With the tragi-comic “Christmas Wars” being fanned once again into flames by the Fox Propaganda Network, I thought I would post a Christmas letter I sent to friends back in 1997. Enjoy…
When I sat down to write this year’s Christmas letter, I found that after excluding everything I simply did not want to talk about, all that remained was boring. I took a pleasant trip to the Boston area in June to visit friends – that was 1997. It scarcely seemed worth a letter.
Sitting here on New Year’s Day, however, musing on many things, particularly holy days, I found a few random thoughts that might bear sharing. If my musings afford you a few moments’ pleasant meditation, they will have accomplished all I hope for them.
The Great Mystery of all religions and philosophies has always been that of time itself – the great worm that devours the future, digests it in the present, and leaves the past in its wake. But it is not merely this movement-without-movement that is the heart of the Mystery, but the endless cycle of that movement – day follows night follows day – the moon grows from nothing to fullness, then declines to nothing – season follows season – death follows life, yet life arises out of death. That great worm of Time is no ordinary worm, but a snake devouring its own tail, gaining its sustenance from its own destruction. This cycle of creation and destruction, death and life, is the core of the Mystery.
Our cyclic celebration of holy days is a reflection of this Mystery. It is a way of recognizing the past in the present and future, of death in life and life in death. And there is no holy day more evocative of this Mystery than the day of the New Year, that moment at which we actually see the snake devouring itself.
The end of the old year and the beginning of the new was not the same in all places. In the agrarian communities of Old Europe, the year was often taken to end with the Last Harvest, toward the end of October, when the last of the summer’s abundance must be taken in before Jack Frost claims it for himself – this was Samhain, the Day of the Dead, what we now call All Hallows. Further north, nearer the land of the midnight sun, where agriculture gives way to hunting, fishing, and herding, the defining event was Yule, Winter Solstice, the Longest Night. To the east, where the yearly rains preside over the crops, the new year began in the shadow of the monsoon.
So what of us? We are a different community, we modern urbanites. We know the seasons mainly as times to scrape ice off the car, or turn on the air conditioner. Our life rhythms are driven by clock and calendar, not the rhythms of hunt or harvest. Our dance is a Sun dance – ours is a solar calendar, indeed, the most painstakingly precise and accurate solar calendar ever devised; we add or subtract one second every few years to keep it tuned. But Yule, Winter Solstice, the natural turning point of the solar year, passes without remark. Christmas, birthday of the Persian/Roman Sun-god Mithras in the last great flourishing of Roman Paganism before Roman Christianity became the state religion and appropriated the date for the Son-God, is a kind of penultimate grace-note to the turning of the year. But we city-dwellers encounter the deep Mystery of Time, not at Yule, nor at Christmas, but in that arbitrary moment when the atomic clock in Boulder ticks midnight on December 31, and causes the serpent of time to swallow his tail.
Every year, the cry goes up about the commercial desecration of Christmas. But critics don’t understand that Christmas is the Last Harvest of the urban world. We no longer grow our food, we city-dwellers, nor do we hunt it down on the plain or raise it in our own pastures. We buy, and we sell – that is our livelihood. The commercial frenzy of Christmas is the Last Harvest of the year, disrupting all our normal daily schedules in the common labor of commerce. But this commercial climax in Christmas Day is only the beginning of the end. That final week, between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, is not a time for starting new things, but a time for finishing the old. It is the final putting-up of the harvest before the annual End of Time.
Our mode of celebrating this event is also interesting. Joseph Campbell notes that there is a profound difference between the mythologies of the agrarians, and that of the hunters and pastoralists. The seasonal life-cycle of the crop dominates the agrarian cultures. Death is merely a precursor to life, and often figures literally in agricultural rituals in the form of animal or human sacrifice. Veneration or worship of the dead is common. The individual, like a single stalk of grain, is less important than the community. The Mysteries are the domain of the priesthood, an official class that embodies the divine within the community.
By contrast, hunting and herding societies are dominated by the violent death of the slaughtered animal. Death is an ending, by which others might live, and the dead – especially the unquiet dead – are deeply feared. The individual is held above the community: the Mysteries are the domain of the shaman, who embodies the divine within the individual.
In the agrarian communities of Old Europe, where Year End coincided with Last Harvest, it was not surprising to also see the Day of the Dead coupled. Samhain – All Hallows – was an auspicious time to seek oracles for the New Year from the dead, and to contemplate and commune with one’s ancestors, visit their graves, and leave them offerings of food and drink.
As city-dwellers, we are no longer either agrarians or herders. But we are, in a sense, hunters. We hunt for our jobs, our spouses, and our bargains – the family business, the arranged marriage, and the local tradesman are the exception rather than the rule. We send our young men and women off on vision quests to discover, not their totem animals, but their careers. We venerate the individual, fear the dead, and seek our wisdom from the guru or from within, rather from any established priesthood.
So it is not surprising that we urban hunters face the Mystery of Time, and its related mysteries of life and death, with a great, death-denying party. We drink too much, laugh too loudly, flirt and even descend into sexual abandon, to celebrate yet drive away the vision of those great toothy jaws slipping silently over us. And when midnight passes, we cheer, for we have once again survived the Great Swallowing, and have cheated death for one more year.
The worm Ouroboros has once again swallowed his tail. We all face a New Year, a tabula rasa, a blank slate, a field of opportunity. It is my Christmas and New Year’s wish that each of you will find all the love, joy, and prosperity that 1998 has to offer – that the new year will be a good year.