Reflecting on Light

Now that we’re approaching the winter solstice, light is pretty much on the minds of those of us in the northern hemisphere.  Or lights.  The use of Christmas lights and Hanukkah lights may have symbolic value to the religions that promote them, but both also reflect the pagan use of sympathetic magic to bring back the light.  Human beings tend to be visually oriented, and many of us feel the increasing darkness deeply.  Days are brief enough to be awake for the entirety of daylight’s duration, and then you still have to get home after work.  After dark.  All our enlightened hours are spent for the benefit of the company.  It takes its toll.  And so we string holiday lights, bringing cheer into the preternaturally long hours starved for illumination.

Although the snow hasn’t stayed around here, I did notice an interesting reflection of light outdoors the other day.  The windows of a house were casting a light-shadow on a fence that had the look of a cross.   It took some convincing to assure me that this was pareidolia—the assigning of intentionality to random “signal.”  We see faces where they don’t really exist, and when we see crosses in this evangelical haven of America we have to assume they’re intentional.  Sometimes, however, they’re simply a trick of the light.  The sun has a low angle this time of year, and the light that is otherwise scattered back into what is wonderfully termed airglow—the natural illumination caused by sunlight as its luminosity brightens the daytime sky—is focused lower.  Light takes shape and sometimes it seems religious.

 

In New York City, where repeated patterns are pervasive, such reflections often appear on neighboring buildings as “X-Files” symbols of Xs in circles, giving the city a mysterious look.  Out here, however, they appear as crosses.  You see what you want to see.  Or, sometimes you can’t help seeing what appears utterly obvious to credulous eyes.  I’ve had people insist that crosses like this are intentional.  In reality, they’re a natural result of rectangles reflecting the morning light when the sun follows its low profile ecliptic during the waning of the year.  That doesn’t mean that it can’t be read for something else, of course,  Religion is all about interpretation.  Light forms patterns and seems strong enough to banish darkness.  And given how many hours it’s dark these days, I’m willing to take what help I can get.  The solstice will soon be here.

X-mas Time

As predictable as crocuses in early spring are the controversies that crop up around holiday billboards. Even living in the quite blue state of New Jersey, I see plenty of advocating for the keeping of Christ in Christmas that the “keep Christ in Christie” campaign seems to lack. This year, however, the American Atheists billboard kerfuffle has shifted to Memphis and Nashville. There protests have been lodged that using children on “holidays for all” billboards is a kind of exploitation. And as we all prepare for the visit of baby Jesus, or Santa Claus, or any variety of mythical nighttime visitors, American Atheists are only asking that we all share the presents. It is an odd kind of culture war. Christmas, as we’ve long known, predates Christ. The holiday was usurped from pagan tradition and baptized into a holy day that was barely observed until the nineteenth century. The commercialization of the holiday gave it the current shape we recognize, and some Christian groups feel compelled to reclaim it in a kind of cultural crusade that will only end with complete acquiescence.

This is a holy war in which neither side is right. In the work-a-day world that I inhabit Christmas is above all a long weekend with a respite from the drudgery of a long commute to ensure that the system continues. Thousands stream into New York City, which, amazingly, does seem to transform for the holidays. The city that is, for most of the year, cold and heartless, suddenly displays a more human face. Giant wreaths and tall trees appear, bright decorations hang in windows. Menorahs and dreidels become manifest. Signs of Kwanzaa or other solstice-related holidays are evident for those who know how to spot them. People in general seem more generous than usual. Even many businesses relax their time-grabbing strictures a bit. Christmas did not begin as a Christian holiday, nor, it seems, will it ever be fully supersessionist.

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Celebration, I would suggest, is worth celebrating. Should atheists use a poster-child for the secular celebration of the holiday season? Should Christians have displays of mangers on church property where all passers by can see? Should Mensch on a Bench be displayed in stores? Should Santa be advocating for corporate giants who only want us to spend? Perhaps the answers are obvious. In my mind they are. We gather our families in, and in the northern style that has always resonated deeply with me, we look out the window and await the coming of the purifying snow.

When Darkness Reigns

I recently read an article about the Druids. The fact is, historically speaking, we know little of them. They are mysterious and silent and irrevocably linked in the imagination with the solstices. Cultures throughout the northern climes of the northern hemisphere have always treated the winter solstice with an extreme reverence. It is the day of the year when it seems like light just can’t come in any shorter supply. In the depths of that desperation, offerings are made to ensure that tomorrow, if only by the merest moments, the day will be longer. And so we begin the lengthy climb through frigid days to the point six months from now when light will reign supreme. We don’t know, historically, if the Druids gave the great significance to equinoxes and cross-quarter days that the Celts eventually incorporated into their religion, but we do know that much of the monumental architecture of the United Kingdom and Ireland is oriented toward the sun’s feeblest rays at the winter solstice. Stonehenge, New Grange, Maes Howe, and the list could go on and on. We are waiting for light.

Lawrence Hall of Science; photo credit: Tim Ereneta (Wikipedia Commons)

Lawrence Hall of Science; photo credit: Tim Ereneta (Wikipedia Commons)

The solstice seems to creep up on me these days. I work in a cubicle with no outdoor light visible. I leave for work in the dark and arrive home in the dark. I’m inclined to offer up prayers to Odin while I while away the hours before an unresponsive computer monitor. Business has already shut down in all but the greediest minds by this time of year. It is time to hibernate and await a brighter tomorrow. Even in the darkness there can be light. This weekend I attended a Hanukkah celebration, and looking at the menorah I was struck once again how fervently we seek light this time of year. Of course, Hanukkah is connected with the rededication of the temple after the desecration of the Seleucids, but is it coincidence that the candles are lit near the solstice? Perhaps I’m getting too old to believe in coincidences.

In the ancient apocalyptic mind, light and darkness were bitter enemies. Of course, today we recognize that people generally use eyesight as a primary way of interacting with the world—of keeping us from danger. With our diminished senses of hearing and smell, we feel vulnerable when we can’t see our potential predators. Light is the key to our successful preservation. Today technology has taken the place of ritual. We have artificial lights to help lengthen our working hours. We eschew the limitations of being associated with the earth’s rhythms. We are the masters of our own domain, and we can keep the forty-hour work-week going on all but the most insistent of holidays. Perhaps the wisdom of the Druids needs to be rediscovered. Perhaps only then will natural light really return.

Thanksgivukkah

A moveable feast is hard to hit. Or something like that. Religious festivals are frequently tied to celestial events—the ancient Jewish holidays are based on a lunar calendar which, we all know, is out of synch with the solar one. This is the reason that for Christians Easter migrates around the spring calendar, even if different branches of Christianity peg the resurrection on various dates. Curiously, no one has suggested going back to c. 33 C.E., fixing the date of Passover that year, and giving a calendrical date for Easter. It sure would make planning a lot easier. In any case, a week or so ago there was a flurry of lighthearted commentary on “Thanksgivukkah,” the fact that Hanukkah and Thanksgiving occur at the same time this year. Both are moving feasts, and they just happened to bump into each other this year.

Thanksgiving is a modern holiday, emerging with the Protestant penchant for giving thanks for surviving in a harsh, new world. The United States government (which was not shut down at the time) finally regularized the date of the holiday to the fourth Thursday in November, giving the commercial world it’s only regular 4-day weekend. Christmas, not a moveable feast, cycles around the days of the week, giving employers a great sense of glee when it falls on a weekend so that employees may be given only a token Friday or Monday off. The day after Thanksgiving, however, is thankspending, as American a holiday as one can conceive. Hanukkah is also a roving feast. Celebrating the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem after being defiled by the Seleucids, it has taken on many of the trappings of Christmas over the years, but it can come as early as late November, as Thanksgivukkah demonstrates.

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Holidays, in this secular world, have come to represent something for which the Sabbath originally stood. The idea was that people needed a break from work. Despite all the studies that show more breaks make people more productive, our culture glorifies the over-worker. The reason, clearly, is not productivity, but control. I recall a lawyer once drawing a large circle on a newsprint pad and telling me, “this represents what your employer can do to you.” He drew a tiny circle in the middle of the large one and said, “and this is what your employer can do to you that is considered illegal.” Yes, we are a society that has never really gotten over the idea of indentured servitude. Little things like holidays overlapping keep us amused, while still at our desks. Hanukkah lasts for eight days. Christmas for twelve. But don’t try to take all that off—you might like coming back to work refreshed a little too much. Instead, why don’t you try making those bricks by finding your own straw? Everyone will benefit from this pyramid scheme.

Chrismahanukwanzadan

Happy holidays from a pluralistic world! Whenever I see the “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs that crop up this time of year, I think of the wonderful profusion of holidays that people from most faiths can share without being territorial about it. After all, the Pagans got there first—the Christian Christmas predates Jesus by centuries, it turns out. So when my daughter wished me a happy Chrismahanukwanzadan—from a mix of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Ramadan—I had to smile. Seems like some in the younger generation are really starting to get it. It doesn’t matter what you call it, but a holiday that celebrates people getting along is worth the effort. Being possessive of our holidays rings of hollow triumphalism—I feel happy because I have something that you don’t. Is this really the spirit of this secular season of giving wrapped in many confessional names? I’m sure shepherds and Magi didn’t exactly share a Weltanschuung.

Those who despair the lack of Christmas have not spent much time with history. As a cultural holiday the celebration of Christmas is younger than the United States, at least in this context. From the beginning Christmas was a pastiche of traditions from different religions celebrating aspects of Odin, Sol Invictus, Jesus, and Zarathustra, at the very least. Bringing these religious figures together into a season that represents the human need for light amid a dark and cold time of year, who would want to exclude others from their own holiday traditions? Having stood in the bleak fields of the Orkney Islands in a massive stone circle aligned to the winter solstice and constructed over a millennium before the birth of Christianity, I have to believe Christmas is one of the earliest expressions of human desire and certainly not limited to Christians.

What makes a holiday holy? Is it exclusive rights like those slapped on every movie you pop into the DVD player? The trademarking of an idea someone else thought of? Religions have a long history of forsaking the spirit of the law for the letter—its most familiar name is dogma. No matter who came up with the idea of doing what we can to bring a little light back into the dreary world around the time when night seems unending, it is a cause that any person of any religion, or none at all, can fully appreciate. Instead of marking territory, should not those who claim Christmas as their own be glad to share it with all? If the one who’s birth the church proclaims at this time of year in no way improves our outlook to others we might wonder if there should be cause to celebrate at all. My answer, such as it is, is Happy Chrismahanukwanzadan!

A holiday in anyone's book

A holiday in anyone’s book

Darkest Night

One of the more endearing of human weaknesses is our fear of the dark. For those who live north of the equator, we have just experienced our longest night. It is no coincidence that the religious holidays that occur in winter feature light. In our helplessness against the encroaching darkness, we light our Christmas trees and Hanukkah candles, adding just a bit more light to the world. Among the oldest of all holidays is the day that marks the birth of light’s resurrection. One need not be a pagan to appreciate the solstice and the inherent hope it bears for the return of the sun.

In this season we often see signs and hear laments about the absence of Christ from Christmas. Jesus was not born in winter, according to our best reckoning. One of the carols that drives me mad with distraction is “In the Bleak Midwinter” with its maudlin description of “snow on snow on snow”—clearly written by someone with limited experience of winters in Israel. Christmas falls near the solstice because people have from earliest memory recognized the sacredness of this season. When Jesus was born nobody knew he was to become so famous as to have one of the most popular Facebook pages ever, and so nobody thought to write it down. Even the Gospels the disciples never give a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” while on the dusty highway. What we’re celebrating is that night will not reign forever.

Having evolved to favor our eyesight, but lacking the standard mammalian nocturnal nature, we feel vulnerable in the dark. Even if Jesus hadn’t been born we’d be celebrating at this time of year. It might have been the re-living of the mythic Golden Age of humanity under Saturn that the Romans called Saturnalia, or it might have been the rejoicing over the resurrection of the beloved god Balder among the Norse. We might have had to wait until the days were noticeably longer to fete the goddess Brigid with the Celts at Imbolc, but we would have marked the occasion. Instead of cursing the pagan darkness, as the saying goes, we would light our feeble candles as a sign of hope. The reason for the season is the fact that the longest night is over and once more our days will slowly return light to our lives.

Here comes the sun

Happy Whatever

Over the past couple months I had been interviewing for a position at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in Manhattan. Although I did not get the position, I still recommend the center for those who are dealing with religious conflict. One of Tanenbaum’s concerns is the “December dilemma.” The month of December is dominated by the celebration of Christmas, and many people are barely hanging onto sanity awaiting those few days off near the end of the year to catch their breath before jumping back into all of it again. Yet, with the continual mixing of cultures and traditions that makes America such an interesting place, other traditions have difficulty competing with Christmas. Well, it is hard to compete with such a capitalistic holiday, one that is based around getting stuff.

There has been a movement afoot in recent years to mash the December holidays together. One such movement is the celebration of Chrismukkah, albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Hanukkah naturally falls around the usual time of Christmas, and Kwanzaa was created to add yet more texture to the month. Despite all this, Christmas is still predominant. As I tell my students, the mindset of America as a whole (not demographic or even factual, but perceptual) continues to be Protestant Christian. Apart from Kennedy all of our presidents bear this out. And Protestants, although they don’t care much for the “mas”part, are big Christmas fans.

A Dickensian Christmas

A few years back I wrote a book for tweens that examined the roots and traditions of the major American holidays. (So far publishers haven’t been impressed.) One of the facts I learned about Christmas is that its celebration as a major holiday is a recent phenomenon. Before the nineteenth century Christmas was barely noted in America at all. In the wake of Charles Dickens and his influential stories, Christmas became an institution that celebrated family and home and goodwill. Eventually it grew into a major commercial holiday and everyone wanted to get in on the fun. Now we have a largely secular Christmas and other religions are eager to join in the non-confessional part of the holiday. Everyone would like to have Christmas day off work (except the clergy), and those who don’t have it feel lonely, I’m sure. I don’t see the reason for the big fuss about whose holiday it is. Christmas is symbolic of peace and togetherness, and no matter what it is called or who claims ownership, this is by far the superior path over religious fear and hatred.