Like many people bound to their circumstances by work (and now a mortgage) I see travel to far-off places is a dream.On my personal bucket-list is Iceland.Perhaps that’s a strange place to yearn for in winter, but it’s on my mind today because of Jolabokaflod.I’ve posted on Jolabokaflod before, but in case the concept is unfamiliar I’d summarize it by saying Icelanders, who are exceptionally literate, give each other books on Christmas Eve and spend the dark hours reading.For the past three years I’ve taken part in a reading challenge that lists a book in translation, and invariably I choose one by an Icelandic author.Publishers in Iceland, being less corporate than our native species, accept books for publication somewhat more readily—I’ve been shopping a novel around for nearly a decade now and I’ve read worse.If it doesn’t jack up the dollar signs, so nobody around here’s interested.
I’m sure it’s not all sweetness and light in Iceland.I suspect, for one thing, it’s hard to be vegan there.Then there’d be the need to learn Icelandic.The nights would be even longer in winter, but then, those long nights would be filled with books.I sometimes imagine how different America would be if we loved books that much.I remember well—as you may also—the classmates who grumbled about “having to read” as part of their school curriculum.And this began well before high school.Young people’s bodies are full of energy and they want action (which can be found in books, I might add) and new experiences (ditto).Our culture feeds them the myth that such things lead to happiness.Instead, they find sitting still tedious.When life leads them to commute, they fill bus time with devices.
The other day I had an electrician in our house—the previous occupants had some strange ideas about power distribution.He, as most visitors do, commented that we have a lot of books.I’m beginning to feel less apologetic about it than I used to.We have books not only because it’s been part of my job to read, but because we like books.One of the painful memories of 2018 was the loss of many volumes due to a rainstorm that flooded our garage right after our move.It still makes me sad to go out there, remembering the friends I lost.Nevertheless, it’s Christmas Eve, at least in my tradition, and the thought of books combined with the long hours of darkness brings a joy that I’d almost characterize as being Icelandic.At least in my mind.Jolabokaflod might well be translated, “silent night, holy night.”
For those who prefer their solstice celebrations in Christian flavor, today’s Christmas Eve. As various denominations warn us to keep Christ in Christmas, secular NORAD provides a radar tracker to follow Santa through the skies. One hopes he’ll be cautious over North Korea this year. He may skip the White House altogether. And yet some will insist that there was no Christmas before Christ. But there was. Celebrations of the lengthening of the days began when humans reached temperate zones, at the very least. Prehistoric monuments throughout the British Isles were aligned with the sun’s position at solstices even before the Bible was scribbled on its first bit of parchment in warmer climes far away. We eagerly await the light.
Many religious traditions tell of that light within. Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, and some Asian religions focus on the divine spark, or secular light, within humankind. We are light-bearers, no matter what our religion. Back in my Nashotah House days, when Evening Prayer was a communal, daily expectation, the hymn Phos Hilaron, “gladsome light,” or, in the more liturgical mode, “O gracious light,” was the part that moved me most. We observe the coming of darkness with the hope that light might somehow continue. When days grow brief our hope grows fervent that the light will miraculously return. That it does so by the working of nature makes it no less of a wonder. We have been living in nighttime, and that light within us seems to flag at the persistent gloom. Then solstice. Christmas Eve captures that light in angelic voices.
Those who insist it’s all fake—the Tiny Tim crutch of feeble minds—need only look at NORAD today. The defense system built to keep the northern hemisphere safe from the endless winter of the nuclear species today shows a mythical object streaming across the stars with good will and cheer. Not just for Americans. Not just for Christians. Not just for true believers. No, Christmas Eve, the solstice, is for all people. Not just men. All people. Perhaps I’ve let my guard down just a little, and I’m letting my naiveté show just a bit much, but I do believe in that light. It may be that the tilt of the planet’s axis makes it inevitable, but a night when shepherds are startled and a woman brings hope to the entire world, we bask in what we deem a silent and holy night, knowing dawn will bring a longer day. And hopefully a world at peace.
While NORAD has already begun to track Santa with DSP (Defense Support Program) satellites, and last-minute shoppers are being bombarded with Christmas carols to cinch out that extra dollar or two, it may be odd to consider the music Sine Nomine by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Better known as the music of the stirring hymn “For All the Saints,” Sine Nomine (“without name”) is some of the most inspiring music of the liturgical year. I remember a friend once leaning over after the hymn and whispering, “hard to believe it was written by an agnostic.” Vaughn Williams was an Anglican agnostic. At this time of year his piece “Hodie: A Christmas Cantana” may be heard in the households of anglophiles around the world. “Hodie” (“this day”) is an anthology of poems set to Vaughn Williams’ music. One of the poems, “The Oxen,” was written by Thomas Hardy. I really never paid much attention to it, until my wife pointed out the words and the liner notes by Alain Frogley on our CD of “Hodie.” Hardy’s poet recalls believing in his youth that oxen kneeling (as oxen do) was a reverential act on Christmas Eve. Now as an adult, the poet writes that if someone should invite him to see the kneeling beasts, “I should go with him in the gloom, hoping it might be so.” Frogley’s notes point out that Thomas Hardy, like Vaughn Williams, held a “complex agnosticism.” It is not the solid rejection of the divine that is all the rage these days, but a difficulty in believing something that is hard to let go. And Santa flies over Russia.
Faith can be a many faceted stone. We keep the myth of Santa Claus alive for our children, thinking it merely harmless fun. Then comes the moment of truth. Some prescient children at that point begin to extrapolate: what else have you been telling me that isn’t real? That the creator of an infinite, but expanding universe took time out of a busy schedule to be born in a cattle stall in Bethlehem two millennia ago? That a government might turn on its children and kill them rather than face a challenge to literal, kingly authority? That emissaries from the Middle East might come with rare and precious gifts? That Santa visits that homeless man I saw curled up on a corner of Seventh Avenue last night under a black umbrella as chilly rain pelted New York City? So much to believe!
I once held a secure job in an anglophile seminary. The music of Vaughn Williams was often heard to echo through St Mary’s chapel, and many myths were propagated. Standing out under a frigid, clear Wisconsin night, it was almost possible to believe that Santa was up there somewhere, being tracked by North American Aerospace Defense Command. Yes, the oxen would be kneeling on such a night. This morning before dawn, I glanced at NORAD’s page. I saw the words “Secret Santa Files” and my mind flew to NSA. A government that keeps track of our personal emails and private phone calls even holds secret files on fictional characters whose motive nobody ever questions. Truth in advertising indeed. So, on this Christmas Eve, I imagine myself out among the free range cattle and sheep of first century Judea and there I happen upon two shivering artists in the dark, huddled around a campfire while others claim they hear angels singing. Vaughn Williams and Hardy exchange knowing glances, and Herod prepares to roar his decree from his one-percenter throne.