Tis the Season, more or less, even if we’re not sure what we are celebrating.
Common wisdom has it that the true believers who fill the malls and churches, and mug one and other in Wal-Mart’s on Thanksgiving night, in the name of Christmas, are celebrating the birth of Christ. Other’s claim the holiday’s commercial overtones have bleached the season of any and all spirituality.
Such dissension, such confusion, is understandable-even predictable-for little about Christmas is known for certain. Even the history of Christmas is murky at best. For instance, the Catholic Church didn’t decide to make December 25th the celebration of the birth of Jesus until almost 400 years after the death of Jesus.
In reality, for over four thousand years, there have been holidays which looked very much like Christmas and which have celebrated- among other deities and philosophies- the Zoroastrian God Mithras and the Roman God Saturn. Or maybe they were the same thing. Or, maybe we’ve- all of us- have always been celebrating the same thing: a common and deep seated desire to find our way of the darkness.
Of course, some church stalwarts have been those willing to acknowledge this cultural debt. St Augustine said ” we hold this (Christmas) day Holy, not like the pagans because of the Birth of the Sun, but because of the birth of him who made it.”
Yet, there are also those today who consider any questioning of the current commercial bacchanalia known as Christmas to be nothing less than a jihad on the celebration. Ultimately, however, history and reason demonstrate such demented and banal blathering to be short on evidence and reason.
Rather, history demonstrates that the equinox, on December 21rst, has always been a time when countless societies have celebrated the celestial event in which the hours of daylight finally come to exceed the hours of darkness. In short, throughout the world and throughout the ages, we’ve always been looking for a little more light, a little hope in the long night of darkness.
As one short history provides, “A winter festival was the most popular festival of the year in many cultures. Reasons included the fact that less agricultural work needs to be done during the winter, as well as an expectation of better weather as spring approached. Modern Christmas customs include: gift-giving and merrymaking from Roman Saturnalia; greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year; and Yule logs and various foods from Germanic feasts.
Pagan Scandinavia celebrated a winter festival called Yule, held in the late December to early January period. As Northern Europe was the last part to Christianize, its pagan traditions had a major influence on Christmas, especially Koleda, which was incorporated into the Christmas carol. Scandinavians still call Christmas Jul. In English, the word Yule is synonymous with Christmas, a usage first recorded in 900.”
As a photographer these long dark nights and gloomy days- at least in this part of the world- pose less spiritual, and more aesthetic, challenges. On its face, this part of the world is exceptionally ugly from December through March. All of nature seems composed of little but alternating shades of black, brown and gray.
To find something worth shooting outdoors, to find a scene which is colorful or memorable seems a very daunting task. And yet, as Matisse said, “there are always flowers for those who want to see them.”
I don’t celebrate Christmas, or Mithras or Saturn, but I do very much appreciate the coming of the light. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti means “the birthday of the unconquered sun”. The thought that the days are growing longer and brighter is, for me, reason enough to celebrate.
I ultimately also appreciate the aesthetic challenges inherent in the season. In the end, these monochromatic landscapes provide a challenge to literally improve one’s vision. This time of year, in this part of the country, forces one to look closer, to go beyond the apparently obvious, to appreciate the subtle beauties of the world.
Around here, December demands that we look anew at the world in which we live; that we find pulchritude in a land of apparent scarce beauty. It’s a lesson, a challenge which can be applied to all of life and not just photography.
Or maybe, I’m wrong. Maybe Christmas isn’t about the light, maybe it’s not about the equinox. Maybe the holiday is something more basic. Maybe Christmas is, as a Christmas celebrating Jewish brother once explained to me, “just an excuse to be nice to one and another.” In which case, I’m happy to be wrong. I think we can all agree that the world today does not suffer from an excess of kindness.