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Light a Candle for Life

Christmas customs once welcomed the returning sun

Copyright 1996 by Lynna Landstreet. This column originally appeared in Xtra magazine. Published by Pink Triangle Press, 491 Church Street, 2nd Floor, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4Y 2C6.

As this issue of Xtra hits the streets, pre-Christmas shopping will be entering its final frenzied moments, queers across the city will be battling with their parents over whether their lovers can come home with them -- or simply trying to get up their nerve to tell their parents in the first place -- and somewhere in the midst of it all, unnoticed by most people, the winter solstice will be almost upon us.

The passing of the seasons, and the processes of nature in general, can be strikingly easy to ignore when you live in a major metropolis. And when they do make themselves known, there's often a sense of outrage that nature would dare to intrude on our sanctum. We're all familiar with the people who stand shivering at the bus stop, complaining bitterly about the cold, while wearing a jeans jacket and running shoes. Actually dressing appropriately for the season would be a sign of surrender, an abandonment of the fondly, if unconsciously, held belief that we are in control -- that nature has no power here.

But I'm sure most of us have noticed that the days have grown extremely short. On some level, we're aware that this is the darkest time of the year. Officially, the winter solstice is the beginning of winter, but in terms of the sun's cycles, it could just as easily be thought of as midwinter. This Saturday, Dec 21, will be the shortest day, and the longest night of the year. But does that really mean anything to us anymore?

I think it does. For one thing, a lot of the Christmas customs that most of us, whether we consider ourselves Christians or not, still follow have their roots in pagan solstice celebrations. Each year, there are always a few rabid fundies ranting about how mistletoe and Christmas trees are really barbaric heathen customs that all good Christians should avoid, and in a sense they're quite right -- though to me, that makes them all the more worth practicing.

To make sense of our residual solstice customs, let's start by thinking of what winter meant to our pagan ancestors. For them, it was far more than just an annoying intrusion of nature into human territory; it was a dangerous, terrifying, often life-threatening time. Without central heating and imported food, freezing and starving are very real possibilities. In early societies, the coming of winter meant not a shopping frenzy, but looking around the fire, wondering which of you would make it through to the following spring alive and which would succumb to cold or hunger.

Seen in this light, the solstice celebrations were a celebration of life in the face of death, a sign of hope and determination that, in spite of everything, life will somehow go on. The prevalence of solar imagery, fire and candles in today's celebrations may well stem back to these roots -- lighting the fires of hope to bring back the sun, and ensure the continuance of life.

The Christmas tree itself is thought by some to have originally been part of a sympathetic magic ritual to bring life back to the woods. Fruit and nuts were hung on the tree to induce other trees to bear fruit, threads and fine chains were added to represent rain, and candles were placed on the branches, symbolic of the sun's light. This is the origin of the balls, tinsel, and lights that are used today.

Holly and mistletoe were used as fertility symbols, with their green leaves representing the continuance of life, and the berries themselves tiny wombs with the seed of life inside. The mistletoe's white berries and the red of the holly symbolized semen and menstrual blood, respectively. And the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from the older tradition of hanging it over the bed for ritual sex, another form of sympathetic magic representing the union of sun and earth. (Note that I take no responsibility for the fate of anyone attempting to reinstate this custom in its original form at their office Christmas party.)

The giving of gifts represented the greatest of all gifts, the return of life, but there was also a practical purpose. The gifts given were usually necessities, made by the people who gave them, which would help to make life more tolerable for the rest of the winter, and increase the chances of survival. Thinking of gift-giving in this light can be an effective antidote to the crazed commercialism that so often characterizes this time of year now.

Too often, the Christmas season becomes a time of stress and depression, bringing with it family tensions, money worries, and compulsory participation in increasingly empty rituals. But I think that a little of the original importance of the season can be restored by getting back to basics. We're not so cushioned from the realities of life that no one looks toward the winter with fear. Think of the people who might not make it through this winter, and try giving a solstice gift to a homeless person or someone in an AIDS hospice. And then, on the longest and darkest night of the year, light a candle for the return of life, and hope.


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