That seems to be one of the most consistent impulses surrounding the Winter Solstice holiday that has evolved into our Western Christmas and concurrent religious observances, often lumped together as "the holidays" as if they all occur at precisely the same time, even on years like this one when Hanukkah concluded on December 9th.
Gift-giving is obviously paramount to the holidays these days, since without retailers to remind us of our obligations to our loved ones and mere acquaintances as early as late September, what would a modern holiday season be? But an even more basic and ancient impulse was simply to ward off the darkness a little bit by lighting a candle.
It's hard to imagine a time when things like candles on a tree—or the safer alternative of flashing LED lights—were not merely symbolic holiday tropes, but there was such a time, and I think the deal of how it all started was as basic as this. Year after year, after the harvest and first frosts had passed, people noticed that the days were getting so short that it seemed, at the rate they were going, they would eventually disappear (thus the need to appease the sun gods) and the growing cold from the retreating sun only exacerbated the feeling of darkness. People huddled inside around their fires much of the day, and probably grew more guarded and fearful of the world outside—and they had reason to be. Their children may not survive the winter.
It was a brazen, foolhardy and generous impulse to run out into the cold, dark village lane or town square with a torch and an amphora of wine or horn of mead to share with one's neighbors. But after enough of the stuff had been imbibed, and with everyone glutted on the slaughtered livestock who wouldn't be surviving the winter, anyway, a merry mood was inevitable. It all must have happened quite naturally.
And that's the problem with the modern Christmas, lamented by Bethlehem-minded observers like "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz in 1965 as well as more secular-minded critics holding an equally dim view of commercialism today: Nothing about it seems quite real.
But the thing is, it isn't that the rest of our modern lives feels solid and substantial, and only our Christmas is phony. It's that our comfortable, everyday world is made of aluminum, polystyrene, and silicon (or silicone), and our Christmas is no exception. Our Christmas is part and parcel of our time, just like it was for the Victorians (and it's hard to say now exactly how the Victorian Christmas was before its repackaging by nostalgia) and yet our Christmas still seems somehow wrong to us—because it doesn't match up to Dickens or even to that 1965 "Peanuts" cartoon. Everyone (or so it seems) wants to be old-fashioned at Christmas, but very few know how, and the uninitiated are afraid those few will take their secret recipes to the grave.
Who would be familiar with the work of Currier and Ives these days if they weren't enshrined in a familiar carol? What the heck is a wassail, anyway? If it's spiked, as I presume it is, I'm game, but I hope someone else knows the recipe. (Yes, it is, and here is the recipe.) But who has the time to bake, construct and decorate a gingerbread house? A few very dedicated purists here and there, and some TV pastry chefs.
To most of us, it's just another trope, like the holly and the ivy (medieval symbols for male and female, "when they are both full grown"--and you can guess which medieval gender is the bright, upstanding holly and which the clinging ivy) or Santa Claus (an incarnation of the Norse god Odin later melded with a 4th Century Greek saint ) and Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, who at least makes the misfit in all of us feel more at home at a time when it seems everyone else knows where they belong in the scheme of this holiday thing.
The two-to-three-month buildup to Christmas has a way of making the most romantic among us feel like Grinches. On December 23rd, I found myself humming "Eleanor Rigby" instead of "Deck the Halls." I knew so many people newly or long-single, geographically distant or estranged from their families for whom I could only imagine this season to be a long, grim slog.
Should we tag as foul-spirited Grinches anyone who feels a bit cranky at all the product-peddling clichés whirling around them? I don't think so. Even with family to go home to and with a loving partner at my side, the pressure of the season had been grating on my nerves, aided by a perennial case of seasonal affective disorder. This year, I hoped for a light therapy box under my tree.
For the reluctant among us, instead of just "Consume, consume," the advertisers have to sell the idea of Christmas first, and often do so by implying that all would-be consumers have a dormant sense of Christmas buried deep inside them that is just waiting to be sparked. Maybe one of their more scientifically-minded consultants convinced them there is some kind of Christmas gene, and one of the ways it's expressed is by making the phenotype in question rush down to the Apple store or Jared, The Galleria of Jewelry.
If Charles Schulz were still around and someone managed to convince him to make a second sequel to his famous "Peanuts" Christmas cartoon, what might he have to say about the way commercialism has truly blossomed since 1965, and even 1992, when the first sequel was aired—about how it's exploded into the full-grown monstrosity that it is today?
What might he say about all the ways we've found to imitate items once found in nature or even the factory with digital, virtual representations of them? (At least a pink aluminum Christmas tree exists in three dimensions.)
If he were a paleo-pagan instead of a Protestant, (although it's interesting to note that later in life he referred to himself as a secular humanist ) what might he, speaking for our ancestors, say about what has happened to the simple impulse to light a candle rather than cursing the darkness, and to share a little of what makes a person merry with one's neighbors and friends?
Oh, sure, it didn't take long even for the ancients to pin down this impulse into stagnant ritual. That's one of the things groups of humans do best—suck the feeling out of something and replace it with a "how-to" manual, and then put the manual up for sale, along with some devotional trinkets. That's no modern phenomenon.
What we've managed to innovate in the last century or so is a world where, due to our cleverness, our success as a species, we don't need candles to light our dark nights anymore, and so we've logically come to believe that all we need is the idea of a candle, the trope of a candle cut into a rough shape for a cookie or synthetic fabric mold.
I have to emphasize that I count myself as someone who is in favor of the future—meaning that I detest the idea of cursing progress, proclaiming all that's modern to be corrupt and decadent, because much of what we have built for ourselves over the millennia has proven light years better than what we started out with, and not only with regard to technology. Much of our way of thinking about our fellow human beings is more inclusive and tolerant and less self-serving and violent. Although we obviously have a long way to go along that path, on the whole we are kinder and gentler.
But I do think we might do well, in the midst of hunkering down and wishing coziness and comfort for me and mine, to remember the despair, and disparity, that persists in the world outside our weatherproof doors—in the parts of the world map lit up by the electric grid and the parts that as of yet are not—and light a candle with that darkness in mind.
Apparently Goethe's apocryphal last words "More light!" turn out to be a posterity-minded paraphrase of his more banal instruction to "Open the second shutter so that more light may come in." Does it really matter, though? Letting the sun in is one way of letting the world in, and maybe the reverse is also true.
Thanks for reading—here's wishing you a happy and luminous New Year!
Because there's much in the world I don't know (but the World Wide Web does) I consulted these sources: