Jewish and Christian Frankenstein

Among my many potential book projects already started (I tend to work on several at any given time) is one on Frankenstein.  I’ve read several studies of Mary Shelley’s novel and its afterlives, and I have at least three awaiting my attention on my “to read” shelf.  One of the ideas regarding Frankenstein’s monster, about which I’ve written for Horror Homeroom, is whether it might’ve been influenced by legends of the golem.  The golem was a Jewish monster that was animated clay or mud, brought to life to protect Jews from persecution.  The golem, however, is soulless.  As such, he (and he’s generally male) eventually goes berserk, killing indiscriminately.  The tale has been around for centuries and one of the questions asked by Seth Rogovoy in “The Secret Jewish History of Frankenstein,” is whether Shelley could’ve known of the legend.

Frankenstein’s monster and the golem have quite a bit in common, so the question makes a lot of sense.  Shelley and family friend Lord Byron were certainly well read.  The article points out something I hadn’t realized—one of the Grimm brothers (Jacob, according to the piece on Forward) published a version of the golem story a decade before Frankenstein. Whether Shelley knew of it or not is the question.  The two tales might well have been a case of convergent evolution.  Frankenstein’s creature wasn’t intended as a protector.  He was made of body parts, not mud.  The main thing the two stories have in common is the god-like power to animate inanimate matter and the lack of ability to control what one has created.

Over time Frankenstein’s creature has become a classic monster.  The golem, until about a century after Shelley’s novel and its endless adaptations, remained fairly obscure. A silent film series on the golem appeared in the 1920a.  The golem has, however, more recently come into the light.  Several novels feature a golem and two of my favorite monster-of-the-week shows (The X-Files and Sleepy Hollow) had episodes featuring one.  Frankenstein, it seems to me, has a Christian worldview behind it.  The horror, as noted by Shelley—herself leaning heavily atheistic—was in animating something that nature had declared dead.  Victor Frankenstein, as the subtitle indicated, was a modern Prometheus—a human standing in for a Greek god.  The poetic justice here is that this atheistic, yet Christian context, monster ends up doing the same thing as the Jewish golem.  Both throw society into chaos.  Both warn that creating can be a real problem for those who don’t think through the implications of what they’re doing.  This is a message all people could still stand to learn.


Monomyth Myth

Since I’ve been exploring movies as the locus of truth, and meaning, for contemporary religious culture, I can’t avoid Joseph Campbell.  His interpretation of mythology—long discounted by mythographers of specific cultures—influenced film makers like Stanley Kubrick, the various Batman directors, and, most famously, George Lucas.  Campbell’s interviews and his eventual series The Power of Myth highlighted his work, even as specialist scholars noted the problems with it.  This is the subject of an essay in the LA Review of Books.  This story, written by a couple of professors (Sarah E. Bond and Joel Christensen), exposes the problem with Campbell’s “monomyth,” perhaps best typified by his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  This is stuff I realized as a postgrad student—Campbell didn’t footnote much and as Bond and Christensen note,  he “cherry picked” examples rather than looking at myths in context.

Image credit: Joan Halifax, via Wikimedia Commons (via Flickr)

One of my observations, when it comes to movies, is that people take their truths from movies, like they’re modern myths.  In other words, although Campbell’s method may’ve been faulty, he gave us Star Wars and the rest is history.  I rest on the horns of this dilemma.  My dissertation (and consequent first book) on Asherah was based on the idea of contextualizing myths.  In other words, I was arguing against a monomyth.  At the same time I’ve come to see that scholars don’t determine what people believe—culture does.  Consider how distorted the “Christianity” of Trump supporters is and you’ll see what I mean.  People don’t read scholars to find these things out.  Besides, wasn’t Campbell an academic?

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Without reaching out to the masses, academia turns in smaller and smaller circles.  Many of us who desperately want to be in its ranks are turned away because there just aren’t enough jobs.  At the same time, people will go to movies and they will be exposed to the monomyth, and they may even build their lives around it.  Isn’t that a way of becoming true?  Mythology, despite popular perception, is a complex subject.  There’s a lot going on in what may appear to be simple, or even naive, stories.  They have similar themes, but as I was warned—stay away from that other great popularizer of folklore, James Frazer.  His “parallelomania” was also out of control.  But Frazer and Campbell both understood something that those long in the academy often forget—people are hungry for stories that give meaning to their lives.  And these stories, even if academically questionable, become truth.


Defining God

What, exactly, is a god?  Our viewpoint, which is largely based on the culture that grew out of the Bible, may not encompass all the possibilities.  I remember reading, as a child, that God—the only true god, of course—was omniscience, omnipotent, and omnipresent.  These three omnis sure impressed me as a kid.  Since I read this in the back matter of a Bible I knew it had to be true.  And since there was only one, all false gods weren’t gods at all.  Divinity had to be defined in the same way as the biblical God.  More advanced study over the years led to the realization that gods weren’t necessarily immortal, and that the Good Book itself didn’t present God as omniscient (he has to ask people things), omnipotent (he can’t make Israel be faithful), or omnipresent (just ask any Psalmist).  So the question of definition arises.

There are cultures, it turns out, where people are gods.  At least some form of divinity.  Clearly we don’t create physical universes, but like the biblical God we’re larger and more powerful than some other creatures, and we often impose our will upon them.  Some people believe themselves to be deities.  Others suggest we have a spark of divinity in ourselves and that each person participates in the divine.  The fact is we have no way to measure this is a laboratory.  Defining deity is a matter that must be left to “theologians,” but that won’t prevent the average lay person from deciding for her or himself.  Nobody really reserves the right to decide definitively when it comes to gods.

Many cultures have included people, often in leadership roles, who were declared gods either during or after their earthly lives.  Who’s to say they’re wrong?  Science is no help here as the supernatural is outside its current remit.  It can only measure empirically.  The intangible is a whole other universe.  Deciding what a deity actually is may be an impossibility.  Those of us reared in monotheistic traditions suppose that a single, personal, divinity stands behind all of this.  Notwithstanding Xenophanes’ horses, our gods tend to be human at least in form.  In collegiate discussions, one conservative roommate would clap his hands over his ears if we began talking about God in non-anthropomorphic terms.  One of my friends likened God to a “cosmic aerosol” (this really sent my roommate over the edge).  What do we really know about gods?  Without a scientific method to help, it remains an open question.


Religion and Its Objects

UFO religions—or should they now be called UAP religions?—have long been of interest to scholars of religion.  A recent piece on Religion Dispatches titled “With Release of Pentagon Report, UFO Narrative Belief System Is Suddenly Supported by Military Witness Testimonies,” by Diana Pasulka, explores this.  Anyone following mainstream media is perhaps experiencing a bit of whiplash on the topic since, prior to admission of interest by the government, the official stance was to ridicule the entire topic.  That’s the reason what were long known as Unidentified Flying Objects now have to be called Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.  Since a government can never admit it made mistakes, it simply changes the terminology.  My interest here, however, is in the connection with religion.

I’ve explored the connection between horror and religion from time to time—ahem—and so it is natural enough to wonder about the relationship between religion and UAPs.  (Or should I stick with UFOs?)  The two have some commonalities.  Initially, both deal with the unknown.  Indeed, the word monster comes from a root denoting an omen, or a revelation.  Something isn’t a revelation unless it’s been keep hidden.  So with UFOs.  The government’s long interest, which had been somewhat successfully hidden, allowed for a reveal.  Religions, however, tend to thrive on hidden things.  The monotheistic religions, for example, claim to inform us about what God has chosen to reveal about (generally) himself.  Even today when pushed into a theological corner, believers will appeal to mystery.  Both monsters and UFOs live in mystery.

Science prefers things out in the light.  Is it any wonder that scientists are reluctant to apply themselves and their hard-earned credentials to the UAP problem?  Those of us in religious studies generally have little to lose.  It’s not like we’ve got prestige on our side, or some billion-dollar grant riding on our reputation.  We can afford to take a look and monsters and other unknowns and see how they trigger the religious impulse.  Pasulka’s article has more to do with credibility.  UFO religions have long struggled with being considered outsider belief systems.  UFOs were publicly ridiculed, so any religion that focused on them was, by extension, laughable.  I’ve long believed that ridicule serves little purpose when it comes to belief systems.  Making fun of a mystery is less common than shaming those who believe in what we’ve been told definitely isn’t real.  Until suddenly it becomes real.  Is there any question why religions develop when mysteries remain?


Time To Think

Although I’m not Roman Catholic, I often thought about joining a monastery as a teen and twenty-something.  The idea of spending all my time devoted to contemplating the ultimate reality still has a strong appeal.  I know quite a few rationalists who have no time for spirituality, but it seems to me that we all need it for facing death.  Most people, I know, avoid the topic if at all possible.  Contemplatives, on the other hand, spend quite a bit of time preparing for it.  Since it’s inevitable that makes sense.  I often wonder why people consider the most common thing in human experience with such trepidation.  If it’s a source of anxiety, shouldn’t it be confronted?  That’s not to say we need to look forward to it, but it does mean we shouldn’t run from it either.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons

The combination of Christianity and rationalism, it seems to me, lead to this terror.  Christianity because it views death as an enemy, and rationalism because it has no comfort to offer.  I’ve been reading about how pre-Christian cultures thought of death.  They didn’t display the fear that Paul seems to have introduced into the equation.  Since American culture is so heavily influenced by the Bible (as was European culture before it), we have adopted the scriptural view that death is a problem.  The Hebrew Bible, in which there was no real afterlife, was less concerned with making sure you avoided Hell—they had no Hell to avoid.  The anxiety seems to have been introduced by, ironically, the concept of resurrection.

I’ve noted on pieces I’ve written for other websites that resurrection is among the favorite themes for horror films.  One of the reasons is precisely this discomfort in taking death at face value.  Our religions keep us aware of the spiritual side of our nature.  They have developed around the world in different forms and all of them address death in some way.  Most without a profound sense of anxiety.  There is some irony in cultures that adopt resurrection as a theological tenet are among those that try to avoid death most assiduously.  It plays into those cultures’ views on abortion and capital punishment.  As well as their performance of social justice.  While Paul asked death where its sting was, and seems legitimately not to have feared it, in the centuries following his position seems to have eroded.  There seems to be plenty to contemplate here, if only secular society had monasteries.


Whose Holiday?

I write a lot about holidays.  One of the reasons is that even long before capitalism, societies took breaks right in the middle of things.  One of the major seasons of celebration was the vernal equinox.  Easter is tied to Passover, of course, but since nobody knows the year of Jesus’ crucifixion the actual date can’t be determined.  Passover is a moveable feast and since the lunar calendar is essential in setting Passover’s date, Easter is calculated as being the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.  There has been talk of the three major branches of Christianity—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—agreeing on a set date for Easter but even if that happened there would be splinter groups who liked it the old way and the confusion would only grow.

Since astronomical observation has grown so mathematical, the date of Easter can be calculated far into the future.  We know just when the vernal equinox will occur, and we know when the full moon will come around.  All that’s needed is some calendars and a whole lot of patience (and maybe a calculator).  Despite society’s obvious preference for Christmas, Easter has its own array of attendant holidays for some Christians.  (Not all Christians celebrate Easter.)  For instance, for some today is Maundy Thursday.  Tomorrow most will recognize as Good Friday.  Nobody’s quite sure what to call Saturday, and many Christians will begin to celebrate Easter at midnight even before Sunday wakes up.  Easter does last more than a single day, in some traditions, but it’s not quite as developed as the twelve days of Christmas.

Lately I’ve been considering that how these holy days are sacred for some and secular for others.  One of the realizations that globalization has wrought is that not everybody shares the same concepts of how universal events—such as the vernal equinox—should be commemorated.  Although on the equator every day’s not quite an equinox due to the earth’s tilt, it isn’t as dramatic as the changes that occur in temperate zones.  Christianity was custom-built for European holidays, which is what it tends to keep.  The history of the holidays is more complex than it might seem at first.  Add to that widespread disagreement around the world as to both religion and to when certain events should be calculated and you’ll need more than a slide-rule to figure it out.  So as we begin the Catholic and Protestant Easter season (Orthodox Easter is about a month away yet), it may be helpful to remind ourselves that what day it is might just be a matter of perspective.

Stiftung Gertrud Schnürle 1975, Fritz von Uhde, The Last Supper, via Wikimedia Commons


one of many

It’s been some time since I’ve read about the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  There are so many religions that I need to refresh my study on them periodically.  So it was that I received a mailing from the local Kingdom Hall.  You see, the very last people at my front door before the pandemic was declared were bearing the Watchtower and telling me the end is nigh.  We knew about Covid-19 at that point and were being urged to keep social distance, although the authorities were still dithering about masks.  They knocked nevertheless and we stood several feet apart on the porch as they tried in vain to convince me of their truth.  So now, a year later, they’ve reached out by mail.

You’ve got to have a soft spot for a religion that has its origins in Pittsburgh.  Well, maybe that’s the case for those who grew up where it was the nearest big city.  And I do admire that pioneering spirit that says “established religions just aren’t doing it for me.”  The great swath of NRM—New Religious Movements—shows that you shouldn’t feel lonely if this applies to you.  Even today’s Christianities bear little resemblance to the teachings of the carpenter of Nazareth.  He who said even to look upon a woman lustfully was to commit adultery, but whose followers support a president who recommends grabbing them by the, well, where the originator said not to look….  Religions evolve.  The literalism many associate with Christian belief is really only about a century old.  We have no business castigating religions just because they’re recent.

My mailing from the Witnesses included a personalized (somewhat) letter inviting me to a virtual commemoration of Jesus’ death.  Due to the pandemic it’ll be held on Zoom, of course.  The expected flyer with its Anglo-Jesus contains the details.  I did attend a Witness service back when I was in college.  Those days of heady explorations never really ended for me.  You have to settle into a tradition to get to know people, of course, but there’s a world full of ways of looking at our spiritual side and there’s more being propagated just about every year—even Jehovah’s Witnesses have splinter groups.  I suppose missionaries are something we’ll always have to put up with as long as people are convinced that their way is The Only Way.  Trust that others have perhaps quietly, perhaps deliberately, perhaps with a great deal of thought and reflection, have found their own way seems never to be good enough.  Still, an invitation is an invitation and those have been rare during a pandemic.


Pandemic Thoughts

Waiting for rescue.  For many years now, I’ve been hoping for it.  It goes back to my first professional job at Nashotah House, perhaps earlier.  Particularly late in the game, I found myself wondering when I might be rescued from that difficult situation.  The teaching and research I loved, but the context was brutal.  The hoped for salvation never came.  Since those days the wishes have swung around to a steady job in a field I love.  One for which I trained.  The feeling arises particularly on weekends.  Often busier than even workdays, I nevertheless sense an almost gothic freedom to them, and Monday rolls around again reminding me that salvation never came.  Things are still the same.  Now, I don’t just sit around waiting for rescue.  I throw out all kinds of lines.  I shout and squirm and try to make myself known.  The ocean is large, however, and my voice is small.  

Perhaps this sense is a natural outgrowth of being raised in a religion that emphasized personal salvation.  The sudden conversion experience.  It was easy to believe things could change rapidly for the better.  Science, particularly uniformitarianism, tells us that the same slow processes always hold.  Solomon was right after all—there’s nothing new under the sun.  At least nothing that we couldn’t see coming for a good, long time.  Out here the horizon stretches ever so far in every direction.  Religions realize the problems with this sameness.  They give us sacred times and sacred spaces.  (The latter of which, however, the pandemic has forced online.)

Rescues that evolve can take many years to reach effective strength.  As a child I recall anticipating the rescue of adult respectability.  When I grew up people would listen to me because I was an adult.  For a brief while that was the case when I stood in the classroom and some students came because they wanted to learn.  I learned from them, and they, I hope, learned from me.  Perhaps this situation arises less among those raised in stable, middle-class families.  Perhaps they don’t sense the constant wolf pacing outside the door.  Maybe salvation is primarily for the poor.  Whoever it’s for and whencever it comes, the feeling has been with me for decades.  Rescue, it seems, is a construct we badly need.  At least on a philosophical level.  The pandemic has leveled our concept of time to a stifling sameness.  I’m prepared.  I’ve been waiting for rescue for as long as I can remember.  Then Monday rolls around again.


Mystery Religions

Religion.  What is it?  Those of us with many years—or decades—of experience in it find ourselves asking that often.  A Raëlian I know pointed me to the documentary The Prophet and the Space Aliens, by Yoav Shamir.  Shamir is an Israeli film-maker who was recognized by Raël some years ago as being in sympathy with the principles of Raëlianism.  The result is this film, released about a year ago, and available in its entirety in the context of an interview on Vice, housed on YouTube.  It is well worth the watching, although be warned, it is NSFW (not safe for work), as they say.  I found the post-viewing interview of Shamir to be quite enlightening as well.  Shamir’s film itself is, of course, worth pondering.

Image credit: George Stock, via Wikimedia Commons

Raël, born Claude Vorilhon, began his career in France as a singer and then a journalist for a racecar magazine he founded.  In 1973, after a close encounter of the third kind, he founded Raëlianism, a movement of which he is still the leader.  While Shamir is not a Raëlian—indeed, he’s a non-religious atheist—his documentary treats Raël respectfully.  After giving an overview of the movement at the present time, following Raël as he goes about his daily activities and interacts with his followers on his estate, it then gives his biographical story and interviews some of the people he knew as Claude Vorilhon.  The documentary is balanced and addresses issues such as the movement’s proactive outreach to Africa and respect for African religions and its unconventional views on sexuality.  The issue of cloning, which came to a head in 2002 with the claim that a human, Eve, had been successfully cloned, is also covered.

What it truly striking about The Prophet and the Space Aliens is that it intentionally raises the question of how religions begin.  An originator, a prophet, gathers a band of followers.  Its beliefs are distinctive from other people and tend to outlive the death of the founder.  If it is strong enough the religion will go on to become a fixture in society, sometimes gaining influence and respectability.  One of the points Shamir makes is that if religions survive long enough they simply become part of the cultural fabric.  One of the most interesting scenes in the documentary is an encounter between Raël and Mormon missionaries.  Mormons are one of the more recent, successful New Religious Movements that has become mainstream.  When a member receives a major political party’s nomination for president, it’s obvious that the candidate’s religion (if any) has become accepted.  This documentary will make you think.


Animal Spirituality

I had little scientific basis for my claims.  It wasn’t that I didn’t have evidence, but it was more one of those “if you see something say something” kinds of scenarios.  I have been claiming for many years that animals experience some kind of spirituality.  My evidence was drawn from disparate scientific materials I’d read, along with ancient religions.  Egyptians believed baboons worshiped the sun.  Chimpanzees make threatening gestures toward the sky during thunderstorms.  Penguins grieve.  Human spirituality, it seems to me, is part of our kinship with other living creatures.  Then I found an article by none other than Marc Bekoff titled “We’re Not the Only Animals Who Feel Grief and Spirituality,” in no less a prestigious place than Psychology Today.  Bekoff, some of whose books I’ve reported on here, has studied animal emotions professionally.

Our ideas of human exceptionality, it seems to me, often get us into trouble.  Arrogance is perhaps the most dangerous of psychological states.  When we see ourselves as part of a continuum, and realize that it can go on beyond us—yes, there are likely greater intelligences—humility should be an expected response.  Those who are arrogant frequently experience their comeuppance, even if they have to get elected to high office for it to happen.  We share emotions with our fellow creatures, and, now according to at least one expert, we share spirituality.  What is spirituality?  It seems to be an awareness that the body isn’t everything.  In my lexicon it’s listed there right with consciousness, mind, and soul.  We know it because we feel it.

The interconnectedness of the world, and beyond, is something many want to take exception from.  Looking around, such folks say, “Hey, we’re different than all of this.”  Yes and no.  We’re different, but that makes us no less a part of it.  Nature is our matrix.  We build fancy houses, but so do bower birds, and they do it without benefit of opposable thumbs, or even hands.  Of late we seem reluctant to admit that even human beings have spirituality.  That doesn’t stop us from feeling it, however.  I’m glad that others see it in the animal realm also.  Anyone who’s “owned” a dog knows what it’s like to receive worship.  We’ve selectively bred these wolves to adore us.  Is it so much of a stretch, then, to suppose that other animals also feel a sense of admiration for what’s beyond themselves?  Only the most arrogant wouldn’t pause to consider it.


Learning Lingo

Languages are more than ways of communicating.  They are ways of thinking.  I figured that out with German, the first foreign language I studied.  It became even more evident with Greek and undeniable with Hebrew.  Beyond that, Ugaritic and other Semitic languages confirmed my suspicion.  To unlock a language is to open up a new way of thinking about things.  (This is one reason Trump’s isolationism was so dangerous.)  Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages, by Gaston Dorren, is an overview of twenty different ways of thinking.  The book picks a prominent feature of the twenty most-spoken languages in the world.  Apart from the list of what they are (in order of appearance: Vietnamese, Korean, Tamil, Turkish, Javanese, Persian, Punjabi, Japanese, Swahili, German, French, Malay, Russian, Portuguese, Bengali, Arabic, Hindi-Urdu, Spanish, Mandarin, and English) there are many other surprises.

Many of these languages—perhaps all—are reflections of history.  The histories often include intentional divisions between people.  “They are not like us” thinking.  Usually on the part of elites and rulers.  The common person is quick to pick up the language of neighbors but those, like Trump, who hate differences, tend to rise to the top.  Quite apart from that, the features of these various languages show us the many ways people have learned to convey their thoughts.  Some tongues are super, even hyper-polite.  Some are reserved for women.  Some represent an entire continent, but notice the sheer number of Asian languages on this list.  Dorren notes at one point that having a unifying Scripture, such as the Bible, often codifies a language.  Religion is part of the human way of thinking.

Nowhere is this more obvious in the case of those languages that are considered divine.  Arabic, as many people know, is considered the only appropriate language in which to read the Qur’an.  Since languages are ways of thinking, that makes perfect sense.  What really struck me the most, however, was the case of Tamil.  A language of south India (many of these languages are spoken in India), Tamil is considered not only a divine language, but some adherents make it into an actual deity.  In a polytheistic culture there’s no problem with adding another god.  The idea that a language can be an actual divinity, however, shows once again how important it is that we try to understand one another rather than asserting one people is superior to another.  The book is appropriately titled Babel, and to properly understand that it is probably necessary to learn Hebrew.


Year Book

I have to confess that I’ve had trouble letting go of the holidays this year.  Actually, that’s kind of normal.  The let down from “sacred time” (however that may be understood) to “ordinary time” is often a rough transition.  Anthony Aveni discusses this, among other things, in his short study, The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays.  Not a deep history, but a thoughtful consideration of the seasons of our celebrations, the book informs and entertains.  There are surprisingly few books that cover the holidays, despite their centrality to modern life.  What person in business doesn’t look forward to the third quarter?  Who doesn’t anticipate a little time off work, punctuated throughout the year?  Aveni is one of the few general purpose books that you can go to for background on several seasonal holidays.

Aveni is somewhat of a polymath, being both an astronomer and an anthropologist.  He clearly has a special interest in first nations studies as well, as The Book of the Year occasionally dips into the rituals of Latin America.  A number of holiday traditions are explored here, leaving the reader wanting more.  I find the question of why we celebrate the way that we do a fascinating one.  Many of our customs have unexpected roots and many of them were transformed along the way by the church.  An unusually high number boast recent developments that we tend to think of as foundational to their essence.  The holidays as we grew up with them likely stay in our minds as the default way they should be.  Interestingly, bringing them into continuity with ancient customs reveals a steady evolution, mostly from sacred to commercial.

Since I wrote a book (unpublished) about the holidays several years ago (and have read a number of the same), I’ve always dug into books like this whenever I can find them.  Holidays are the heartbeat of the year.  Many of us look for something to help pace us in the reckless spinning vortex that we call capitalism.  Our lives are all interconnected, and the holidays also have subtle intricacies as well.  As they wind down, they tend to point both back to the previous red-letter day and forward to the next one.  Aveni doesn’t cover political holidays very much.  He does mention Martin Luther King Day, the next federally recognized day of rest.  As Aveni points out, the end of the Christmas season can stretch as far as Candlemas, so I guess we still have a few weeks to go before it’s all officially over, in sacred time.


Manifest Duty

As slaves to Mammon our celebrations are frequently curtailed.  In agricultural culture, winter was a time when fields couldn’t be cultivated (at least in northern climes) and thus the twelve days of Christmas could be relaxed without much consequence.  The history of this holiday complex is fascinating, and while many of us have been back to work for a few days already, today, Epiphany, is the “official” end of the season.  Twelfth Night, in some traditions yesterday and in others today, was a day of celebration, the twelfth day of Christmas.  Ancient pre-Christmas holidays such as Saturnalia lasted several days.  Today’s business world frequently gives a Scrooge-like single day off and many of us spend our hard-earned vacation days to fill out the week that is inevitably slow at work otherwise.

In Christianity, until recent times, Epiphany was a bigger holiday than Christmas.  Of the two it was the original day for gift-giving,  That makes sense in the commemoration of the visit of the magi that Epiphany represents.  They were the first givers of Christmas gifts.  Since Jesus was Jewish the idea of a manifestation, or epiphany, to the gentiles became an important marker.  Magi are styled as Zoroastrians from Persia.  The story occurs only in the gospel of Matthew and clearly wasn’t intended to coincide with the arrival of shepherds and angels.  As the Epiphany story grew to include Christmas it also encompassed many of the shadowy events of Jesus’ early years.  His questioning of the teachers in the temple was a kind of epiphany, as was his baptism.  All these things came together during a fallow time and were sufficient reason to take it easy for twelve days between the end of December and the beginning of January.

Some of our employers have expressed surprise that things continue to run fairly smoothly with workers reporting remotely.  These same people also seem surprised that people come back from several days off refreshed.  I suspect that they are also astonished at how well their computers work after being rebooted.  Time off is sacred time.  Whether we dress it up with elaborate stories of kings, wise men, sages, or magicians traveling great distances to see a baby in a foreign nation or whether we make it the day when one cousin baptized another, Epiphany grew into a major feast in medieval times.  Today it’s just another work day.  And with it the end of another holiday season will need to last us until near the end of yet another year.


Non-sacred Time

It’s difficult to say goodbye to the holiday season (although, according to its origins it’s not over yet!).  While the church still recognizes a couple more days until Epiphany—which until recent times was more important than Christmas—the secular “work world” is back to usual after New Year’s Day.  2021 started with a bonus, giving us a long weekend as well.  In any case, getting back to normal time is always a difficult transition.  For those of us who spent many years in academia, the holidays began about mid-December, and in my case, stretched fairly well into January.  Now, using a combination of vacation days and floating holidays, I’m able to set up a mini semester break of a couple of weeks.  Although I have trouble sleeping in, I was still able to spend the days with family and not worrying about business.

There is a difference in the quality of time off.  Some, I suspect, are eager to get back to work.  For me this first Monday back is difficult to face.  Some would argue that the difference in time quality is merely a subjective projection.  There is nothing scientifically changed from the last two weeks to the reality of the first Monday back.  This is one of those places where religion steps in as the more understanding boss (such instances are rare, so appreciate them while you can!).  Sacred time is taken very seriously by any number of religious traditions.  Even our beloved weekends have a basis in religious observance.  Holidays, even in a secular setting, are opportunities to recharge.  For me the spring semester was something I never dreaded.  We’ve allowed capitalism to take precedence over sacred time.

The problem with ordinary time is its mundanity.  Looking back, I’d been anticipating the holiday season with its time off for well over a month.  A full twelfth of the year.  To help with the transition, with my family I spent some weekend time cobbling together a personalized Modern Mrs. Darcy reading challenge.  Knowing I have good books in the future helps immensely, although I have much less time to read when work takes up much of my waking time.  Even that new start can’t be scientifically measured.  It’s something unique to human minds.  January begins with endings.  No matter how difficult 2020 may have been, at least it ended with a relaxing couple of weeks with family and no pressures to sit in front of a computer screen for over nine hours a day.  There will be more holidays ahead, and each one of them will be sacred time.


Thoughts of Christmas

Christmas, in merry old England, used to be the day when bills were due.  There are vestiges of that still.  Just this past week, when my mind was on upcoming celebrations and family time, companies continue to email me their bills, reminding me that all celebrations are but temporary.  Money’s the real thing, and it takes no holidays.  While the holiday season may be subdued for some due to lack of travel, for me any day that I don’t need to leave the house is a good one.  We had a pretty nasty patch of weather on Christmas Eve, and one might be tempted to say that the atmospheric conditions outside are frightful.  There’s a coziness about staying indoors around the holidays.  Besides, there’s a pandemic out there too.

We’ve got a quiet day planned at home with our usual traditions.  We added a Yule log to our celebrations this year—much of what we now recognize as Christmas derived from the teutonic Yule.  Otherwise, we are quiet people with rather simple tastes.  Even if we can’t afford much, the holidays mean time off work.  Time for those close to us without constantly having to auto-correct back to earning money at work.  I frequently reflect on how distorted capitalism has made us.  Our European colleagues have far more time off work than Americans do.  They don’t seem to suffer for it.  There’s not much light outside anyway, so why not hunker down a while?  Reflect on what’s really important?

First thing this morning, after watering the tree, I fired up the computer to write a few words before the festivities began.  The first two emails in my inbox were, as if on cue, bills.  Computers have no idea this is a holiday, and our neighbor’s early morning car announcing its lock secured tells me that he’s just getting home from work.  The fiction that we all have today off, as time home with family, plays out every year.  Holidays are often the privilege of the affluent, which is why, I suppose, Saturnalia was marked by a reversal of roles for several days.  Rome wasn’t exactly a friendly empire, but it wasn’t a capitalist one either.  This Christmas I’m hoping that those who have to work today—healthcare workers, those who keep stores open for last-minute supplies, emergency workers of all kinds—will have adequate time for peace coming to them.  Even non-essential work can be wearying.  Let’s celebrate, thankful that we’ve survived these last few years at all.  The bills will wait until tomorrow.