20 Dec Comfort! (and Joy? Hmmm . . .)
This will be the last blog post for 2021. Not to worry, we’ll return in January. But this week’s post is for pausing to take notice that 2021 has been a not-so-easy year.
Not that the year preceding it and the year preceding that didn’t present their own, ahem, challenges. And not to cease for a second being grateful that he-who-shall-not-be-named is no longer president of the United States, although he remains a present and constant threat to our democracy, as apparently does his party. But no no no I don’t want to go off on that again.
Instead, today’s blog is simply to admit that this has been a hell of a year, and not in a good way. From Delta plus the new Omicron variants of COVID to the wrenching pullout from Afghanistan, from the spineless grovel of the Republican Party to Q Anon, and from last January’s insurrection to the Supreme Court’s decisions already showing themselves as inimical to women’s reproductive freedom — yeah, one helluva year.
While I haven’t exactly been Pollyanna, optimistically cheering you on with a sort of “Buck Up, Troops!” harangue, I haven’t admitted to the depth of my own periods of despair. They’re real, and they’re devastating. But the truth is, they change nothing. And if I don’t somehow try to turn both my despair and yours into fuel for fighting back, then there’s really no comfort at all. Besides, almost everyone I know is feeling the same down-in-the-dumps way.
So this week’s post is about comfort. Maybe not yet comfort and joy, but at least comfort–which, while humble, is no small thing. It means admitting our vulnerabilities and dark places and trying gamely to stagger back to our feet. Therefore, I’m going to fill today’s post with thoughts and commentaries about this season that range across different cultures and (tolerable) belief systems, but also include aspects of Christmas per se that have to do with, well, comfort.
The Winter Solstice falls on December 21st this year, but as always, it marks the shortest day of the year, when we will have just eight hours and 46 minutes of daylight between sunrise and sunset. The Winter Solstice also marks the astronomical beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, when earth’s North Pole is tilted farthest from the sun. From that moment forward our days will begin to lengthen. Only a minute or two at first, but noticeably lighter as time goes on. What I always think of as the “shimmer effect” is that the exact opposite is simultaneously taking place in the Southern Hemisphere, with the Summer Solstice offering the longest day and the shortest night, initiating summer. Time itself seems to stand still, yet also to stretch itself elastically between the two. The word solstice itself is derived from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still).
Worldwide, cultural histories are filled with mythical monsters of the Winter Solstice. For example, in Finnish mythology it’s told that Louhi, the witch goddess of the north, kidnapped the moon and the sun and held them captive inside a mountain, thus causing winter’s darkness. The Yupik peoples, indigenous to the Arctic, tell of the Kogukhpak, subterranean creatures who have bulbous bodies and frog-like legs, who emerge on the solstice to hunt, and mammoth carcasses are said to be the corpses of those who stayed out too long and died when the sun returned. In Greek mythology, the Kallikahantzaros–angry, hairy, gnome like creatures who live underground and try to cut down the tree of life–also emerge and also can be killed only by sunlight; they wreak havoc on homes and villages. But since they are reputedly not too bright and unable to count past three, villagers put out colanders to ward them off. The creatures end up trying to count the holes in the colanders until sunrise and then have to go back underground before they can cause any further mischief.
During the solstice there are also stories about more benevolent beings, and a variety of deities were worshipped, like Tonantzin in Mexico, the great Isis in Egypt, Ishtar or Astarte among the Hebrews and throughout the Fertile Crescent, Kwan Yin to the Chinese, Cailleach Bharu in Scotland, Oshun and Oya and Yemaya among the various African peoples, Spider Grandmother to the Hopi Indigenous Americans, and many more. The Scandinavian goddess Beiwe, associated with health and fertility, travels through the night sky along with her daughter in a chariot built of reindeer bones, to bring back the greenery on which the reindeer feed. In Italian folklore, La Befana flies around the globe on her broom during the solstice, leaving candles and gifts for children. And there are many different versions of the Tomte, who is also called the Nisse, and who is usually depicted as no taller than three feet with a long white beard and a pointy red wool hat, and who apparently is equally kind, sneaky, helpful, or devious. In many stories he takes up residence at a farm and only appears to the children; he protects the farm animals from harm and shows a bad temper toward farmers who mistreat their livestock. A bowl of porridge is often set out for the Tomte, in order to stay on his good side.
Because the solstice itself is a scientific fact, it lies at the heart of all winter festivals, and we do find them around the world and thousands of years old–from the Hopi Indian festival of Soyal, through the Polish celebration of Gody, and from Greece’s Brumalia to the Hindu celebration of Makkar Sankranti. The feast of Yule (Juule) is a Pagan Scandinavian festival, during which it was believed that the Yule log had the magical effect of aiding the sun to shine more brightly; it coincided with the Druidic and Wiccan festivals of Brigid in “bringing back the light,” when girls and women wore garlands with tiny burning candles stuck in them and lots of meade was drunk–with water, I would hope, to douse the flaming hair! And the Dongzhi festival is an extremely important one for Chinese and other east Asian peoples. Origins of this festival hearken back to the Yin/Yang philosophy of balance and harmony in the cosmos, since the forces are in perfect balance. The festival is a time for family gatherings: in southern China they make and eat balls of glutinous rice, which symbolize reunion; in northern China dumplings are enjoyed, a tradition said to originate during the Han dynasty.
Saturnalia itself, which has bestowed its name on wild celebrations and orgies around the globe, is an ancient Roman Pagan festival honoring Saturn, god of agriculture and time. All work and business came to a halt during the seven-day festival, beginning on December 17th; schools and law courts closed, the army rested, and no criminals were executed. Instead, Romans spent Saturnalia gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, and gifting one another. Interestingly, it was a time of role reversal when Roman masters feasted together with their slaves and enslaved people were given the freedom to do and say what they liked (ostensibly). In many households, a mock king was chosen, usually a lowlier member of the household, who was crowned saturnalicious princeps. He—and it was always he—hid coins in cakes, and was responsible for making mischiefs, insulting guests, and wearing wild, mismatched clothing. He was given the title Lord of Misrule–the concept being that he ruled over chaos, rather than normal strict Roman processes. Homes and temples were decorated during this time with boughs of laurel and evergreen trees, and lamps were kept burning to ward off dark spirits. (There was a practical aspect to this, too: animals, including livestock, sometimes shared humans’ dwellings for shelter, straight on up through the Middle Ages or even later, and the fresh greenery was useful in disguising odors left in their wake.)
Our contemporary versions of the solstice, heavily influenced by Christianity and 19th-century Europe, offer us a Saint Nicholas transformed to Santa Claus and a kind of Merrie Olde England via Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, complete with sleigh bells, ho ho hos, and decorated indoor trees, while dark-winter-night goblins get domesticated into saucy elves. In reality, climate change is affecting snowfall, indoor trees reflect their Pagan origins (and their odiferous uses!), and highly commercialized gift-giving prevails over whatever original motivation the solstice might have respected or celebrated. Of course, in the Southern Hemisphere, people go to the beach on Christmas, and in our Northern spring their autumnal “rough winds ” really do “shake the darling buds of May.”
Natural phenomena–solstices, eclipses, volcanic explosions–must have mystified and terrified early primitive peoples, just as, for that matter, pregnancy did (since men had no idea whatsoever why women for some strange reason made other people in their bodies, and men didn’t know that men had anything to do with it). The stories and folk tales, legends and carols still approximated today can be understood in context and appreciated as such. But fortunately, we have scientific reality, complete with its own inherent awe and miracle, to learn from, and to comfort us. Ah yes, comfort. If we take advantage of it.
This Blog will be on hiatus, but we will see you in January!