A Few Days

My fellow blogger over at Verbomania (worth following!) posted a piece on the word Romjul.  In case you haven’t read the post, Romjul is the Norwegian word for the period between Christmas and New Year’s Day.  It’s kind of a liminal period.  Not really holiday and not really not holiday, in northern climes it’s often cold and dark and you don’t feel like getting out to do much.  In many reasonable parts of the world it’s a given that this should be time off from work.  With all the preparation that goes into Christmas and the standard convention of starting the New Year with a freebie, and the fact that the days of the week for the holidays are movable, it just makes sense.  In these developed States, holidays are left to employers.  Mine granted two days off: Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.  What are your choices when they fall on Wednesday?

Romjul gave me a good feeling.  I cashed in a vacation day or two to take some time off.  The years when I’ve worked between the holidays I’ve found nobody in their offices or answering email, and that led to long hours of waiting for the work day to end so that I could actually do something productive.  In America we love our work.  At least employers love our work.  I talked to a young man who had to cut his holiday short to be into work on Monday, December 29.  He’d just returned from an international trip, but his employer insisted he be there.  There was no work he could do because his colleague whose input he needed had taken that day off.  Work is like that.

I recalled a snow day when I had to commute daily to New York City.  New Jersey Transit got me as far as Newark but the trains were shut down from there.  I had to take a PATH train that took me close to my Midtown location.  It was running late.  A woman was panicking about not being on time.  A wise, older gentleman said, “Employers just want you to show up.  They’re not looking for a full, productive day of work.  They just want you to come in.”  I believe he was right.  Employers like to make their puppets jump, no matter if there’s anybody there to watch the show.  In a civilized world, as in much of Europe, we would celebrate Romjul.  If not for religious reasons, then for simple humanitarian ones.  In late December we can all use a week off.

First Christmas Parable

The Christmas story is full of surprises.  This year near Bethlehem, a parable occurred to me.  Like many parables, it raises questions.  A question for all you men out there: when’s the last time you were pregnant?  Was it because some woman—who can’t be responsible for her urges—didn’t take proper precautions?  Isn’t this the way God punishes people for having the sexual intercourse he created?  Since God gave you an anatomy just like his, you certainly have priority in the cosmic scheme of things, but this pregnancy of yours—what are you going to do with it?  Oh, and don’t look to Onan for answers to your own urges; God stuck him dead for that kind of thing.  But that troubling “what if”… What if Mary had had a choice?  According to the Good Book she did.  “Be it unto me,” Mary said.  She could’ve said “No.”  Many men in your *ahem* delicate condition did not.  The problem with virginal conceptions is that people will talk.

Many people don’t remember at this time of year that Mary and Joseph were immigrants to Egypt.  Had the Nativity occurred today in these States that follow God’s word, Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus would’ve ended up in separate cages.  Wasn’t he born in a cage?  Oh, cave!  That’s definitely an improvement.  One wonders how the Gospel might’ve gone from there.  And what of those annoying buzzing creatures overhead calling for peace on earth?  Shoo!  Trade wars!  Tariffs!  Nuclear threats!  These were the gifts of the three wise men, were they not?  Or perhaps we should get biblical and follow Herod’s mandate.  Killing two-year-old boys isn’t abortion, after all.  After giving birth they’re your problem, not God’s.  You’ve got to get them born—that’s the most important thing.  And since women can’t possibly know what it’s like to be pregnant what are you going to say when they walk out and tell you, “It’s not my problem”?  “Be it unto me,” said Mary.

Shepherds, it should be noted, were the poor.  Ironically that first Christmas the good news was first revealed to them.  Herod, half-insane, kept shifting members of his government around.  He had put away his previous wives—perhaps because they made him pregnant—and assassinated all his rivals.  Unless that’s fake news—the old fox was known for that.  So the immigrant family thought it was safe to return after Herod was removed from office.  Jesus grew to espouse the message of love and acceptance—extending it even to foreigners.  The state, believing itself established by divine right, had him put to death.  It’s Christmas, and we’ve seen all this before.  If only those with eyes would see.  But parables, it seems, have gone out of style.

Shortest Day

This is it.  It’s here.  Today marks the winter solstice, the longest night.  Those who campaign to keep Christ in Christmas prefer not to acknowledge that the date of said holiday was an attempt to displace Sol Invictus, the Roman (therefore pagan) celebration of the invincible sun.  The Romans, like other ancient peoples, celebrated the return of light, albeit slowly, from darkness.  While teaching at Nashotah House a colleague mentioned being “almost pagan” in the eagerness for the return of light.  You can strike the “almost.”  Deep down we all look for signs of hope in dark times, whether Christian, Muslim, or Hindu.  “The people who walked in darkness,” Isaiah rejoiced, have seen light.  Sometimes light comes from an unexpected quarter.

There are two high circulation Christian magazines: Christianity Today and The Christian Century.  The latter is more progressive and was launched as an answer to the former.  One of the founders of Christianity Today was Billy Graham and its readership is largely evangelical.  Just yesterday Christianity Today ran an editorial stating the opinion that Trump should be removed from office.  If I were a card-carrying member of the Republican Church, I’d be trembling.  Long touted as “Trump’s base” evangelical Christians have found themselves besieged by the flagrant and constant contradictions their party has thrown them.  Fear of divorce was enough to keep at least one woman I know in an abusive relationship for years.  Now a thrice-married, philandering man who pays hush money to keep his affairs secret is upheld as the new Messiah.  Many of us who grew up evangelical were certain that their old tribe simply wouldn’t cotton onto a straw man.  But  cotton they did.  They’ve become the very lint in his miserly pockets.

Those encrusted with hardcore hatred, of course, will not be swayed.  They’ve found a poster boy who says it’s okay to claim white male supremacy.  They can pick their political issues (usually having to do with protecting the unborn or the right to shoot those already born) and they can be certain that this protean protestant will have their posteriors.  Their leadership, however, has begun to show itself clearsighted.  Christianity Today is no friend of liberal Christianity.  The editorial makes it clear that Democrats had it in for Trump from the beginning.  There is, however, absolutely clear evidence of his crimes.  Even as southern senators state outright that they have no interest in seeing a fair trial, their base is speaking up.  Tonight is the longest night of the year.  Tomorrow it will be a little bit lighter than today.  At this time of year we fervently hope that the light will continue to grow.

Steel and Snow

I sometimes feels I need to pause before launching back into my usual reflections.  Commercialism tells me the holiday season is here (I noticed while watching Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that the real highlight is Santa and the official start of Christmas).  Please don’t misunderstand—I love the holiday season and look forward to it every year.  It’s not that I want to get things or spend lots of money.  For me the holidays are about rest and respite from the constant stream of work that never really gets done.  I need to retreat once in a while.  Ensconce myself in a quiet room and not have to worry about the next crisis facing me as an editor or the publishing industry as a whole.  I do love the holidays, but I often wonder about how we’ve let their symbols become the main point.

Now that we live near “the Christmas City,” we attend the Christkindlmarkt in Bethlehem while family is home.  One of the more stark symbols of this festival is the juxtaposition of a Christmas tree against the now silent and rusting steel stacks of what used to be Bethlehem Steel.  The evergreen, of course, was a Teutonic symbol of life continuing in the midst of the shutdown of the growth season.  Nature hasn’t really died, although it may appear to have done so, but we feel that difficult times with short days and cold temperatures will now dominate our existence.  Our industrial efforts participate in this slowdown too.  What once identified one of Pennsylvania’s two steel cities has ceased an Bethlehem has had to adapt.  We see the change and wonder.  I grew up just north of Pittsburgh when it was a very large industrial city.  When I was in high school it was the 16th most populous city in the country.  Currently it’s 66th, with Charlotte, North Carolina holding its former place.  We adjust to changing seasons.

Christkindlmarkt is a lively place with four large tents dedicated to symbols of the season.  Christmas merchandise is a large part of it, of course.  Small business vendors, however, take advantage of the fact that crowds throng in.  Food, naturally, comes to hold a place of some significance as your blood sugar drops after spending a few hours on your feet.  Music is in the air and people don’t seem to mind the masses of others who all had the same idea.  I never purchase much at the event, but I enjoy being among those inspired by it.  Some of us are the rusty towers in the background, and others are the lively, decorated tree that stands before them.  The season has begun, and the symbols are open for interpretation.

Shortchanging Halloween

In a local mall over the weekend where Christmas decorations were being uncrated, I felt cheated.  Now I’m not naive enough to suppose retailers can get by without the black season around Christmas, but as a writer of books Halloween themed I felt as if my thunder were stolen.  The normal person, I suspect, thinks of scary things only about this time of year.  Monsters and horror films are on people’s minds in fall, even though a good horror flick will make a few bucks even in spring or summer.  Halloween has a very small window of appeal, however, followed on closely, as it is, by Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Why can’t we give Halloween its due?

My wife pointed out that Halloween is a big retail event.  Indeed it is.  I started noticing Halloween paraphernalia on the shelves fairly early in August.  I know that even without capitalistic prompting I start to sense the season then.  It’s in the air.  Certain early August mornings you can smell a faint whiff of autumn on a breeze slightly cooler than expected.  The first leaves start to change and fall before September.  It will be another couple of months before the season makes itself felt in full force, but the early hints are there.  A believer in delayed gratification, I hold back.  I  don’t buy, but I absorb.  The melancholy grows through September until as the calendar tells me it is now officially October I can begin to exhale.  This is the time when those of us who are horror misfits can seem somewhat normal.  I walk into a store and “Ho, ho, ho!”  The joke’s on me.

Autumn already slips by too quickly.  Every year before I know it the ephemeral beauty of changing leaves is gone and the subtle chill in the air turns frigid.  Damp leaves are raked up to make room for snow.  The swiftness of this season is perhaps one reason so many people value it.  Summer can stretch long with its uncomfortably warm days and winter can linger for nearly half the year with its opposite feel.  Halloween is a holiday that intentionally falls in the midst of transition.  That transition has been commercialized, however, into buying seasons.  Only halfway through October the price of Halloween goods drops to sale rates.  Corporate offices are chomping for Christmas cash.  What I really need is a walk through the fallen leaves and a few untrammeled moments to consider where we are rather than what we might earn.

Snow in September

One of the trendy things when I worked in United Methodist youth camp was “Christmas in July.”  Although not quite six months out, the idea was to inject some fun when it was starting to feel too hot out and, as evangelizing efforts go, to talk about Jesus.  The origins of this tradition predate me, actually.  Even secular camps were using the idea in the mid 1930s.  By introducing the mystery of the unexpected, I suppose it might’ve helped to deal with camper homesickness, a perennial problem.  It worked, in my experience, because nobody was really thinking about Christmas in July.  It was a ploy.  Just after the summer solstice, Christmas would have to wait until after the winter solstice to materialize.  Now this past week we observed the autumnal equinox.  I usually write a post about that, but I’ve been kind of distracted lately.

Over the weekend I had to head to a big box home goods store.  I prefer to visit our local independent hardware store, but they don’t carry lumber and I needed some.  I walked in to find the store decked out for Christmas in September.  This was just a bit disturbing.  It’s not even Halloween yet.  In fact, it’s not even October!  For many people in temperate regions autumn is their favorite season.  Harvest themes, apple and pumpkins, turning leaves, falling leaves, and Halloween.  Putting on the occasional sweater for the first time after a long and hot summer.  Big boxes are leaping past all that to get to your Christmas bucks, even while you still have to mow the lawn when you get home.

Okay, so I’m not the only one to grouch about the premature appearance of Santa Claus and the extreme commercialization of Christmas.   I know that Bethlehem is called “Christmas City,” but as we wandered to the Celtic Festival underway downtown, people were sweating in the eighty-degree heat.  The leaves have begun to turn around here, reminding us all that Halloween and Thanksgiving are coming.  The holiday season.  I enjoy it as much as anybody else, but I don’t want to rush it.  I suspect the internet has accustomed us to instant gratification.  You want it?  If you can type it and click on it, it can be at your doorstep in two days.  You don’t need to wait for Christmas to catch up any more.  Meanwhile our landfills overflow with the stuff we throw away from Christmases past.  Christmas in July I think I get.  Christmas in September is just a little too much.

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.