Category Archives: Christmas

The People’s Christmas: Art, Tradition and Climate Change

COME, bring with a noise,
My merry, merry boys,
The Christmas log to the firing;
While my good dame, she
Bids ye all be free;
And drink to your heart’s desiring.

With the last year’s brand
Light the new block, and
For good success in his spending
On your psaltries play,
That sweet luck may
Come while the log is a-teending.

Ceremonies for Christmas by Robert Herrick (1591–1674)
(Psaltries: a kind of guitar, Teending: kindling)

No season has so much association with music as the mid-winter, Christmas celebrations. The aural pleasure associated with the tuneful music and carols of Christmas has been reduced in recent years by the over-playing of same in shopping malls, banks, airports etc.. yet it is still enjoyed and the popularity of choirs has not diminished.

However, the visual depictions of mid-winter, Christmas celebration have also been popular since the 19th century through books, cinema and television.

The depictions of Christmas range from religious iconography through to the highly commercialised red-suited, rosy-cheeked, rotund Santa Claus.

Yet, between these two extremes of the sombre sacred and the commercialised secular lies a popular iconography best expressed in the realm of fine art and illustration. Down through the centuries the pagan aspects of mid-winter celebration and Christmas such as the Christmas tree, the Yule log, wassailing and carol singing along with winter sports such as ice skating and skiing have been depicted by many different artists. These paintings and illustrations are also beloved for the visual pleasure they afford.

More importantly, they show aspects of Christmas which are becoming more important now in our time of climate change. That is, their depictions of our past respect for nature.

In recent times, as we gradually learned to harness nature for our own ends through developments in science we also became less and less worried about the vicissitudes of nature. Our forebears, however, knew all too well hunger and cold in the depths of winter and in their own religious and superstitious ways tried to attenuate the worst of winter hardship through traditions and practices which would ensure a bountiful proceeding year.

For example, the Christmas Tree is a descendant of the sacred tree which was respected as a powerful symbol of growth, death and rebirth. Evergreen trees took on meanings associated with symbols of the eternal, immortality or fertility (See my article on Christmas Trees here). Evergreen boughs and then eventually whole evergreen trees were brought into the house to ward off evil influences. Burning the Yule log was an important rite to help strengthen the weakened sun of midwinter.

The Christmas Tree (1911), Albert Chevallier

Wassailing, or blessing of the fruit trees, is also considered a form of tree worship and involves drinking and singing to the health of the trees in the hope that they will provide a bountiful harvest in the autumn. Mumming has also been associated with the spirit of vegetation or the tree-spirit and is believed to have developed into the practice of caroling even though mumming is alive and well in many places in Ireland and England. All these nature-based practices seem to have been banned by the church at different times and then gradually integrated into church rituals (presumably because the church was not able to stop them).

Therefore our relationship with nature was demonstrated through winter activities both inside and outside the home. Outside activities consisted of ice skating, caroling, wassailing, bringing home the Yule log and the Christmas tree. Inside activities consisted of large gatherings of family and friends eating, drinking and parlour games. The indulgence of Christmas activities was balanced by an overriding concern that nature had been propitiated or appeased.

One aspect the many depictions of these activities have in common is the festive gathering of large groups of people. Modern depictions of Christmas tend to emphasise the nuclear family gathered around the Christmas tree with the focus on what Santa brought for the children. Thus Christmas today is experienced as a more isolated experience than in the past. The decline of the nuclear family in recent decades with single parent families, divorce, cohabitation, etc. has created extended family gatherings more akin to the past village groupings. Outdoor activities have also declined though one can still hear carollers singing on occasion, though still common in city streets.

Many artists of over the years have tried to depict the essence of Christmas and midwinter traditions (see my article on midwinter traditions here) and thus helped to keep them in our consciences.

Let’s look at some of the illustrations and paintings that depict mid-winter festivities over the centuries.

Carole

Carols

Poetry and song are our earliest records of Christmas celebrations. According to Clement Miles the word “‘carol’ had at first a secular or even pagan significance: in twelfth-century France it was used to describe the amorous song-dance which hailed the coming of spring; in Italian it meant a ring- or song-dance; while by English writers from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century it was used chiefly of singing joined with dancing, and had no necessary connection with religion.”1 The word carol itself comes from the Old French word carole, a circle dance accompanied by singers (Latin: choraula). Carols were very popular as dance songs and processional songs sung during festivals. In medieval times the Church referred to caroling as “sinful traffic” and issued decrees against it in 1209 A.D. and 1435 A.D. According to Tristram P. Coffin in his Book of Christmas Folklore, “For seven centuries a formidable series of denunciations and prohibitions was fired forth by Catholic authorities, warning Everyman to ‘flee wicked and lecherous songs, dancings, and leapings’” (p. 98). 

Mummers by Robert Seymour, 1836

Mumming

The processional aspects of caroling are linked to mumming, an ancient tradition which was mentioned in early ecclesiastical condemnations. During the Kalends of January a sermon ascribed to St Augustine of Hippo writes that the heathen reverses the order of things as some of these ‘miserable’ men “are clothed in the hides of cattle; others put on the heads of beasts, rejoicing and exulting that they have so transformed themselves into the shapes of animals that they no longer appear to be men … How vile further, it is that those who have been born men are clothed in women’s dresses, and by the vilest change effeminate their manly strength by taking on the forms of girls, blushing not to clothe their warlike arms in women’s garments; they have bearded faces, and yet they wish to appear women.”2 The original idea of wearing the hides of animals, Miles writes, may have sprung “from the primitive man’s belief ‘that in order to produce the great phenomena of nature on which his life depended he had only to imitate them’.3 

Indeed, in Ireland, mumming is a tradition that is still going strong. In a recent article in The Fingal Independent, Sean McPhilibin notes that “In North County Dublin the masking would be traditionally made from straw and would have been big straw hats that cover the face and come down to the shoulders.” McPhilibin also states that mumming was “a mid-winter custom that in Ireland and North County Dublin and in parts of England as well, the masking element is accompanied by a play. So there’s a play in it with set characters. It’s a play where the principal action takes place between two protagonists – a hero and a villain. The hero slays the villain and the villain is revived by a doctor who has a magical cure and after that happens there’s a succession of other characters called in, each of whom has a rhyme. So every character has a rhyme, written in rhyming couplets.[…] The other thing to say about it is that you find these same type of characters all across Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, over into Slovenia and elsewhere.”

James Frazer, in The Golden Bough, discusses at length many international examples of people being completely covered in straw, branches or leaves as incarnations of the tree-spirit or the spirit of vegetation, such as Green George, Jack-in-the-Green, the Little Leaf Man, and the Leaf King.4

Wassail

The word wassail comes from Old English was hál, related to the Anglo-Saxon greeting wes þú hál, meaning “be you hale”—i.e., “be healthful” or “be healthy”.

There are two variations of wassailing: going from house to house singing and sharing a wassail bowl containing a drink made from mulled cider made with sugar, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, topped with slices of toast as sops or going from orchard to orchard blessing the fruit trees, drinking and singing to the health of the trees in the hope that they will provide a bountiful harvest in the autumn. They sing, shout, bang pots and pans and fire shotguns to wake the tree spirits and frighten away evil demons.

The wassail itself “is a hot, mulled punch often associated with Yuletide, drunk from a ‘wassailing bowl’. The earliest versions were warmed mead into which roasted crab apples were dropped and burst to create a drink called ‘lambswool’ drunk on Lammas day, still known in Shakespeare’s time. Later, the drink evolved to become a mulled cider made with sugar, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, topped with slices of toast as sops and drunk from a large communal bowl.” (See traditional wassail recipe here)

The Lord of Misrule

The Lord of Misrule was a common tradition that existed up to the early nineteenth century whereby a peasant or sub-deacon appointed to be in charge of Christmas revelries, thus the normal societal roles where reversed temporarily. The Lord of Misrule “would invite traveling actors to perform Mummer’s plays, he would host elaborate masques, hold large feasts and arrange the procession of the annual Yule Log.”

The Mount Vernon Yule Log
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930)

The Bean King

During the the Twelfth Night feast a cake or pie would be served which had a bean baked inside. The person who got the slice with the bean would be ‘crowned’ the Bean King with a paper crown and appointed various court officials. A mock respect would be shown when the king drank and all the party would shout “the king drinks”. Robert Herrick mentions this in his poem Twelfth Night: or, King and Queen:

NOW, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean’s the king of the sport here ;
Beside we must know,
The pea also
Must revel, as queen, in the court here.

Twelfth-night (The King Drinks)
David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690)

Merry Christmas in the Baron’s Hall (1838)
Daniel Maclise (1806-1870)

Merry Christmas in the Baron’s Hall (1838)

Daniel Maclise’s painting Merry Christmas in the Baron’s Hall (1838) contains many aspects of the traditional Christmas festivities. The Lord of Misrule stands in the centre holding his staff and leading the procession of musicians and carolers coming down the stairs. Father Christmas, ‘ivy crown’d’, sits in front of the wassail bowl and is surrounded by mummers (the Dragon and St George sit side by side) and local people. On the left side of the picture we see a group of people playing a parlour game called Hunt the Slipper.

Maclise was influenced by Sir Walter Scott’s poem Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field, published in 1808. Marmion is a historical romance in verse of 16th-century Britain, ending with the Battle of Flodden in 1513. Marmion has a section referring to Christmas festivities:

The wassel round, in good brown bowls,
Garnish’d with ribbons, blithely trowls.
There the huge sirloin reek’d; hard by
Plum-porridge stood, and Christmas pie:
Nor fail’d old Scotland to produce,
At such high tide, her savoury goose.
Then came the merry maskers in,
And carols roar’d with blithesome din;
If unmelodious was the song,
It was a hearty note, and strong.
Who lists may in their mumming see
Traces of ancient mystery;
White shirts supplied the masquerade,
And smutted cheeks the visors made;
But, O! what maskers, richly dight,
Can boast of bosoms half so light!

(See full text here)

It seems that Maclise was also taken enough by the poem to pen his own poem about his painting which was published in Fraser’s Magazine for May in 1838. The poem is titled: Christmas Revels: An Epic Rhapsody in Twelve Duans and was published under the pseudonym, Alfred Croquis, Esq. The painting includes over one hundred figures covering many different traditions of Christmas and in his poem Maclise describes most of the activities taking place as some these excerpts from the poem demonstrate:

Before him, ivied, wand in hand,
Misrule’s mock lordling takes his stand;
[…]
Drummers and pipers next appear,
And carollers in motley gear;
Stewards, butlers, cooks, bring up the rear.
Some sit apart from all the rest,
And these for merry masque are drest;
But now they play another part,
Distinct from any mumming art.
[…]
First, Father Christmas, ivy-crown’d,
With false beard white, and true paunch round,
Rules o’er the mighty wassail-bowl,
And brews a flood to stir the soul:
That bowl’s the source of all their pleasures,
That bowl supplies their lesser measures

(See full text here)

Winter Landscapes

Winter Landscape near a Village
Hendrick Avercamp (1585 (bapt.) – 1634 (buried))

 

The Hunters in the Snow (1565)
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1530–1569)

 

Outdoor Activities: Skating, Markets and Fairs

Patineurs au bois de Boulogne (1868)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919)

 

 

Russian Christmas
Leon Schulman Gaspard (1882-1964)

 

The Christmas Market in Berlin (1892)
Franz Skarbina (1849-1910)

 

Christmas Fair (1904)
Heinrich Matvejevich Maniser

Nature-Based vs Anti-Nature

Polydore Vergil (c.1470–1555), the Italian humanist scholar, historian, priest and diplomat, who spent most of his life in England, wrote this about Christmas:

Dancing, masques, mummeries, stage-plays, and other such Christmas disorders now in use with the Christians, were derived from these Roman Saturnalian and Bacchanalian festivals; which should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them.5

However,  Clement Miles takes a more positive view of these traditions. He writes: “The heathen folk festivals absorbed by the Nativity feast were essentially life-affirming, they expressed the mind of men who said “yes” to this life, who valued earthly good things. On the other hand Christianity, at all events in its intensest form, the religion of the monks, was at bottom pessimistic as regards this earth, and valued it only as a place of discipline for the life to come; it was essentially a religion of renunciation that said “no” to the world.”6

Now we have a religion of consumerism and mass consumption with Santa Claus as its main protagonist. The one extreme of the sacred St Nicholas has flipped over to the other extreme of Santa, the corporate saint. Either way the pious and the consumer pose no threat to the status quo.

Catharsis

There is no doubt that the Christmas festivities were used by elites as a form of social catharsis. The Lord of Misrule and the Bean King, encouraged by raucous mummers and lively caroling, allowed the lowly to throw off pent-up aggression and feel what it was like to be in a position of power for a very short period of time. This brief social revolution was an important part of midwinter celebrations such as the Roman Kalends and the Feast of Fools. Libanius (c.314–392 or 393), the fourth century Greek philosopher, wrote:

The Kalends festival banishes all that is connected with toil, and allows men to give themselves up to undisturbed enjoyment. From the minds of young people it removes two kinds of dread: the dread of the schoolmaster and the dread of the stern pedagogue. The slave also it allows, so far as possible, to breathe the air of freedom.7

The survivals of an ancient time when man and nature were at peace (see article here), and not enslaved and forced to overexploit our natural resources for the benefit of the few, were allowed to resurface briefly at the time of year when the labouring classes were mostly idle and, once sated, posed little threat. Yet, retaining the memory of past respectful attitudes towards nature and old traditions of social upheaval will go a long way towards healing our damaged home into the future.

  1. Clement A. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance, Dover Publications, 2017,  p. 47.
  2. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, p. 170.
  3. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, p. 163.
  4. James Frazer, The Golden Bough, Wordsworth, 1994. See: The tree-spirit p. 297, Green George p. 126, Jack-in-the-Green p. 128, the Little Leaf Man p. 128 and the Leaf King p. 130.
  5. Hazlitt, W. Carew, Faiths and Folklore of the British Isles, 2 vols, New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1965, pp. 118-119.
  6. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, p. 25.
  7. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, p. 168.

The Misuses of History: The Christmas 1914 Truce

All memorialised events, when passing into mythology, must be seen critically.  In some cases, there should be more than a hint of suspicion.  The Christmas Truce of 1914 remains one sentimentalised occasion, remembered less to scold the mad mechanised forces of death led by regressive castes than to reflect upon common humanity.

Common humanity, left to be butchered before the next grand stratagem, is the first casualty of the war room and, in many cases, parliaments.  These are places where commemoration ceremonies are drafted and encouraged; they are also the places where the common soldier is left for ruin.

The Christmas Truce of the First World War arose out of a blood-bathed irony: the troops from both sides, Allies and German, were not meant to be slaughtering each other at that point.  They should have been home to celebrate their respective victories or lick respective wounds.  The diplomats and politicians could then celebrate what was meant to be a puerile skirmish waged in conditions more reminiscent of an old cavalry charge than mud-soaked death.

Pope Benedict XV, after his election on September 3, 1914, kept busy attempting to halt a war he deemed “the suicide of civilized Europe.”  In December, he attempted, in vain, to persuade the belligerents to halt the murderous party, asking “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.”  This would be a prelude to discussions towards an honourable peace.

The sequence written about and recalled every year with the monotonous reflection of a prayer goes something like this: Stille nacht, heilige nacht comes from the German side of the trenches at the Ypres Salient.  (The Hun proved troublingly festive and did not seem up for the killing.)  The British, initially wary, show interest.  Shots are not fired.  The First Noel comes in reply.  “Then,” remembered a British soldier, “we started up O Come All Ye Faithful and the Germans immediately joined in singing the same thing to the Latin words of Adeste Fideles.”

The gestures were repeated along the Western Front in pockets of small “truces”.  British, German and French soldiers, in open defiance of orders, went to No Man’s Land in a spiritual reclamation of sorts under the pretext of burying the dead.  An economy of gifting came to the fore: tobacco and chocolate; beer and pudding; sausage and Christmas trees; badges and buttons.  The Allies were astonished by the goods they could receive in the exchange: the German armies were, at that point, better supplied.

Then came the football matches, though the legend here is inflated.  Socks wrapping a tin of bully beef, for instance, were substitutes for soccer balls.  The scores at these matches remain a subject of conjecture, as do the matches themselves.

Peter Stanley of the University of New South Wales, when asked about the record in 2014, suggested that such matches would have taken place behind the respective lines of the soldiers, if, in fact, they took place at all.  The papers of the day ran “pictures of the truces, with lots of photos of men smoking but no photos of soccer matches.  So what does that tell you?”

But Stanley’s insistence does not withstand the accounts of some subalterns, who describe scenes, not of 10-a-side but “a question of 70 Germans against 50 Englishmen” involving a ball with an adventurous fate.  In January 1, 1915, The Times received a letter from an anonymous major that an English regiment “had a football match with the Saxons, who beat them 3-2.” (At least, mused historian Gerard DeGroot, “it did not end in penalties.”)

The legacy of the truce is somewhat estranged.  While it might well have been the last gasp of civility in modern warfare – if you fall for that notion that civility was ever a part of the killing business – the truce has become a matter of commercialisation and celluloid.  There are films such as the 2005 French film Joyeux Noel.  Then come the commodities.

Supermarket chains such as Sainsbury’s have found the prospect of making money out of the memory irresistible.  A 2014 ad, specifically, was reviled and yet admired by The Guardian for its “startling array of emotional depth within a few short minutes” marked by “breathtaking” cinematography.  Slaughter might be futile, fought in the name of obscene abstractions, but making money is as clear enough a mission as any.

The truce compelled Arthur Conan Doyle to deem it “one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of the war.”  But it remains an episode celebrated with lessons to be ignored.  The classroom of history troubles the demagogues and political practitioners, as it did those war planners in 1914 alarmed by the loss of faith in killing shown by the truce makers.  Political figures and generals could not; soldiers could.

In many instances, the participating units in question were relieved by fresh men untainted by the temptation of mutual respect.  As the war wore on in all its barbarity, such truces became infrequent.  The enemy had to be hated. Common humanity, so goes that most salient lesson of all, remains a common mineral to be exploited and manipulated rather than revered.

Say No to Government Grinches and Corporate Scrooges

Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child’s cry, a blazing star hung over a stable, and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven’t forgotten that night down the centuries. We celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, with the sound of bells, and with gifts… We forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled, all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we’re celebrating. Don’t let us ever forget that. Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share, loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

What a year!

It feels as if government Grinches and corporate Scrooges have been working overtime to drain every last drop of joy, kindness and liberty from the world.

After endless months of gloom and doom, it’s hard not to feel like Charlie Brown in A Charlie Brown Christmas as he struggles to feel happy and find the true meaning of Christmas in the midst of rampant commercialism, political correctness and the casual cruelty of an apathetic, self-absorbed, dog-eat-dog world.

Then again, isn’t that struggle to overcome the darkness and find the light within exactly what Christmas—the celebration of a baby born in a manger—is all about? The reminder that we have not been forgotten or forsaken. Glad tidings in the midst of hard times. Goodwill to counter meanness. Innocence in the face of cynicism. Hope in the midst of despair. Comfort to soothe our fears. Peace as an answer to war. Love that conquers hate.

As “fellow-passengers to the grave,” we all have a moral duty to make this world (or at least our small corners of it) just a little bit kinder, a little less hostile and a lot more helpful to those in need.

No matter what one’s budget, religion, or political persuasion, there is no shortage of things we can each do right now to pay our blessings forward and recapture the true spirit of Christmas.

For starters, move beyond the “us” vs. “them” mentality. Tune into what’s happening in your family, in your community and your world, and get active. Show compassion to those in need, be kind to those around you, forgive those who have wronged you, and teach your children to do the same. Talk less, and listen more. Take less, and give more. Stop being a hater. Stop acting entitled and start being empowered. Learn tolerance in the true sense of the word. Value your family. Count your blessings. Share your blessings. Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and comfort the lonely and broken-hearted. Bridge bridges, and tear down walls. Stand for freedom. Strive for peace.

One thing more: make time for joy and laughter. Shake off the blues with some Christmas tunes, whatever fits the bill for you, be it traditional carols, rollicking oldies, or some rocking new tunes. Watch a Christmas movie that reinforces your faith in humanity.

Here are ten of my favorite Christmas movies and music albums to get you started.

First the movies.

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). An American classic about a despondent man, George Bailey who is saved from suicide by an angel working to get his wings. This film is a testament to director Frank Capra’s faith in people. Sublime performances by James Stewart and Donna Reed.

The Bishop’s Wife (1947). An angel comes to earth in answer to a bishop’s prayer for help. Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young help energize this tale of lost visions and longings of the heart.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947). By happenchance, Kris Kringle is hired as Santa Claus by Macy’s Department Store in New York City for the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Before long, Kringle, who believes himself to be the one and only Santa Claus, has impacted virtually everyone around him. Funny, witty and heartwarming, this film is stocked with some fine performances from Maureen O’Hara, John Payne and young Natalie Wood. Edmund Gwenn won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role as Saint Nick.

A Christmas Carol (1951). This is the best film version of the penny-pinching Scrooge’s journey to spiritual enlightenment by way of visits from supernatural visitors. Alastair Sim as Scrooge gives one of the finest film performances never to win an Oscar. The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017) provides a wonderful glimpse into how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Story (1983). Ralphie is a young boy obsessed with one thing and only one thing: how to get a Red Ryder BB-gun for Christmas. Ralphie’s parents are wary, and his mother continually warns him that “you’ll shoot your eye out.” Based on Jean Shepherd’s autobiographical book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, at the heart of this timeless comedy is the universal yearning of a child for the magic of Christmas morning. A great cast, which includes Darren McGavin, Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon and a voice-over narrative by Shepherd himself.

One Magic Christmas (1985). If you grew up in a family where times were tough, this film is for you. A guardian angel comes to earth to help a disillusioned woman who hates Christmas. This tale of redemption and second chances is a delight to watch. And Harry Dean Stanton makes a first-class offbeat angel.

Prancer (1989). This story of an eight-year-old girl who believes that an injured reindeer in her barn is actually one of Santa’s reindeer is one of the most down-to-earth Christmas films ever made. It’s a testament to the transforming power of love and childhood innocence. Sam Elliott and Cloris Leachman are fine in supporting roles, but Rebecca Harrell shines. Filmed on location in freezing, snowy weather, this film is a treat for those who love Christmas.

Home Alone (1990). Eight-year-old Kevin, accidentally left behind at home when his family flies to Paris for Christmas, thinks he’s got it made. Hijinks ensue when two burglars match their wits against his. A funny, tender tribute to childhood and the bonds of family.

Elf (2003). Another modern classic with a lot of heart. Buddy, played to the hilt by Will Ferrell, is a human who was raised by elves at the North Pole. Determined to find his birth father, Buddy travels to the Big Apple and spreads his Christmas cheer to everyone he meets. This film has it all: Santa, elves, family problems, humor, emotion and above all else, a large dose of the Christmas spirit. One of the best Christmas movies ever made.

The Christmas Chronicles (2018). The story of a sister and brother, Kate and Teddy Pierce, whose Christmas Eve plan to catch Santa Claus on camera turns into an unexpected journey that most kids could only dream about. Kurt Russell’s star turn as Santa makes for movie magic.

Now for the music.

Out of the hundreds of Christmas albums I’ve listened to over the years, the following, covering a broad range of musical styles, moods and tastes, each in its own way perfectly captures the essence of Christmas for me.

It’s Christmas (EMI, 1989): 18 great songs, ranging from John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” The real treats on this album are Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas,” Kate Bush’s “December Will Be Magic Again” and Aled Jones’ “Walking in the Air.”

Christmas Guitar (Rounder, 1986): 28 beautifully done traditional Christmas songs by master guitarist John Fahey. Hearing Fahey’s guitar strings plucking out “Joy to the World,” “Good King Wenceslas,” “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” among others, is a sublime experience.

Christmas Is A Special Day (The Right Stuff, 1993): 12 fine songs by Fats Domino, the great Fifties rocker, ranging from “Amazing Grace” to “Jingle Bells.” The title song, written by Domino himself, is a real treat. No one has ever played the piano keys like Fats.

Christmas Island (August/Private Music, 1989): “Frosty the Snowman” will never sound the same after you hear Leon Redbone and Dr. John do their duet. Neither will “Christmas Island” or “Toyland” on this collection of 11 traditional and rather offbeat songs.

A Holiday Celebration (Gold Castle, 1988): The classic folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary, backed by the New York Choral Society, sing traditional and nontraditional holiday fare on 12 beautifully orchestrated songs. Included are “I Wonder as I Wander,” “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” and “The Cherry Tree Carol.” Also thrown in is Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

The Christmas Album (Columbia, 1992): Neil Diamond sings 14 songs, ranging from “Silent Night” to “Jingle Bell Rock” to “The Christmas Song” to “Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Diamond also gives us a great rendition of Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” A delightful album.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy, 1988): 12 traditional Christmas songs by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. The pianist extraordinaire and his trio perform “O Tannenbaum,” “The Christmas Song” and “Greensleeves.” Also included is the Charlie Brown Christmas theme.

The Jethro Tull Christmas Album (Fuel Records, 2003): If you like deep-rooted traditional holiday songs, you’ll love this album. The 16 songs range from “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” to Ian Anderson originals such as “Another Christmas Song” and “Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow.” With Anderson on flute and vocals, this album has an old world flavor that will have you wanting mince pie and plum pudding.

A Twisted Christmas (Razor Tie, 2006): Twisted Sister, the heavy metal group, knocks the socks off a bevy of traditional and pop Christmas songs. Dee Snider’s amazing vocals brings to life “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” “Deck the Halls,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” among others—including “Heavy Metal Christmas (The Twelve Days of Christmas).” Great fun and a great band.

Songs for Christmas (Asthmatic Kitty, 2006): In 2001, independent singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens set out to create a Christmas gift through songs for his friends and family. It eventually grew to a 5-CD box set, which includes Stevens’ original take on such standards as “Amazing Grace” and “We Three Kings” and some inventive yuletide creations of his own. A lot of fun.

Before you know it, Christmas will be a distant memory and we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming of politics, war, violence, materialism and mayhem.

As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, there may not be much we can do to avoid the dismal reality of the American police state in the long term—not so long as the powers-that-be continue to call the shots and allow profit margins to take precedence over the needs of people—but in the short term, I hope you’ll do your part to “spread a smile of joy” and “throw your arms around the world at Christmastime.”

As Frank Cross, the Scrooge character in Scrooged (1988), remarks:

I’m not crazy. It’s Christmas Eve! It’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be! It’s a sort of a miracle because it happens every Christmas Eve. And if you waste that miracle, you’re gonna burn for it. I know what I’m talking about. You have to do something. You have to take a chance. You do have to get involved. There are people that are having trouble making their miracle happen. There are people that don’t have enough to eat, and there are people that are cold. You can go out and say ‘hello’ to these people. You can take an old blanket out of the closet and say, ‘here.’ You can make ‘em a sandwich, and say ‘Oh, by the way, here!’ And if you give, then it can happen. Then the miracle can happen to you. It’s not just the poor and the hungry, it’s everybody that’s gotta have this miracle! And it can happen tonight for all of you! If you believe in this pure thing, the miracle will happen and then you’ll want it to happen again tomorrow! You won’t be one of these bastards who says, ‘Christmas is once a year and it’s a fraud.’ It’s not! It can happen every day! You’ve just got to want that feeling! And if you like it and you want it, you’ll get greedy for it. You’ll want it every day of your life, and it can happen to you! I believe in it now. I believe it’s gonna happen to me now. I’m ready for it! And it’s great. It’s a good feeling. It’s really better than I’ve felt in a long time. I’m ready. Have a Merry Christmas, everybody.

The Environmental Christmas Hangover

Christmas may seem like a distant memory but the environmental effect of the annual consumer frenzy, over-indulgence and extravagance is lasting damage. And year on year the cost to the planet grows.

For the best part of a week in early January the street in which I live in London was littered with mountains of rubbish and discarded Christmas trees, real and fake. The use of both live and artificial trees as decorative emblems of Christmas is ecologically damaging and, like many aspects of this materialistic pantomime, needs to be consigned to a bygone era and replaced with either a naked corner, or a rented potted tree from a garden center, which can be returned to the growers afterwards.

In Europe an estimated 60 million live trees are bought, decorated and dumped; it’s around 30 million in America. The majority of real trees are grown specifically for Christmas so forests are not being depleted, but after the festivities most real trees are thrown away and as they decompose, methane (a greenhouse gas) is produced. Artificial trees leave their own carbon footprint due to their production and transportation. Most are made in China and amass a great many polluting air miles on route to their Western destination, and when discarded end also up in landfill sites. In order to make up for the amount of energy used in its production, according to The Woodland Trust, a plastic tree would need to be reused every Christmas for twenty years. Under the tree, of course, is to be found the Festive Icons – the presents. Worldwide, adults are said to spend on average $475 on gifts, half of which are unwanted, but in this throwaway world of ours, instead of returning them, most of these rejected trinkets are dumped in the rubbish bin and end up in a landfill site.

Christmas and rubbish are synonymous terms in more ways than one. It’s the time of year when the largest amount of consumer waste is produced and the overwhelming bulk ends up in a hole in the ground. Over 114,000 tons of plastic waste is estimated to have been produced in Britain over Christmas and not recycled, together with “more than 88,000,000 Sq. m of wrapping paper and 300,000 tonnes of card packaging”, The Times relates. In the Capital of Consumerism, America, a colossal $10 million is spent on wrapping paper, most of which is not recyclable, and the number of Christmas cards sold requires 300,000 trees to be cut down.

Then there’s the unbridled cruelty reserved for the animals that are raised for the festive table; around 10 million turkeys are eaten in Britain; it’s closer to 25 million in America, where the major turkey cull is Thanksgiving. The vast majority of birds stuffed and roasted are factory farmed. Their short lives are spent in appalling conditions and end when they are plunged head first into electrified stunning baths, after which they have their throats cut in the slaughterhouse. The industrial farming of turkeys is not just barbaric, like all animal agriculture it produces huge amounts of the greenhouse gases which fuel man-made climate change. Add in Christmas travel by road and air and the enormous environmental impact of Christmas begins to become clear: from 15th December to 4th January a record 52 million people in America took to the air and 97 million hit the highways. In Britain over thirteen million vehicles clogged the roads in the days leading up to the Big Day, and both Heathrow and Gatwick airports had their busiest days on record: around four million people in total, with record numbers taking long-haul flights. Aviation is a major source of greenhouse gases, and the further one flies the greater the environmental damage.

Simplicity and Sufficiency

Whilst the festive period allows much needed time for rest, and for some, warm family gatherings  (tense misery for others), in its current form it is little more than an exercise in mass consumerism. The ‘Christmas Spirit’, which suggests peace, brotherhood and ‘goodwill to all men’, is widely absent, replaced by an exaggerated version of how life is conducted the rest of the year; contemporary values (which are not values at all, of course) of greed and selfishness are relentlessly encouraged and to a large degree, prevail.

The ‘consumer culture’, of which Christmas is the pinnacle expression, is an essential part of the Neo-liberal economic system under which we live. It is maintained by insatiable desire and the false notion that happiness is to be found within the Christmas wrapping paper, the Black Friday Deals or Saturday shopping outings, in ‘success’ and sensory pleasure. However, far from creating the conditions in which contentment and joy can flower, discontent and conflict is maintained, and an atmosphere created for anxiety and depression to grow. As it is currently constituted, Christmas perpetuates and strengthens this materialistic and highly damaging approach to life – for humanity and the planet. Like much of contemporary living it needs to be simplified and re-defined, not necessarily in a way that corresponds to Christian doctrine, but in a manner rooted in what we might more broadly call ‘spiritual’, or simply human values: sharing, social/environmental responsibility, tolerance and kindness to one another and, crucially, the Earth itself.

A treeless, gift-free Christmas, where little or no travel is involved, and money usually spent on gifts is donated to an environmental charity, would be the ideal. If you can’t face Christmas without presents, then environmental considerations should be paramount when choosing what to ‘give’ – not necessarily what to ‘buy’. If we are to overcome the environmental catastrophe and reverse the colossal ecological damage, greed, selfishness and excess must come to an end, replaced by Simplicity and Sufficiency – and a new environmental consciousness urgently cultivated, at Christmas and throughout the year.

Why There are Few Christians Left in the Holy Town of Bethlehem

It is another anxious Christmas for the inhabitants of Bethlehem. This is the time of year when they have a chance to break out of an isolation enforced in concrete since Israel enclosed the town with a “separation wall” more than a decade ago.

On Christmas Eve, in a centuries-old tradition, Palestinian and foreign pilgrims rub shoulders as they throng into the ancient Church of the Nativity to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Jesus at its reputed location two millennia ago.

Outside, in Manger Square, the lights and baubles on a huge Christmas tree provide some festive glitz, while hawkers assail the tourists, exploiting the chance to sell them Santa hats and stocking fillers of plastic light sabres and illuminated spinning tops.

Most of the foreign pilgrims enter Bethlehem by coach through a gate in the wall heavily policed by Israeli soldiers. They disembark at the church’s entrance and most depart for Jerusalem as soon as the event is over.

Nowadays few tourists get to meet or talk to a Palestinian in Bethlehem. Earlier this year, Israel tried to further choke off tourism revenue by warning travel agencies that their groups must not stay overnight in Bethlehem’s handful of cheap hotels.

Largely sealed off from the world, Bethlehem is today almost as well-known for its graffiti, visible from coaches on the pilgrim trail through the wall, as the nativity. Amid iconic images by Banksy, the famous British street artist, is the handiwork of local paint-sprayers. One message to the world scrawled across the eight-metre-high grey slabs announces: “Merry Christmas from Bethlehem ghetto”.

The town now has access to little more than a tenth of its original territory, with homes cut off from farmland, water sources and historic landmarks. A host of ever-expanding Jewish settlements around Bethlehem have been gorging on the rich pickings of their imprisoned neighbours.

Bethlehem’s despondency was heightened this month by the decision of US President Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. That declaration has sparked repeated clashes between Bethlehem’s youth and Israeli occupation forces.

Traditionally, the fates of these cities, the two primary destinations for pilgrims, were intimately tied. Before the construction of the wall, they were only a short drive apart. Now Jerusalem is almost unreachable for Bethlehem’s inhabitants, while Bethlehem itself has become an increasingly unappealing prospect for most outsiders.

Amid the gloom, however, there were two small tidings of joy this month.

Banksy, who earlier this year established a graffiti-themed hotel called the Walled Off Hotel – boasting the “worst view in the world” – put on an alternative nativity play for local children in the shadow of the wall and its armed watch-towers. A two-part BBC documentary shown last week about the planning and staging of The Alternativity gave international audiences a rare up-close view of life in the Bethlehem ghetto.

The other success was a screening this month on Capitol Hill of Leila Sansour’s documentary Open Bethlehem. Along with their invite, US Congress members were sent a “Bethlehem passport”, making them honorary citizens of the town.

Ms Sansour’s film was meant to prick consciences. It charts Bethlehem’s gradual incarceration and the decision of her own extended family to desert the town, like many other Christians, for opportunities abroad.

Today, Bethlehem’s Christians make up only 13 per cent of its population and more than three-quarters blame Israel’s blockade for the exodus. The Open Bethlehem campaign, spawned by the film, quotes James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, saying: “While every Christmas we sing of Bethlehem, most Americans know so little about the town and its people.”

In the only way they could, Bethlehem’s church leaders exacted a small revenge for Mr Trump’s Jerusalem declaration. They closed their doors to Mike Pence, the US vice-president and a pious Christian evangelical. His pre-Christmas visit to the region has now been postponed until next year.

Paradoxically, Mr Pence had originally intended to use the trip to highlight the persecution of Christians in the Middle East – though presumably not the kind of persecution represented by Israel’s wall.

Most Palestinian Christians see Mr Pence not as a potential saviour but very much at the heart of their problems. The vice-president is viewed as the latest personification of a Western evangelical tradition that has consistently betrayed Palestine’s Christian community.

Exactly a century ago, it was British government leaders like David Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour, men of deep Christian conviction, who prioritised the interests of European Jews over the Holy Land’s native Palestinians. The Balfour Declaration set in train a process of colonisation that dispossessed Muslims and Christians alike of their homeland.

Fast forward to today and tens of millions of evangelicals in the US, Israel’s new patron, helped to elect Mr Trump. They were the reason he selected Mr Pence as his running mate and why he cynically transformed the incendiary site of Jerusalem into a campaign vote-winner.

The priorities of Christians like Mr Pence derive not from natural justice, solidarity with fellow Christians or even cold calculation, but from supposed divine prophecy. They interpret the Bible as requiring a return of God’s chosen people, the Jews, to the Promised Land as a way to bring forward the end-time. In a cataclysmic Battle of Armageddon, Jesus will return, they believe. The truly faithful will rise to heaven to be with God while everyone else, including unrepentant Jews, will burn for eternity.

For this reason, a strong Israel – one that includes the Biblical lands on which the illegal Jewish settlements are built – is a central concern for millions of US evangelicals. In contrast, the slow erasure of Palestinian Christians, as well as the heritage and faith they have preserved in the region for 2,000 years, is of little consequence.

Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gleefully exploited his ties to the powerful US evangelical lobby, happy that it dramatically increases his clout in Washington.

Anton Salman, a Palestinian Christian who recently became Bethlehem’s mayor, wrote in exasperation of these fellow Christians: “No church worthy of its name should offer a theological smokescreen for the denial of our most basic rights as Palestinians.”

In Bethlehem, there may soon be few Palestinian Christians left to protect its holy sites, preserve its rituals and liturgy or conduct the nativity celebration itself. And irony of ironies, it will have been fellow Christians who helped to harry this community to extinction.

First published in The National, Abu Dhabi.

Why There are Few Christians Left in the Holy Town of Bethlehem

It is another anxious Christmas for the inhabitants of Bethlehem. This is the time of year when they have a chance to break out of an isolation enforced in concrete since Israel enclosed the town with a “separation wall” more than a decade ago.

On Christmas Eve, in a centuries-old tradition, Palestinian and foreign pilgrims rub shoulders as they throng into the ancient Church of the Nativity to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Jesus at its reputed location two millennia ago.

Outside, in Manger Square, the lights and baubles on a huge Christmas tree provide some festive glitz, while hawkers assail the tourists, exploiting the chance to sell them Santa hats and stocking fillers of plastic light sabres and illuminated spinning tops.

Most of the foreign pilgrims enter Bethlehem by coach through a gate in the wall heavily policed by Israeli soldiers. They disembark at the church’s entrance and most depart for Jerusalem as soon as the event is over.

Nowadays few tourists get to meet or talk to a Palestinian in Bethlehem. Earlier this year, Israel tried to further choke off tourism revenue by warning travel agencies that their groups must not stay overnight in Bethlehem’s handful of cheap hotels.

Largely sealed off from the world, Bethlehem is today almost as well-known for its graffiti, visible from coaches on the pilgrim trail through the wall, as the nativity. Amid iconic images by Banksy, the famous British street artist, is the handiwork of local paint-sprayers. One message to the world scrawled across the eight-metre-high grey slabs announces: “Merry Christmas from Bethlehem ghetto”.

The town now has access to little more than a tenth of its original territory, with homes cut off from farmland, water sources and historic landmarks. A host of ever-expanding Jewish settlements around Bethlehem have been gorging on the rich pickings of their imprisoned neighbours.

Bethlehem’s despondency was heightened this month by the decision of US President Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. That declaration has sparked repeated clashes between Bethlehem’s youth and Israeli occupation forces.

Traditionally, the fates of these cities, the two primary destinations for pilgrims, were intimately tied. Before the construction of the wall, they were only a short drive apart. Now Jerusalem is almost unreachable for Bethlehem’s inhabitants, while Bethlehem itself has become an increasingly unappealing prospect for most outsiders.

Amid the gloom, however, there were two small tidings of joy this month.

Banksy, who earlier this year established a graffiti-themed hotel called the Walled Off Hotel – boasting the “worst view in the world” – put on an alternative nativity play for local children in the shadow of the wall and its armed watch-towers. A two-part BBC documentary shown last week about the planning and staging of The Alternativity gave international audiences a rare up-close view of life in the Bethlehem ghetto.

The other success was a screening this month on Capitol Hill of Leila Sansour’s documentary Open Bethlehem. Along with their invite, US Congress members were sent a “Bethlehem passport”, making them honorary citizens of the town.

Ms Sansour’s film was meant to prick consciences. It charts Bethlehem’s gradual incarceration and the decision of her own extended family to desert the town, like many other Christians, for opportunities abroad.

Today, Bethlehem’s Christians make up only 13 per cent of its population and more than three-quarters blame Israel’s blockade for the exodus. The Open Bethlehem campaign, spawned by the film, quotes James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, saying: “While every Christmas we sing of Bethlehem, most Americans know so little about the town and its people.”

In the only way they could, Bethlehem’s church leaders exacted a small revenge for Mr Trump’s Jerusalem declaration. They closed their doors to Mike Pence, the US vice-president and a pious Christian evangelical. His pre-Christmas visit to the region has now been postponed until next year.

Paradoxically, Mr Pence had originally intended to use the trip to highlight the persecution of Christians in the Middle East – though presumably not the kind of persecution represented by Israel’s wall.

Most Palestinian Christians see Mr Pence not as a potential saviour but very much at the heart of their problems. The vice-president is viewed as the latest personification of a Western evangelical tradition that has consistently betrayed Palestine’s Christian community.

Exactly a century ago, it was British government leaders like David Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour, men of deep Christian conviction, who prioritised the interests of European Jews over the Holy Land’s native Palestinians. The Balfour Declaration set in train a process of colonisation that dispossessed Muslims and Christians alike of their homeland.

Fast forward to today and tens of millions of evangelicals in the US, Israel’s new patron, helped to elect Mr Trump. They were the reason he selected Mr Pence as his running mate and why he cynically transformed the incendiary site of Jerusalem into a campaign vote-winner.

The priorities of Christians like Mr Pence derive not from natural justice, solidarity with fellow Christians or even cold calculation, but from supposed divine prophecy. They interpret the Bible as requiring a return of God’s chosen people, the Jews, to the Promised Land as a way to bring forward the end-time. In a cataclysmic Battle of Armageddon, Jesus will return, they believe. The truly faithful will rise to heaven to be with God while everyone else, including unrepentant Jews, will burn for eternity.

For this reason, a strong Israel – one that includes the Biblical lands on which the illegal Jewish settlements are built – is a central concern for millions of US evangelicals. In contrast, the slow erasure of Palestinian Christians, as well as the heritage and faith they have preserved in the region for 2,000 years, is of little consequence.

Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gleefully exploited his ties to the powerful US evangelical lobby, happy that it dramatically increases his clout in Washington.

Anton Salman, a Palestinian Christian who recently became Bethlehem’s mayor, wrote in exasperation of these fellow Christians: “No church worthy of its name should offer a theological smokescreen for the denial of our most basic rights as Palestinians.”

In Bethlehem, there may soon be few Palestinian Christians left to protect its holy sites, preserve its rituals and liturgy or conduct the nativity celebration itself. And irony of ironies, it will have been fellow Christians who helped to harry this community to extinction.

First published in The National, Abu Dhabi.

How to Recapture the True Spirit of Christmas in a Toxic Age

I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.

―  Charlie Brown, A Charlie Brown Christmas

I keep waiting to encounter the “kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant” Christmas-time environment that Charles Dickens describes in A Christmas Carol: “when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

Instead, every time I read a news headline or flip on the television or open up an email, I run headlong into people consumed with back-biting, partisan politics, sniping, toxic hate, meanness, unfriending and materialism.

How is it that despite all of the blessings and advantages we in the United States possess, as a nation we continue to major in minors, prioritizing politics and profit margins over decency and human-kindness?

We’ve been operating in this topsy-turvy, inside-out, upside-down state of being for too long now, but the absence of goodwill, charity and human kindness is especially apparent now, with Christmas just around the corner when, as Charles Dickens notes, “Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.”

For instance, Americans spent an estimated $6.9 billion dollars on federal elections in 2016. And what do we have to show for it? More of the same. The halls of Congress and the White House are as polluted as ever.

The country’s endless wars, foreign occupations and targeted drone killings have stretched our military thin, robbed us of resources needed to shore up our infrastructure, and left us vulnerable to blowback, and yet the U.S. government has committed close to $6 trillion to advance wars in the Middle East and prop up the military industrial complex.

Pork barrel legislation, waste, corruption and general mismanagement have also contributed to the government’s ballooning $20 trillion debt. Yet the politicians continue to find ways to steal from those who can least afford it, while leading lives of luxury and excess.

Local governments continue to enact policies criminalizing homelessness and making it difficult for those who attempt to feed or shelter the homeless. Yet on any given night, more than 500,000 homeless Americans sleep on the streets or in emergency shelters; more than half of New Yorkers are one paycheck away from homelessness; and one out of every 6 children in the United States doesn’t know when their next meal will be.

To sum things up, Americans have shelled out trillions of dollars of hard-earned tax dollars on political circuses, war machines and graft that fed no one, clothed no one, sheltered no one, and did not in any way shift the balance of power in the country between the haves (the oligarchic elite that runs Washington DC) and the have nots (the millions of taxpayers whose needs are not being heard or represented, and who must labor to pay for the corruption, excesses and graft of the power elite).

When will we ever learn?

Before you know it, Christmas will be a distant memory and we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming of politics, war, violence, materialism and mayhem.

There may not be much we can do to avoid the dismal reality of the police state in the long term—not so long as the powers-that-be continue to call the shots and allow profit margins to take precedence over the needs of people—but in the short term, there are things we can all do right now to make this world (or at least our small corners of it) just a little bit kinder, a little less hostile and a lot more helpful to those in need.

If we want it badly enough, that is.

As John Lennon reminded us, “War is over, if you want it.”

Those last four words are key: “if you want it.” What we must ask ourselves is how badly do we really want peace, a world without hatred and war, and an end to hunger and disease? As Lennon pointed out, “If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace.”

No matter what one’s budget, religion, or political persuasion, here are a few things we can do right now to beat the police state blues and recapture the true spirit of Christmas.

Tone down the partisan rhetoric, the “us” vs. “them” mentality. Politicians frequently perpetuate a “good” versus “evil,” “us” versus “them” rhetoric which pits citizen against citizen and allows the politicians to advance their personal, political agendas. Instead of wasting time and resources on political infighting, which gets us nowhere, it’s time Americans learned to work together to solve the problems before us. The best place to start is in your own communities, neighbor to neighbor.

Minimize the technology and tune into what’s happening in your family, in your community and your world. Ration your screen time. Minimize your exposure to social media. Trade virtual communities for real ones. Get involved with a nonprofit that works in your community. Greet your neighbors. Make time for family meals. Spend time talking to each other instead of at each other. Whatever you do, reduce your intake of mindless television and entertainment news. The only reality programming worth taking notice of is the one playing in your home and community.

Show compassion to those in need, be kind to those around you, forgive those who have wronged you, and teach your children to do the same. Increasingly, people seem to be forgetting their p’s and q’s—basic manners that were drilled into older generations. I’m talking about simple things like holding a door open for someone, helping someone stranded on the side of the road, and saying “please” and “thank you” to those who do you a service—whether it be to the teenager bagging your groceries or the family member who just passed the potatoes.

Talk less, listen more. Take less, and give more. If people spent less time dwelling on and attending to their own needs and more time trying to help and understand those around them, many of the problems we currently face could be eliminated. Instead of counting your many complaints, count your blessings and pay them forward. Here’s where I’ll put in a plug for The Rutherford Institute, which is one of the most hard-working, ethical and selfless organizations out there trying to make this sorry little world a better place. If the spirit of giving moves you, take a moment to send some love their way. They’re doing a lot with very little, and they can use all the help they can get.

Stop being a hater. Increasingly, we as a society have come to reflect the hostility at work in the world at large. This is so even in such a virtual microcosm as Facebook, where “unfriending” those with whom you might disagree has become commonplace. How can we ever hope to curb the hatred and animosity that have spurred global terrorism over the past few decades if we can’t even forgive the human failings of those in our immediate circles?

Learn tolerance in the true sense of the word. There’s no need to legislate tolerance through hate crime legislation and other politically correct mechanisms of compliance. True tolerance stems from a basic respect for one’s fellow man or woman. And it should be taught to children from the time they can understand right from wrong.

Value your family. The family, such that it is, is already in great disrepair, torn apart by divorce, infidelity, over-scheduling, overwork, materialism, and an absence of spirituality. Despite the billions we spend on childcare, toys, clothes, private lessons, etc., a concern for our children no longer seems to be a prime factor in how we live our lives. And now we are beginning to see the blowback from collapsing familial relationships. Indeed, more and more, I hear about young people refusing to talk to their parents, grandparents being denied access to their grandchildren, and older individuals left to molder away in nursing homes. Yet without the family, the true building block of our nation, there can be no freedom.

Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and comfort the lonely and broken-hearted. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Take part in local food drives. Take a meal to a needy family. “Adopt” an elderly person at a nursing home. Support the creation of local homeless shelters in your community. Urge your churches, synagogues and mosques to act as rotating thermal shelters for the homeless during the cold winter months. Jesus—the reason for the season, as they say—is quoted in the Book of Matthew as cautioning his followers, “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.” In other words, put your faith into action and help those in need.

Give peace a chance.  The military industrial complex has a lot to gain financially so long as America continues to wage its wars at home and abroad, but you can be sure that the American people will lose everything unless we find some way to give peace a chance.

We’re all in the same boat together. It’s been a toxic year full of hateful rhetoric demonizing those with whom one might disagree politically, racially, religiously, culturally, economically, morally, etc. These differences won’t matter in the long run. At a certain level, we’re all the same. We’re all in the same boat together. Indeed, as I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, unless we do something to stop it the oppression and injustice of the police state now—whether it takes the form of shootings, surveillance, fines, asset forfeiture, prison terms, roadside searches, and so on—we will all suffer the same deadly fate eventually.

As Dickens reminds us, it’s never too late to make things right in the world and try to be better people and, most importantly of all, pay your blessings forward.

Whether you do it as the Grinch did by reaching out to people with whom you don’t see eye to eye and building bridges of friendship, or as Scrooge did, by repenting of his greed, selfishness and bah humbuggery and looking out for those in need, the point, my friends, is to do it now before it’s too late, not just at Christmas time, but always.

Let’s Unite and Demonstrate the True Meaning of Christmas

(Image credit Banksy)

The holiday period provides us with a unique opportunity to express the new awareness that must inform a less commercialised and more sharing-oriented world. Rather than spending all our time partaking in conspicuous consumption, why don’t we commemorate Christmas by organising massive gatherings for helping the poor and healing the environment?

*****

At this time of year, our overconsuming lifestyles in the affluent Western world are impossible to ignore. Brightly-lit shops are bursting with festive foods and expensive indulgences, while seasonal songs play in the background of shopping malls to keep us spending the money we don’t have on things we don’t need to make impressions that don’t matter.

The frenetic commercialism of Christmas on the high streets continues to escalate to inconceivable proportions. Despite all the warnings from climate scientists that ordinary Western lifestyles are destroying the planet, still we buy enough Christmas trees in the UK alone that could reach New York and back, if placed in a straight line. Enough card packaging is thrown away in this country that could cover Big Ben almost 260,000 times. Not to mention the 4,500 tonnes of tin foil, the 2 million turkeys, the 74 million mince pies and 5 million mounds of charred raisins (from rejected Christmas puddings) that are thrown away come early January. Mountains of e-waste from discarded electronic items – much of it bought as unwanted gifts and soon discarded – is projected to reach 10 million tonnes by 2020.

Pause for a moment and try to picture the extent of that annual waste by the British populace. For if you combine our surplus produce with every Christian nation in Western Europe, North America and other over-industrialised regions, you have an appalling idea of the unnecessary ecological destruction that we collectively contribute to each year. Christmas is, after all, only an exaggerated illustration of the gross materialism that defines our everyday lives in a consumerist society.

What is more difficult for us to contemplate, however, is how our profligate consumption habits also directly exacerbate levels of inequality worldwide. We know that the so-called developed world – roughly 16% of the global population – consumes a hugely disproportionate share of the earth’s resources, and is responsible for at least half of all greenhouse gas emissions. But behind such statistics lies a depressing reality, in which our artificial standards of living in the global North are dependent on the dire working conditions and impoverishment of millions of people throughout the global South.

In spite of the spurious claims of trickle-down economics by the adherents of corporate globalisation, the number of people living on less than $5-a-day has increased by more than 1.1 billion since the 1980s. The vast majority of people who live in developing countries survive on less than $10-a-day; none of their families can remotely afford the wasteful and conspicuous consumption that we consider normal.

Our personal complicity in this unsustainable global order is highly complex, of course, because we are all caught in a socioeconomic and cultural system that depends on ever-expanding consumerism for its survival. Everywhere, we are besieged with messages that encourage us to buy more stuff, as profit-driven businesses increasingly seek to meet our needs – either real or constructed – through interaction in the marketplace. Our consumption patterns are often tied to our sense of identity, our desire for belonging, our need for comfort, our self-esteem.

So we are all the victims of an excessively commercialised culture, not only in a collective way through environmental harm and global warming, but also through the proximate psychological and emotional harm that in some way afflicts everyone. We experience that harm through the time-poverty of affluence; through all the pressures of living in an individualistic and market-dominated society; through all that we have lost due to the competitive work/consume treadmill – our freedom for leisure, our mental space, our community cohesion, our psychological health. There is also an inarticulable form of spiritual harm that arises from simply being part of this exploitative world order, in which our over-consuming lifestyles in the West are connected to the vast suffering and immiseration of people in poorer countries who we do not know, or care to know.

Clearly it is the whole system that needs to go through a radical transformation – but how can that transformation be brought about, when we ourselves are the constituent parts that maintain the system in its currently destructive form?

Over many decades, the basic problem and solution has been well articulated in a theoretical sense by progressive thinkers. Numerable reports cite the physics of planetary boundaries, demonstrating how we already require one and a half planets to support today’s consumption levels. Simply put, it is impossible to reconcile the twin challenges of ending poverty and achieving environmental sustainability, unless we also confront the huge imbalances in consumption patterns across the world, and fundamentally re-imagine the economy as something different that escapes the growth compulsion.

Hence the resurgent focus on post-growth economics in a world of limits, recognising the importance of reducing the use of natural resources in high-income countries, so that poorer nations can sustainably grow their economies and rapidly meet the basic needs of their populations. Nowhere is the case for sharing the world’s resources more obvious or urgent, than in the question of how to achieve equity-based sustainable development or ‘one planet lifestyles’ for all.

Yet our societies remain so far from embarking on this great transition, that the interrelated trends of commercialisation, inequality and environmental destruction continue to intensify year on year. What better example of double-standards and duplicity than the spectacle of French President Emmanuel Macron convening the ‘One Planet Summit’ this month to demonstrate international solidarity in addressing climate change, while at the same time governments were attending the resurrected World Trade Organisation talks in their continued attempts to turn the world into a corporate playground with minimal protections for the poor.

These larger questions of global injustice and ecological imbalance may seem far removed from our daily lives, but everyone who participates in a modern consumerist society is conjointly responsible for perpetuating destruction and divisions on an international scale. Again, our frenzied spending around Thanksgiving and Christmas time is a salient case in point, exemplifying how our relentless mass consumption is directly propping up an extreme market-oriented economic system, and further preventing us all from embracing the radical transformations that will be required in the transition to a post-growth world. What, then, should we do?

There are lots of answers from campaigners about how we can de-commercialise Christmas, like the buy nothing movement that advocates we ignore altogether the conditioned compulsion to purchase luxury goods, thus demonstrating our awareness of over-consumption and how it affects global disparities and the earth. At the least, we can practise ethical giving and support the work of activist groups and charitable organisations. For example, Christian Aid has released a witty video this year that entreats UK citizens to be aware of festive food waste in the context of global hunger, and donate £10 from Christmas food shopping – enough for a family in South Sudan to eat for a week.

Actions like these may constitute a small step towards celebrating Christmas with awareness of the critical world situation, and the need for Westernised populations to live more lightly on the earth, while prioritising the needs of the less-privileged. If extended beyond the holiday season, hopefully that awareness may be translated into a mass movement that rejects the consumerist lifestyle altogether, instead voluntarily downshifting their lifestyles and meeting more of their needs in ways that bypass the mainstream economy.

As proponents of the gift economy, the commons and collaborative consumption variously attest, this is the long-term antidote to mass consumerism. It means becoming co-creators of alternative economic systems in which we reinvest in our communities, shift our values towards quality of life and wellbeing, and embrace a new ethic of sufficiency. It means resisting the competitive economic pressures towards materialism and privatised modes of living, thereby releasing our time and energies for cooperative activities that promote communal production, co-owning and civic engagement. It means, in short, an expanded understanding of what it means to be human on this earth, in which we relearn how to participate in civic life and share resources at every level of society.

The holiday period during Christmas actually provides us with a unique opportunity to express the new awareness that must inform a less commercialised and more sharing-oriented world. Rather than spending all our time partaking in conspicuous consumption that has nothing to do with the message of Christ, why don’t we organise local meetings or massive gatherings for helping the poor and healing the environment, both in our own countries and further abroad?

Such an appeal to our goodwill and conscience is made in a seminal essay by Mohammed Mesbahi, titled Christmas, the System and I. He exhorts us to imagine what could be done if all the money we needlessly spend on festivities and unwanted gifts was collectively pooled, then redistributed to all those who urgently need it. Indeed imagine what could be achieved if people not only donate to charities at this time of year, but also unite in countless numbers on the streets for sharing and justice on behalf of the poorest members of the human family.

If Jesus were walking among us today, writes Mesbahi, surely that is what He would call on us to do. For what cause can be of greater priority in this era of growing inequalities and planetary crisis, than the need to save the millions of people who continue to die from poverty-related causes each year? Perhaps that would be the first expression of the true meaning of Christmas in the twenty first century, when millions of people come together in constant demonstrations that call upon our governments to implement the principle of sharing into world affairs.

Sex, Drugs and Rollickin’ Roles: Christmas and Our Ever-Changing Relationship with Nature

​​Traditions of the Winter Solstice

Christmas is an ancient feast that has many positive associations for people around the world. While the bible places the birth of Christ in Bethlehem it does not say when, but by the 4th century the Churches in the East were celebrating it on January 6 and the Churches of the West on December 25.

One thing is certain about Christmas is that it is rooted in many traditions and superstitions relating to nature that existed long before Christmas and many have continued in one form or another to the present day. The many strands of Christmas can be seen in the variety of different traditions associated with, or originating in, places all over Europe. These strands are, inter alia, the solstice, the Nativity, Saturnalia, Yuletide, St Nicholas, Father Christmas, and Grandfather Frost (Ded Moroz).

The association of Christmas with its earlier midwinter nature worship traditions declined as the Church exerted its power and authority over pagan practices and in more recent centuries as the industrial revolution took people away from the land and into the cities and factories. Since then industrialisation has taken over many aspects of people’s lives as they shifted from being producers to consumers.

As direct contact with nature declined and scientific knowledge was applied to production, our lives were made easier by an abundance of relatively cheap goods and food. These benefits have come at another price though as industrialisation and technology the world over pushes nature further and further into ecological crises. There is much discussion and debate about the potential for a tipping point as the destruction of ecosystems and climate change move headlong towards irreversible damage of the Earth’s biosphere.

This has come about, partly due to our alienation from nature, but also due to a system which blinds us to the excesses of production through mass media, and Christmas has become the vehicle for the worst excesses of industrialisation, commercialisation and commodification. However, this is a gross distortion of its roots in respecting nature and nature worship which was ultimately about a heightened awareness of survival in an unpredictable world.

Sex

The predominant figure of Christmas has become Santa Claus (Dutch: Sinter Klaas) and originated in the stories around St Nicholas, the 4th century Bishop of Myra (Turkey), giving anonymous gifts to help people in need or trouble.1 In many European regions St Nicholas came door to door with a bishop’s mitre and crosier on his feast day, December 6. He was accompanied by his helper Ruprecht or Krampus as he is known in the Alpine regions. Krampus is depicted as half goat and half demon and punished misbehaving children with a rod.

Krampus

It is believed that Krampus derives from the much earlier pre-Christian Norse mythology and that he was the son of the god of the underworld Hel. While the name Krampus is believed to originate from Krampen meaning ‘claw’, Ruprecht is believed to be from “Hruodperaht” meaning “gloriously shining one” another name of Wotan. Their negative status is likely the result of Christian attempts to assert dominance over the pagan peoples of the time, in the same way that the Celtic goddess Bridget was demoted by the Christian church to St Bridget. Krampus is an evil fertility demon who scares children (reversing his earlier role as fertility god) with his hazel wood rod:

The hazelnut was holy to Donar, the God of marital and animal fertility. The hazel wood rod was considered a great rod of life. With this symbol of the penis, women and animals were beaten “with gusto” in order for them to become fertile.2

This fertility rite has continued to the present day on Easter Mondays in the Czech Republic when young women are whipped with a braided rod of willow called a pomlázka to “assure womankind with good health, fresh look and keep fertility. The girls then give coloured or painted eggs to boys and men as a sign of their thanks and forgiveness.”

Pomlázka

During the 12th century the church tried to end the Krampus celebrations but it seems that, like with many popular traditions, they re-surfaced and were re-integrated back into church traditions. Unlike the ‘demonised’ Krampus, the Christian St Nicholas distributed typical gifts of nuts, dried fruits, chocolate, spices and toys.3 These gifts were also symbols of fertility. Hazelnuts helped people survive winter as they could be easily stored and were rich in fats and vitamins. Apples were associated with the Tree of Paradise and dried fruits such as oranges and lemons served as fertility symbols in the Mediterranean countries as they were the first fruit of the year and thus herald a good harvest.4

Drugs

Another major association of Norse mythology with Christmas is the reindeer pulling the Santa’s sleigh. The first mention of St Nicholas in the air in popular mythology is of him “riding jollily among the tree-tops, or over the roofs of the houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pockets and dropping them down the chimneys of his favourites” is by Washington Irving in his satirical work, A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809). At this point St Nicholas was not associated with Christmas and presents were exchanged on the night before his feast day on December 6.

However, in a poem written in 1822, Clement Moore has St Nicholas arrive with his presents on the night before Christmas and in “a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer” who “would mount to the sky […] with a sleigh full of toys” and then go down the chimneys to deliver his gifts thus shifting celebrations of St Nicholas in the United States from his feast day on December 6 to Christmas Eve on December 24 instead.5

The phenomenon of flying animals has long been associated in Norse mythology with Wotan (Odin) and his flying eight legged horse Sleipnir, and with Thor and his flying goat-drawn chariot.

​”Odin and Sleipnir” (1911) by John Bauer

Wotan is depicted as one-eyed and long-bearded in Old Norse texts and is a fierce god associated with wisdom, healing and war. Children would leave straw in their boots for Sleipnir by the hearth and Wotan would exchange it for a gift in return for their kindness.

Thor was also depicted as a fierce god of thunder and lightning, storms, oak trees and fertility. Another god, Morozko, the powerful and cruel Slavic god of frost and ice could freeze people and landscapes at will, became known as Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) but was eventually demonised by the Russian Orthodox Church. As our fear of nature declined and Christmas became more of a child-centered celebration, the depictions of these gods became less fierce over time.

Thor and Tyr in their Goat-Drawn Chariot (From “The Book of Myths” by Amy Cruse, 1925)

The flying aspect of Santa’s reindeers is believed to refer to the reindeers’ fondness for Fly Agaric mushrooms associated with Old Nordic Shamanism. The Shamanic ‘flight of the soul’ was part of the culture of people in arctic Europe and Siberia who would communicate with the souls of their ancestors in an altered state of consciousness helped along by the hallucinogenic mushrooms.6 Like the Church attempts to eradicate the earlier fertility traditions and the gods associated with them, shamanism has been considered mere superstition and attacked by both Churches and governments alike.

It seems that what shamanism and fertility rites have in common is the idea of directly engaging with nature to secure desired material or spiritual goals. Both Krampus and Shamanism have been associated with Satan who “uses deception and demonic spirits seeking our destruction” yet their popularity has ebbed and flowed over the centuries without disappearing altogether.

Rollickin’ Roles

Similarly the Bacchanalian aspect of Christmas celebrations is a survival of Saturnalia, the Roman celebration of Saturn the “god of generation, dissolution, plenty, wealth, agriculture, periodic renewal and liberation” which could also be described as an engagement with the cycles of nature. Saturnalia was “a time of feasting, role reversals, free speech, gift-giving and revelry” held on December 17 of the Julian calendar and was subsequently extended to 23 December. Saturnalia originated as a farmer’s festival to mark the end of the autumn planting season in honour of Saturn (satus means sowing).

According to Justinus, the 2nd century Roman historian, these celebratory aspects of Saturnalia derived from, and were explained by, its origins with pre-Roman peoples of Italy who:

were the Aborigines, whose king, Saturnus, is said to have been a man of such extraordinary justice, that no one was a slave in his reign, or had any private property, but all things were common to all, and undivided, as one estate for the use of every one; in memory of which way of life, it has been ordered that at the Saturnalia slaves should everywhere sit down with their masters at the entertainments, the rank of all being made equal.

Once again the association with nature and the Golden Age (when people lived in peace and harmony) forms the basis of a celebration which was to be co-opted by the Church and eventually attacked for its excesses. According to a Puritan minister in 17th century England, Increase Mather, Christmas occurred on December 25 not because “Christ was born in that month, but because the heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those pagan holidays metamorphosed into Christian [ones]. Stephen Nissenbaum, in his book The Battle for Christmas, writes:

Puritans believed Christmas was basically just a pagan custom that the Catholics took over without any biblical basis for it. The holiday had everything to do with the time of year, the solstice and Saturnalia and nothing to do with Christianity.

Presumably the masters could not cope with the concept of equality and saw Saturnalia instead as a role reversal. In pre-industrial England people would elect a Lord of Misrule who would be in charge of Christmas festivities and who even had license to poke fun at the nobility.7 Yet the Lords of Misrule were an important aspect of Christmas as the reversal of traditional social norms was a safety valve for class tensions in England. It was around this time that the personification of Christmas as Father Christmas began to appear.

​Father Christmas 1848

He was associated not with children, presents, chimneys or stockings, but with adult merrymaking and feasting. During Christmas ‘great quantities of brawn, roast beef, ‘plum-pottage’, minced pies and special Christmas ale were consumed’ and people enjoyed singing, dancing and card games resulting in ‘drunkenness, promiscuity and other forms of excess.’ Thus when the Puritans took over government in the 1640s they tried  ‘to abolish the Christian festival of Christmas and to outlaw the customs associated with it’. The satirical Royalist poet, John Taylor, wrote in The Complaint of Christmas:

All the liberty and harmless sports, with the merry gambols, dances and friscals [by] which the toiling plowswain and labourer were wont to be recreated and their spirits and hopes revived for a whole twelve month are now extinct and put out of use in such a fashion as if they never had been. Thus are the merry lords of misrule suppressed by the mad lords of bad rule at Westminster.

However by the 1650s it was reported that the taverns were full on Christmas day, churches were decorated in rosemary as usual, Christmas Boxes had been given out, presents exchanged and mummers paid despite the bans. Worse still violence broke out in London when:

a large crowd of Londoners gathered to prevent the mayor and his marshalls removing the Christmas decorations which some of the city porters had draped around the conduit in Cornhill. The confrontation ended in uproar, with arrests, injuries, and the bolting of the mayor’s frightened horse.

The Christmas celebrations returned with Charles II in 1660 and showed once again the attempt to impose a narrow religious view on the multifaceted ancient traditions of people had failed.

Trees

Somewhat earlier, in the 14th and 15th centuries in Germany, craftsmen began to decorate their guild halls with trees and adorning them with fruits and nuts. This eventually led to the German, Charlotte, who married King George III in 1761, potting up and decorating a yew tree and initiating the custom in England. Legend has it that in Germany, St Boniface, an historical figure from the 7th century, saw a group of people honouring the sacred tree, Donar’s Oak (sometimes referred to as Thor’s Oak) somewhere around Hesse, became angry and chopped the tree down (and added insult to injury by using the wood to build his church).

St Boniface chopping the oak tree

Sacred trees and sacred groves were very important to the Germanic peoples and were too important to be cut down. Again we can see that the earlier traditions of pre-Christian society revolved around revering nature:

Some were wont secretly, some openly to sacrifice to trees and springs; some in secret, others openly practiced inspections of victims and divinations, legerdemain and incantations; some turned their attention to auguries and auspices and various sacrificial rites; while others, with sounder minds, abandoned all the profanations of heathenism, and committed none of these things.

Over time, cutting the evergreen tree and bringing it indoors became an important part of Christmas traditions [see my previous article on Christmas trees] despite church proscription, because of its shamanic-pagan past.

Another early nature-based tradition is the wassail in England. Wassailing is a very ancient custom that is referenced in history as early as the eighth-century poem Beowulf. The word ‘wassail’ is believed to be derived from the Old Norse ‘ves heil’ and the Old English ‘was hál’ and meaning “be in good health” or “be fortunate.” The wassail had an important significance for farmers:

In parts of Medieval Britain, a different sort of wassailing emerged: farmers wassailed their crops and animals to encourage fertility. An observer recorded, “They go into the Ox-house to the oxen with the Wassell-bowle and drink to their health.” The practice continued into the eighteenth century, when farmers in the west of Britain toasted the good health of apple trees to promote an abundant crop the next year. Some placed cider-soaked bread in the branches to ward off evil spirits. In other locales, villagers splashed the trees with cider while firing guns or beating pots and pans.

The Apple Tree Wassail lyrics anticipate the next year and a good crop:

(It’s) Our wassail jolly wassail!
Joy come to our jolly wassail!
How well they may bloom, how well they may bear
So we may have apples and cider next year.

Solstice and the Unconquered Sun

Our awareness of mid winter and the solstice (‘sun stands still’) is shown to go back to the late Neolithic and Bronze Age with Newgrange in Ireland and Stonehenge in England. In both cases the monuments have been aligned to the solstice, sunrise at Newgrange and sunset at Stonehenge. It has been the occasion of celebrations, rituals and gatherings as the sun appears to be reborn and the days start getting longer again. After this time food became scarce (January to April) which were known as the ‘famine months’. It was the last feast of the year as cattle were slaughtered and wine and beer were ready for drinking. The ‘rebirth’ of the sun was known as Sol Invictus or the ‘unconquered sun’ god during the Roman Empire in the 3rd century CE and the Emperor Aurelian dedicated a temple to Sol to be celebrated on December 25. Solar deities have been represented as both gods and goddesses in different cultures and are particularly important in mid winter when the sun is low in the sky. In many countries in Europe the tradition of the Yule log burning was an important festival to help strengthen the weakened sun.

Yule log

A large log, big enough to burn for the 12 days of Christmas, was brought into the houses and burned. It was believed to have originated with the Norse and the Celts who had large bonfires to welcome the return of the sun. The log was thought to have magical properties and the ashes were then used as fertiliser and as cures for both people and animals and would protect them for the year to come.

Nature

Throughout the world there have been many forms of nature worship demonstrating that people respected and feared nature in equal amounts over the millennia. We have a complex relationship with nature, indeed we are an important part of nature. We have to negotiate every aspect of that relationship, be it food, water, reproduction, climate (storms avalanches, floods, droughts, fires), the seasons, the geophysical (earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes), light (length of day, sleeping during hours of darkness) etc.

In the past people hoped and prayed that in the next year nature would allow them to live well again and consequently treated nature with respect. To do that people were careful not to over-exploit nature in various ways: by leaving land fallow, having food taboos, allowing areas to regenerate by moving on, by not over-using a food resource, thus creating the basis of sustainability into the future. Their respectful attitude to nature was reflected in what we call superstitions and paganism but it allowed them to celebrate Christmas without guilt in the knowledge that they had treated nature well and that nature would reciprocate with a bountiful harvest the next year.

Today, on the other hand, we are alienated from this way of thinking and living to the extent that people have lost direct control of their relationship with nature. The ever increasing industrial overproduction of meat, over-fishing, over-fertilisation, deforestation, air pollution and extractivism is pushing nature to extremes and already we are seeing the catastrophic results of this in climate change. Maybe as climate change brings ever fiercer storms and destruction of food production we will learn to respect and fear nature again.

  1. Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus, by Jeremy Seal, p. 28.
  2. Pagan Christmas: the Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origin of Yuletide, by Christian Ratsch and Claudia Muller-Ebeling, p. 33.
  3. Pagan Christmas, p. 36.
  4. Pagan Christmas, p. 52/3.
  5. From Stonehenge to Santa Claus: The Evolution of Christmas, by Paul Frodsham, p. 164.
  6. Pagan Christmas, p. 46/47.
  7. Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth’s Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony, Richard Heinberg, p. 107.