Ground, Candle, and February

The world’s hairiest prophet?

Relying on the prophetic ability of a rodent may seem like a fool’s errand, but to understand Groundhog Day you have to go back to Candlemas.  Apart from when I lived at Nashotah House, I’ve never been anywhere that people knew what Candlemas was.  It’s also known as the Feast of the Presentation, and it in itself is built on an archaic ritual based on a creative understanding of biology.  In ancient Israel, a woman was considered impure for seven days.  The eighth day, if the child was a boy, he was circumcised.  Thirty-three days later the woman, finally considered pure enough to approach the temple precincts, was to take a sacrifice for her purification.  And oh, if she bore a girl the impurity lasted sixty-six days.  It’s all there in Leviticus.

What does any of this have to do with Groundhog Day?  Well, according to the much later tradition that Jesus was born of a virgin on December 25, if you do the math you’ll find Mary’s purification falls on February 2.  And if Jesus had been a girl Candlemas would be a moveable feat since February sometimes has 29 days.  Since it’s still dark out for most of the time in February a couple of traditions developed: one was a way of finding out when winter would be over and the other was the blessing of candles since you’d still be needing them for awhile.  That gave the feast its common name.  The tradition grew that clear weather on Candlemas meant that winter was to last for a good long time yet.  Since Germanic peoples love their Christmas traditions, a badger was used for the long-range forecast part of the celebration.

In Pennsylvania Dutch territory, badgers are rare.  Woodchucks, or groundhogs, are just about everywhere and they live in burrows like badgers do.  In a carryover from Candlemas’s clear weather foretelling the future,  the belief was that a badger or groundhog seeing its shadow—because it’s clear, get it?—meant six more weeks of winter.  Of course nobody knew about global warming in those days.  Candlemas, it turns out, was one of the earliest Christian celebrations and it was part of the Christmas complex of holidays.  It’s still winter out there.  It’s also Saturday which means I already have a list of chores as long as a badger’s shadow.  Now I’ve got to remember to get my candles blessed as well.   Winter, it seems, never ends.

Holly Days

Thirty years ago today, my wife and I were penniless grad students.  Trying to be logical about when to marry—I’d been accepted at Edinburgh University shortly after we’d decided on a May wedding and the latest I could matriculate was April—we decided the holidays would be the best time.  Not Christmas, of course.  Or New Year’s Day.  As students we held to the illusion that others observed the natural caesura between the two.  We considered it from the feast of Stephen to New Year’s Eve, days when everyone is recovering from the intensity of Christmas or staying up late to welcome in 1989.  We settled on December 30.  The church was already decorated for Christmas, saving that expense.  Having moved up the date by some five months we did ask them to remove the banner that read “For unto us a child is born.”  Our reasons were purely academic.

I generally avoid writing too much about my personal life on this blog, but a thirty-year wedding anniversary is somewhat extraordinary.  Being a working-class kid I told my wife when I proposed that I couldn’t promise much but I could assure her our life together would be interesting.  That slippery qualifier has proven correct time and again.  Our first three years as a couple were spent in Edinburgh, and quite unexpectedly, the next fourteen at Nashotah House.  The first two of those years involved being apart from Sunday through Wednesday as I commuted from Champaign-Urbana to Delafield to teach my courses.  And, of course, to attend chapel.  Our daughter was born while we lived at the seminary and a Fundamentalist takeover led to the loss of my first (and to date only) full-time academic job.

The academic job market had been tough when I started and it had tanked in the meantime.  We had to uproot and move to New Jersey to find any work at all.  Publishing proved remarkably unstable and yet we stuck together.  This year we bought a house and moved to Pennsylvania.  It took three decades, but we’ve finally achieved what some would term normalcy.  The fact is, though, that long-term marriages are to be celebrated.  Many of the vicissitudes we’ve faced could easily have capsized our little boat.  Looking back over the years I can see that we never did prosper in any kind of financial or career situation.  Life has indeed been interesting.  I don’t blog much about my personal life, but today I can’t help but think of how incredibly fortunate I am to have found a soul-mate willing to stick with a guy who still thinks like a penniless grad student.  Thirty years of schooling and it’s not nearly enough.

A young couple’s anniversary in Wales.

Puzzling Traditions

Like most families, we have tried over the years to develop our own holiday traditions.  These, like all things, evolve.  When I was a professor the semester break meant, after a flurry of grading, a month of a more relaxed schedule.  We would travel to family outside of Wisconsin every year, and worked on what a “usual” holiday might look like for our small family in the remaining time at home.  Now that I work for a company, and my wife works for a company, the holiday break is severely curtailed, but it has allowed us the opportunity to invent our own traditions.  One of them is to put together a quality jigsaw puzzle on Christmas Day.  (Two of these puzzles were destroyed in the flood that ruined so many books, and will need to be replaced eventually.)

I’m aware how nerdy puzzle-solving might sound.  I’m not spending the day out riding an ATV through the woods, discharging a firearm, or watching sports on television.  Piecing together a puzzle is a quieter pursuit, and the puzzles we have are of quality artworks, and completing one makes it feel like all is right with the world for a little while.  As with most things on this blog, it also serves as a metaphor.  Yesterday as we watched the movie The Man Who Invested Christmas (which portrays very well the life of those who try to write; the exception being that Dickens had little trouble finding publishers and the benefit of early success), it occurred to me that as we put together the puzzle of our lives, we do so with the box top missing.  We don’t know what the picture is.  Slowly some sections start to come together, but overall, we don’t know what we’re doing.

Long ago I learned the folly of planning out a life.  Moving forward is good, yes, and making plans wise.  You cannot, however, know the way those plans might fit elsewhere in this decades-long unfinished puzzle.  There’a a fairly large section of mine called Nashotah House.  I would never have planned that intentionally, and thinking back, it was being there that renewed my interest in horror.  I thought I’d be at a university where I might continue my research into ancient deities and how the world of biblical Israel developed its own conception of that world.  That’s what I thought the cover of the box would look like.  Instead I’ve found myself editing the books that others write and using the scant time left over to write my own, on a topic far different than that in which I earned an advanced degree.  As the last piece slips into the puzzle, I feel a sense of accomplishment.  I may not have done much, but I’ve used the limited time off to step back and try to take, however briefly, the larger view.

Christmas Lights

How many people read a blog on a major holiday?  The process of writing takes no vacations, however, and I often think of holidays as a time to write.  It doesn’t really matter if anyone reads it; writing is our witness to the cosmos that “Kilroy was here.”  Even if most of us have no idea who Kilroy was.  So I find myself awake earlier than most children on Christmas morning.  My long habit of rising early to catch the bus hasn’t been easy to break.   I creep down the stairs and water the tree before turning on its colorful lights.  I make a cup of coffee and wash the dishes left in the sink after a festive Christmas Eve.  And I think.  There’s always the thinking.

The meaning of Christmas, as the holiday classic tells us, eludes Charlie Brown.  Linus van Pelt gives one rendition—that of the Gospel of Luke—as the canonical meaning, but in my experience it shifts during a lifetime.  Christmas, after all, is one of a host of solstice celebrations.  My thinking these days is that it’s all about light.  Shimmering angels, glowing stars, light coming into the darkness.  These ideas seem to have, for the most part, Zoroastrian origins, but they’ve been thoroughly appropriated and, in true American style, commercialized.  The news headlines read how disappointed retailers always are.  The take could’ve been bigger.  Capitalism relies on Christmas to make the third quarter.  Light in the darkness, in its own distorted way.

As I sit for these quiet moments in the glow of only a tree, I think of those for whom the holiday has become a kind of disappointment.  Not a cheery Christmas thought, I know, but an honest one.  As families grow and diversify the childhood Christmas of excited children scrambling under the tree to excavate the next gift for me starts to fade.  Our economic system separates, and the dearth of days off around the holidays makes travel back to childhood homes difficult.  We do the best we can, but the fact is the sixties (speaking for me) are over.  Our reality is colder and darker than it used to be.  I part the curtains and look for any sign of dawn.  It will be a few hours yet before the sun brightens this winter sky, but then, that’s what the holiday has come to mean for me.  At least this year, it is the hope of light returning.  And that, alone, makes it a holiday.

Evangelical Angels

Angels are everywhere at this time of year.  The Christmas stories of the gospels of Matthew and Luke have made them an indelible part of the tradition.  It’s not unusual for entirely secular individuals to be decorating with them and they are generally without controversy in public displays of holiday spirit.   A colleague once asked me why Americans were so credulous when it comes to a belief in angels—the numbers of believers are quite high, statistically.  I wonder if it’s because we need them.  Considering that the Republican Party is the Evangelical’s party, it’s no small wonder that even atheists embrace angels.  We all could use a little help from on high.  This time of year, such hope can be disguised behind tinsel and bows.

America must seem a strange country to those who immigrate (or had immigrated, when that was possible).  We wear our religiosity—and this is not the same thing as true religion—not only on our Christmas trees, but even on billboards by decidedly secular highways.  It’s as if even all the things America stands for, such as love of money, guns, and automobiles, only hold together with the saccharine glue of a sickly sweet religion.  A Bible-believing nation that has no idea what the Bible actually says and lauds a president who breaks at least a commandment a day and gains no reprimands.  We have shown our red neck to the rest of the world and yee-haw we are proud of it.  And we got the Good Book to prove it.

After all this shakes out we’ll be needing some angels, I suspect.  My colleague felt that sophisticates, big city skeptics, ought to be more willing to dismiss unenlightened beliefs such as those in spiritual beings.  The thing is, spiritual beings serve a very useful purpose.  They keep us honest—and I don’t mean in an Evangelical way; I’ve seen Evangelical honesty and it’s as corrupt as the Devil.  No, I mean that angels are important to show that we have hope.  Maybe they are secular angels—even the Bible doesn’t give any description of them at all, so how can you tell a secular from a religious angel?  That lack of pedigree doesn’t mean we don’t want them watching over us.  Belief is an important part of being human, secular or not.  The billboard space tends to go to those who want your money, and that applies to the ones that appear to be religious as well.  If this is the way the religious behave, we’d better hope there are angels everywhere.

Russian into Things

It’s the holiday season.  The people I overheard at the bus stop the other day were discussing shopping on the bus.  It can be a long trip from here, and evening traffic out of New York (ironically) is quite heavy this time of year.  Bored commuters, sitting on the bus with their phones, shop.  I couldn’t help but notice that I was the only one with the overhead light on during the fully dark ride home this week.  At one point the driver seemed to think it was a mistake on my part and snapped it off.  I carry a book light with me for just such eventualities, but I had that odd feeling one gets when everyone else got the memo but you didn’t.  In any case, I was reading a physical book, not shopping.

Then I read about a book I need for my research.  Problem is, I don’t have an institution, or a wealthy sponsor, so I often buy books used.  Back in my teaching days Amazon was new, and the idea of buying books online foreign and unfamiliar.  Now you can’t find a bookstore when you want one.  In any case, this particular book was on offer on eBay.  Now, I haven’t used eBay for quite a while.  I never think of it as a place to find reading material, but there it was.  Who would’ve thought research would ever lead in this direction?  The price was reasonable, so I signed in as a guest and placed my order.  With out of print books like this you run the risk of price-gouging or sudden unavailability—the independent researcher’s nightmare.

When the confirmation page came up, I couldn’t help but notice that the header was in Russian.  I wondered if Trump’s dream had really finally come true, or if the eBay on which I ordered an out-of-print book was really a trap.  How do you find out?  Who do you tell when your current government is completely at the beck and call of the Russian government?  I was in a brown study for a while.  The book, used, on Amazon was listed at over a thousand dollars, and this for a paperback published in 2009.  People will pay quite a lot for certain books, even if they don’t retain their resale value.  Ideas, it seems, are worth more than money.  But we no longer have a government to protect our interests.  Not even research, it seems, is safe any more.

If you squint, he could be St. Nick

Christmas at the Bus Stop

I had to make one of my periodic treks into New York City this week.  Unlike most years when a warm spell comes after the onset of winter, we’ve kind of fallen straight to the heart of the season this year and those of us standing in line for the bus were experiencing it via wind chill.  The cold got some regulars to talking about Christmas.  Although I’m not the oldest one who makes this long trip, the majority of the commuters this far out have yet to attain my years.  Those chatting at the stop had kids at home that still believe in Santa Claus.  It made me recall how we trick our kids with all kinds of quasi-religious folkloric figures, but also how seriously some adults participate in the mythology as well.

Among those chatting, the leaving out of cookies and carrots was almost canonical.  The cookies are for Santa, of course, and the carrots for the reindeer.  The more I pondered this, the more it became clear that this is a form of thank offering.  The story of Bel and the Dragon, in the Apocrypha additions to Daniel, tell of how priests leave out food for an idol.  The offering is gone in the morning and the credulous worshippers assume the statue has eaten it.  Religious offerings, except those entirely burnt up, were often used to support priesthoods.  Santa has his elfly acolytes, of course, but the priesthood for his cult is that of parents eager to make Christmas a special time for their children.  Capitalism’s big pay-off.

Then one of the commuters mentioned how she had her husband leave a footprint in the fireplace ash to add verisimilitude to the ruse.  We never had a fireplace when I was growing up, and I often wondered how Santa got in when we had no chimney to come down.  In any case, my hazy morning mind thought once again of Daniel and Bel.  The way that wily Daniel exposed the fraudulent priests was by sprinkling—you guessed it—a fine layer of ash around the offering after the priests had “left” for the night.  In the morning he showed the people the footprints of the deceptive heathens to the people.  The statue hadn’t eaten the food after all!  Serious consequences followed.  Christmas, despite its commercialization, brings fond childhood memories to many of us, and we’re reluctant to let that go.  The one man in on the discussion (it wasn’t me) said that when he was growing up they had a somewhat different offering.  “My dad,” he said, “told us to leave Santa a beer and a sandwich.”  This guy’s name might’ve been Daniel.