth celebrating?

Let us say Skål! and drink together.

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