Humanity needs a party in the middle of winter


It was a calming experience earlier this month to spend a weekend in a house by the River Boyne, watching the mid-winter sun rise over the fields of stubble and silhouette the bare-branched trees. Christmas provokes such conflicting emotions, the achievement of its promise is such a challenge at this traffic-clogged, muzak-bedevilled time of year that there in Co Meath, the 5,000-year Irish tradition of celebrating the mid-winter solstice seemed much more appealing. There was a time in my life when the contradictions between the austere Christian message of giving and the reality of the modern Christmas, between beggars on the street and crammed shopping centres, were almost insuperable obstacles to enjoying the season.

Older and less earnest, a giver of the feast as well as a recipient, I am most reconciled to Christmas when I remember its pre-Christian roots. The need for a good party in the middle of winter seems to be as old as humanity. Why agonise about it?

The feast of Saturnalia would have been well underway today in Imperial Rome. On December 17th the Romans would have begun a week of feasting and exchanging gifts. They did no work and gave their slaves temporary freedom. Green boughs and lights decorated their buildings.

The Roman festival coincided with the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere. When in 274 AD the Emperor Aurelian lengthened the two-day Saturnalian celebrations to a week-long festival for the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun" he was treading a well-worn path. The Mesopotamians, the Persians, the pre-Celtic Irish all had celebrations in mid-winter.

Our ancestors, the builders of Newgrange in Co Meath, took sun worship seriously. Scholars estimate that to construct the great passage tomb in the Boyne valley would have taken a well-organised work force of some 400 people at least 16 years requiring them to abandon farming for two months each year after the spring sowing. This week, if the rising sun is not obscured by cloud, it will flood the tomb's inner chamber as they designed it should.

I once stood in the inner chamber waiting for the solstice sunrise, before it was today's sought-after privilege. I had come from a night spent in a freezing cottage with that summer's team of student guides, introduced by my sister. The sun rose behind clouds and, with no sunlight penetrating the chamber, the cold reached even deeper into our bones. It took little imagination to realise that had we lived in Neolithic houses and depended on the surrounding land for our survival, we would have celebrated the return of lengthening days.

The Pueblo and Hopi tribes of North America had solstice celebrations. Early Scandinavians sent scouts to mountain tops to report the first sign of the sun's return after weeks of darkness, then celebrated by burning Yule logs.

When Christianity became the official religion of Rome in the fourth century AD, it annexed the solstice festival and December 25th was chosen to celebrate Christ's birth. It was an uneasy grafting of feasts. In 17th century England and Massachusetts, Puritans tried to ban Christmas, offended by its hedonism.

Hans Kung, the German Catholic theologian, reflected in On Being A Christian that while the stories of the nativity were legendary and theologically motivated, peopled with "dream happenings", like angels entering and leaving, they were clearly not historical accounts, but were true in their own way. The Christmas feast had been emptied of meaning not by historical criticism but by its trivialisation to "a romantic idyll, a cosy private affair" and its "ruthless commercialisation".

Christ's birth was about "the humiliation of the mighty and the exaltation of the humble - a militant announcement of a revision of priorities".

"The apparently idyllic Christmas story has very real social-critical (and in the broadest sense, political) implications."

How celebrate this challenging legend and meet the primordial need to party in mid-winter? How reconcile filling a shopping trolley to the accompaniment of Feed the World?

Last December in the Republic we bought 20 per cent more goods than four years previously. Is this a consequence of population growth or over-exuberance? The population is estimated to have grown by only 3 per cent over that period but employment grew by close to 20 per cent - some 260,000. So more of us have something to celebrate these Christmases. It would be easier to celebrate wholeheartedly were we not aware that conspicuous consumption and inequality are growing simultaneously, that Mary and Joseph would be ejected from their B & B on Christmas morning.

What message do we choose to give our children about this confusing feast? We add another symbol - that jolly old elf, the transmutation of the 4th-century bishop St Nicholas of Myra. In sustaining his image, we adults find a way at last to reconcile the pagan and divine in us. He condones pleasure - in giving and receiving.

In 1897 a celebrated New York Sun editorial responded to eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon's question: "Is there a Santa Claus?"

"He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist and you know that they abound and give your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas, how dreary the world would be if there were no Santa Claus, as dreary as if there were no Virginias. No Santa Claus? Thank God, he lives and lives forever."

Have a good one.