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Christmas Fear and Cheer

My friend bemoans the fact that he feels blue at Christmas, his mood so at odds with the bright lights and cheer, but to me, his malaise seems entirely in keeping with the nature-based roots of the winter holidays.

In northern countries until the very recent past, this was the season when we stared down death on the long nights and the deep cold.  Everything that could be harvested had been brought in and this period of time marked a waiting game filled with anxiety as to whether we’d grown, gathered or preserved enough to get us through the winter.  Livestock was brought indoors and still died in the night; the elderly died, the trees were barren.  It was the season of winnowing, when death was a real possibility that could visit you without warning in the night, envelope you in a freak storm when you were outside, when something small could take you because the doctor couldn’t get through the snow or the medicinal herb had to be harvested fresh. Winter death wasn’t celebrated in a Day of the Dead way, full of bravado and lust, when we actually seemed to be relishing/atoning for the violence of the harvest.  This is the season of huddling in a cabin, stewing in inactivity and trepidation, your immediate cluster of houses cut off from the next village where no one knew of the deaths nearby until spring.  The Winter Solstice that celebrated the longest night of the year was a genuine opportunity to ask: whom could I count on to help me through the darkest night?  And shouldn’t I be with them on that night, celebrating our mutual dependence and trust in each other?  And if I got together with them, shouldn’t I bring a log for the fire, or something to pool our resources to show them that in the face of starvation and frost-bite that we could get through it together?  It was the season when community counted, more than any other time. When my friend complains about the commercial nature of Christmas I think of historians who suggest that during the northern winter days indoors, families made crafts. One of the reasons May Day was such a huge celebration in medieval Europe, they say, was because it was the first time the roads could be counted on to be passable so all the villagers came into town with the crafts that they had fashioned during the winter. 

Most of our symbols for the season denote this anxious struggle between life and death, and not just in northern, snow-bound cultures, either.  The sleigh may have been the transportation mode in the snow but in Egypt, the sleigh in hieroglyphs represents the ability to glide between life and the underworld. Red is the predominant color because it was the berry and apple that survived the cold; the deer because it was one of the only meat sources of the season. Antlers are one of the world’s fastest growing animal parts and so they represent our hope for nature’s regeneration, key to our survival.  In medieval lore of winter a female figure of myth dives into a well to retrieve the apple, symbolizing the fall into coldness and dark to retrieve life/Spring.  In some northern cultures, frogs are part of the symbolism of the season because frogs can be frozen solid and still revive themselves in the spring. In this sense, anxiety is an inherent part of the holidays; it’s the reason for the holidays, really.  I encourage my friend to not feel that he is out of step with the season, but to consider himself in touch with the real meaning of Christmas.