Saturday, 21 December 2013

It's Christmas! -

It's Not 'The Holidays!'

          It's unreasonable of me, I suppose, but I'm annoyed by the increasing habit of referring to Christmas by using the American expression of 'the holidays.' - 'The Holidays are coming!' - 'Happy Holidays!'
          As I understand it, the Christmas holiday is the only public, paid holiday in America. (Apologies to any American readers if I'm mistaken.) So it's understandable that they refer to the Christmas period as 'the holidays.'
          But we're British, and it isn't so for us. We have many other public holidays - New Year, Easter, Whitsun, Bank Holidays - so why use the expression? It makes no sense in Britain.
          In Britain, it's Advent. It's Christ's Mass and the Feast of St Stephen - or Boxing Day. It's New Year or Hogmanay. And then Epiphany and Candle Mass. These names have beauty and resonance.
          The whole Christmas season is a Mid-Winter Feast, celebrating the solstice, that goes back century upon century. It's not merely, 'The holidays.'

          I'm also coming to detest this character - 

          Not the actual man in the WikiCommons photo, of course. I've nothing against him. And it's not because Santa Claus or Kris Kringle in the red and white suit was invented by Coco-Cola. That's not actually true - though I'm sure Coke rejoiced when they saw how they could exploit it. Much older portrayals show the Christmas saint wearing red and white. After all, red and white are associated with Christmas for many reasons - snow, holly, purity, firelight...
          But still, the old white-haired buffer in red and white has become increasingly associated with Coca-Cola, cosiness, Disney and sticky cuteness.

          I much prefer this fella - 

          Everyone will know that this is the Cruikshank illustration of 'Scrooge's Third Visitor' - or The Ghost of Christmas Present - from Dickens' Christmas Carol. But neither Dickens nor Cruikshank invented this figure - indeed, Dickens' description, I think, shows that he is playfully describing for his readers a figure he knows they will recognise.
          Scrooge opens the door of the room adjoining his bedroom to find it changed.

     The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrifaction of a hearth had never known in Scrooge's time... Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see:, who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty's horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.
     "I am the Ghost of Christmas Present," said the Spirit. "Look upon me."
      Scrooge reverently did so. It was clothed in one simple green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard; but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.
      "You have never seen the like of me before!" exclaimed the Spirit.
      "Never," Scrooge made answer to it.
          Perhaps Scrooge, in his meanness, had never seen the like of this visitor before - but Dickens' readers knew that the ghost was Father Christmas. The popular personification of Christmas in Dickens' time - and before - was a vigorous, dark-haired man in the prime of life, dressed in green and crowned with holly.
          I much prefer this representation, because it harks back to still older beliefs - to the medieval Lord of Misrule, to the Roman Saturnalia, and to northern paganism, to Wodan and Frey.
          Dickens' Ghost wears an empty scabbard 'eaten up with rust,' signifying 'the peace and goodwill on earth to all men' that is supposed to hold sway over Christmas. This didn't begin with Christianity. During the pagan celebration of Yule, peace was the rule - the Frey-frith, or Lord's Peace. ('Frey' is a title, not a name: it means 'Lord'. Something which made exchanging Frey for Christ the Lord easier.)
          The ancient celebration of the Mid-Winter Solstice is about delighting in the survival of life through the months of cold and darkness - Oh, the holly and the ivy! It's about life having such strength and power that not even the coldest winter can suppress it - and the holly bears the crown. That's why Father Christmas is a strong, vigorous man with dark hair, dressed in green, crowned with a red-berried holly wreath.
          For all his geniality, there's a slight chill of danger about Father Christmas - he may be seated beside a roaring fire, and presiding over a great feast, but it's icy, barren and dark outside. He may be young, but there's a sense of immense age about him. I much, much prefer him to Santa Claus.

Have a happy time on the Feast of the Returning Dead, as you set out food for your ancestors.
(Christmas Eve, and the setting out of mince-pies and wine.)

        Good Yule!

And Blot makes a return!

Spirit: These are the chains I forged in life. I made them link by lik and yard by yard....
Spirit: I sold my neice's puppy to a pie-maker //  I short-changed the pie-maker       
Spirit: I laughed merrily as I did it... Still, that's all behind me now. My job in local goverment keeps me very busy...

          One reason for Blott's absence is that he badly cut his paw on a very sharp chisel while doing a bit of wood-carving. But he's handling the pen again now.


madwippitt said...

Good to see Blott back ... although saddened by the puppy dog tale - I believe cats taste much better, rather rabbit-like ... Happy Hogswatch!

Joan Lennon said...

Sorry to hear about Blott's injured paw and glad it is on the mend.

There is also such a melancholy to this time of year. Is it simply in response to the frantic enforced jollity, or is it from some place deep in us? I don't know, but there is a small voice in my head that's muttering, "Roll on, January ..."

Er, Happy Christmas any way!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I liked that in A Christmas Carol, the Father Christmas ghost sprinkled from his torch and made people feel better instead of bringing more "stuff" to children who already had plenty. Thanks for the post - it's fascinating that all those traditions merge.

=Tamar said...

You are mistaken. There are ten paid Federal public holidays. New Year's Day, Martin Luther King Jr's Birthday, Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, Independence Day (July 4), Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veteran's Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day.

Happy solstice.

Susan Price said...

Glad to be corrected, Tamar! - I felt badly for the Americans when I thought they were being short-changed in holidays like that. I'm even more puzzled over why you call Christmas 'the holidays' though.
And Sue - like you, I love all those old traditions. Christmas has all the most ancient traditions - it's as if Christianity barely touched it. Perhaps, in the darkness and cold of mid-winter, people felt they needed to hold on tightly to their old beliefs.

=Tamar said...

Oh, we call it "the holidays" for several reasons. Some people include the entire twelve days up through Epiphany as Christmas holidays, especially as students usually have at least the week between Christmas and New Year's off. Others consider that since Eastern Christians (among others) celebrate on a different day, there is more than one "Christmas Day". Also, there are people here who are not Christian but who celebrate a winter solstice holiday, and since unless you ask specifically you don't know whether they're celebrating Saturnalia or the birth of Mithras (let alone Jul, Kwanzaa, Festivus, etc.), it's simpler just to include them all. I tend to appreciate the cultures like ancient Egypt that considered the "irregular" days at the end of the calendar year to be dangerous and celebrate my own holiday, "Hibernation."

Susan Price said...

Thanks, Tamar! - Your explanation makes complete sense - and what you say about people celebrating other faiths is true - and true here in Britain as well. I'm not Christian myself and have friends who aren't... but since 'Christmas' is a christian name stuck onto a festival that is scarcely, in any aspect, Christian at all, I still prefer it. For its poetry, I suppose.
I like your festival, 'Hibernation'! I wish I could take that up.

Anonymous said...


I always believed that US citizens call Xmas the 'Holidays' because the constitution forbids any relgious based law making. There seems to be some debate that these 'holidays' might in spite of that be unconstituitional. i.e. because the birth of Christ is supposedly celebrated. Of course Dec 25 was celebrated by heathens even further back in BC times I think.

Doesn't Holi-Day come from Holy Day originally in any case?


Leslie Wilson said...

Well, I have no problem, as a post-Christian, with the fusion of the solstice celebrations with the Baby Jesus. There is of course no evidence for any of the story in St Luke. But the motif of the child who is born to be King, lis in poverty,and has to be hidden from a murderous rival is age-old. And the emergent spring seems to be in danger from the assaults of retreating winter. Jesus then dies, like the grain of wheat that is put in the soil and dies, and is reborn 'like wheat that springeth green.' These are all layerings of mythical truth, which is different from the heavy 'truth' of materialist Victorian Evangelical Christianity. I put the tree up and put greenery in the house so that the sun will come back. I'm rather keen on nature, and my religion has a lot to do with the earth and its creatures, though I wouldn't call myself a pagan.