I've never been one for Christmas. As a child, I was bemused by nativity plays and disappointed about not seeing Santa come down the chimney. As an adult, I resist the materialism of present buying and the drudgery of complicated social arrangements and demands. Am I just a Bah Humbug who doesn't know how to enjoy herself? If I were Christian, would the festival mean more?
Confused by my inability to embrace a season that a lot of people seem to relish, I decided to do a bit of research to find meaning. It is generally understood that Christmas is a mixture of Pagan tradition and Christian narrative, but in what proportion and to what ends?
Interestingly, according to Stephen Nissenbaum, author of Pulitzer Prize finalist 'The Battle for Christmas' (1997), the bible gives no reference to when Jesus was born. In fact, it wasn't until the fourth century that church leaders in Rome decided their saviour needed an official birthday. An unhelpful rumour was going round at the time that Jesus didn't actually exist as a man, but rather as a mystical spiritual entity. Needing to put him back into a flesh and blood human body, the nativity story came into being and began winding its way into the already very popular Roman festival of Saturnalia, a raucous, week-long midwinter celebration that honoured rebirth and the return of the light (along with the transgression of rules and subversion of norms!)
In this way, the birth of Jesus became mixed up with varying solstice traditions that were popular across much of Europe, which was largely agricultural and thus hugely influenced by the turn of the seasons. Harvest was over, there was no work to do and so people came together to support each other through the darkness, attend to their spiritual life and ritually welcome the oncoming spring. Much of what we associate with our contemporary Christmas has roots in these ancient times. It is well known, for example, that Father Christmas and his other European identities are modern incarnations of old Pagan ideas about spirits who traveled the sky in midwinter. And it is Queen Victoria who has much to blame for current UK behaviours, particularly the purchase of Christmas trees, cards and presents, all of which were German in origin and made fashionable in the late 1800s by Prince Albert.
So how does this potted history inform a largely secular, twenty first century Britain? The seasons mean little to us now, cosseted as we are in our centrally heated houses with constant access to electric light and globally sourced supermarket food, so how might those of us who aren't Christian bring present day meaning to what our ancestors, whatever their religious beliefs, considered to be a very significant time of year?
Recently, my own spiritual practice has been greatly enhanced by a deep understanding of cycles. Everything we are involved with in life will be at some point on the universal cycle of beginning-end-beginning; every project, every relationship, every notion, every breath will be somewhere on the spectrum. Just as spring is one long transition into summer, summer into autumn and autumn into winter, our lives are an ongoing continuum, sometimes light, sometimes dark, often challenging, always changing. To honour darkness, as our ancestors have done for millennia, is to honour an important aspect of the human condition and our spiritual journey here on earth.
So despite our 24/7 jobs, our light switches and our confidence in continually stocked supermarket shelves, we can maybe reclaim Christmas and the solstice as a time to consider the gifts of darkness. What lies dormant in the dusky obscurity of our psyches? What seeds are gestating in the slumbering earth of our soul? What insights can be brought to the surface? Taking a break from routine, spending time by the hearth, taking stock could become ritual practice, helping us to enter spring with renewed enthusiasm and clear direction.
Of all the old cultures I have read about, I am most drawn to the Norsemen of Northern Europe, who worshipped the sun as a wheel that changed the seasons (it was from the word for this wheel, houl, that the word yule is thought to have come). To encourage the wheel to keep turning towards the light, a huge log was burnt over the twelve darkest days as a reminder of the brightness to come. The community would sit round it, tell stories and drink sweet ale. To me, this is what Christmas should be about, gathering ourselves, honouring the old stories, releasing them and then making way for the new.
The dance between spiritual and material themes at this time of year has been present in Europe for centuries, to the point that Puritans actually banned merrymaking in the 1600s, making Christmas illegal for a while. In my most strident, Bah Humbug moments, I can be found standing firm in the Puritan camp, calling for Christmas to be cancelled! But life is both spiritual and material, light and dark, noisy and silent, thus the opposites should be embraced. So from now on, I will endeavour to enjoy the pageant, quaff the sherry, sing the carols … but I will also take a moment to be quiet, go inwards and bless what lies beneath.
Penny Jane Fuller 2014