Saturday, December 13, 2008

It's a dark time to be focusing on light.

"Lighting one candle
from another -
Winter night"
-   Buson

Act II is upon us. December 13th is St. Lucia Day, (Luciadagen) in the Scandinavian countries of my ancestry. It's the day the eldest, blondest daughter gets togged out in white robes, plants a crown of holly and lighted candles on her head and brings breakfast to her family in honor of an early Christian martyr. Hopefully the daughter's hair doesn't catch on fire, like the day's namesake! The first century Roman girl refused to marry the man of her family's choosing who was not a believer. She was tortured and killed for her faith, reportedly by being set on fire.( This “festival of light” begins the traditional extended Christmas season, which lasts until at least January 6th and in Sweden until January 20th.

Why light? Ancient peoples from the Egyptians, Romans and Persians, to people of the far north all celebrate the winter solstice on December 21st or 22nd. This was the time when the light stopped receding, and days at last began to grow longer back toward the season of planting. For the Romans and their empire, it was called Saturnalia.

In a superb act of early Christian marketing, Yule (from the Germanic root geol) festival customs, like many of our Christmas traditions, were transplanted from pagan customs. If you can't stamp out the ancient rituals, you might as well just fold them into the new religion.

After the fall of Rome, the Vikings dominated Scotland and much of England and Ireland for centuries, not to mention much of northern Europe and Russia, as well as the trade routes down to Byzantium and into Persia and the far east. They lent much of their ancient solstice season activity, called Yule (in Swedish, Yul) to Christianity. We're talking major celebrating here, folks! Thus, people were encouraged to continue to dance around their midwinter bonfires but instead of Thor or Odin, it was done in honor of the King of Kings.

The predominance of the far north in the celebration of Christmas may result, not just from the extensive travels of the Viking Varangians, but from the plain fact that nowhere else on earth is the movement of the sun as drastic. From midwinter's near absolute darkness to midsummer's solstice of “white nights” when the sun never really sets, the north exemplifies best the light brought to the world via the “Son of Man.” In Scandinavia, this is an extended time of feasting and gathering together of friends and family. A time to celebrate away the long, dark nights until we are safely into a season of longer days. A time to remember and care for those who don't have the means to “celebrate the light.”

So much of what we have come to see as Christmas tradition comes from my ancient Viking heritage. The cutting of the mistletoe. Bringing in the greens to, literally, “deck the halls.” The giant Yule log dragged by chain out of the woods to provide fuel for the great bonfires. Instead of debauchery, there rose the custom of the midnight bells calling all to the Mass on Christmas Eve and to services on New Year's Eve.

So, back to that astute marketing move.

The traditional Christmas is not a single day but a prolonged period, normally from 24th December to 6th January. This included the New Year, thus increasing the festival value of the season. I hate that we have allowed Christmas to be co-oped by the retail profit machine. I hate that there are no songs of celebration on the radio after Christmas day. Who said Christmas ends at the stroke of midnight December 25? Who said this was only about buying things? Who said you had to be rich to celebrate? No one, that's who.

I'm taking Yule back. I'm selfish. I want all of Christmas, not just the retail version. This year, especially this dark year, I want a real yule celebration. Don't you?

"Holly and mistletoe
Candles and bells,
I know the message
That each of you tells."
-  Leland B. Jacobs, Mrs. Ritters First Grade Critters

©2008 Jan Johnson Wondra

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