Tag Archives: The Festive Season

At the year’s end

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This time of year seems to be one for reviewing the past twelve months, and looking into the twelve to come. I find myself sitting here on Christmas Day, feeling very much at a loose end for numerous reasons, so introspection comes easily to me. I’m not going to bother to look outside my own sphere, as there are plenty of outlets for that kind of depressing stuff as it is.

I do have family, but we rarely get together for Christmas these days. It’s not because we can’t, it’s more we don’t really need to added to the fact we’re scattered around the country. We see each other fairly regularly, and we chat on the phone, or by email, so we keep up with each other. Christmas is a time for family, but it’s also a time for children—since we don’t have any littluns in the immediate family, there’s no real joy in it: just a bunch of middle aged and elderly folk eating and drinking themselves into a stupor in front of some rubbish television programmes. Christmas 2012 is just me, Best Beloved, our moggies, and a friend who is popping in for lunch.

While, for me, 2012 didn’t turn out quite so badly as it might have, it could have been better. I’ve been job-hunting for ages, and I even managed to score a few interviews over the year—which was more positive. None of them ended with me scoring the job, though. At least I was getting interviews, but I was obviously too good for them. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. I think 2013 will see me applying for jobs that don’t require the skills I actually have. Such is life.

Between job-hunting I tried to keep my head above water without resorting to claiming benefits. The freelance world turned up one or two little jobs, which helped the bottom line, but it’s fair to say my heart really isn’t in it any more. It does rather look like I will throw in the towel in the new year, and sign on. I’ve not “signed on” since 1981. It feels like admitting defeat, which I suppose it is.

On the photographic side, I’ve had some fun. I got off my arse and organised a local photowalk group. Still in its infancy, I want to get things moving properly in the new year. I’m happy to say I’ve made some new friends through it, but I am finding the whole process a little daunting. I suppose I really want someone else to offer to help, so I had better ask them!

There still has not been any progress on the “model photography as a job” front. I had some images published earlier in the year, and I was commissioned by the ScaleSeven Group committee and newsletter editor to photograph a layout. It’s still a hard world to break into, for some reason, and it’s very annoying.

I’ve always wanted to go on a photography workshop, and the chance popped up today. Chris Marquardt, of the Tips From The Top Floor podcast, has organised two UK workshops for the late summer in 2013. I was keen to try and attend the one nearest me, in Farnborough, Hampshire. Sadly, the price is beyond my means. I am very unhappy about this, and it’s rather put the mockers on the rest of my day.

I have some more commissioned models to make, and I hope that I may be able to get a little more trade in that direction. It’s pitching things at the right prices, and getting my name out there. There are lots of others out there doing the same thing, so I need to find my niche. That is going to be hard.

So, 2012 was a bit hit and miss, and it rather looks like 2013 will start out the same. They say life is what you make it, so I guess I’d better really get myself organised and make something of my life, before it’s too late!

I don’t make resolutions, as such. As I tend to begin a new year with good intentions, only to be knocked down at almost every turn, there seems little point resolving to do something that ends up unattainable. I’d like to lose weight, I ought to get out on my bike more regularly, I should tidy the house and finish all those unfinished projects, but that’s as far as I will go with my good intentions. I know full well that most of those I have listed will probably never happen.

I’d better go and make myself sociable with our lunch guest, even though I am really not in the mood. A very merry Christmas and best wishes for the year to come from Snaptophobic Towers!

Why is every Christmas TV advert like a nail gun to the tearducts?

Here it is, Merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun. Well, it isn’t, and they aren’t, but it might as well be. For this weekend, all the Christmas advertising campaigns launched. “Holidays are coming”, chant the perennially joyful Coca-Cola singers in Rainbowland as a giant truck snarls down Main Street, cruelly failing to add “Open brackets, in six weeks’ time, if you’re lucky, close brackets”.

What have we become? What led us to here? What led us to a world in which every single advert ever has to have snow in it, and try and make us cry? What happened? What have we done to deserve this? In Christmasadvertland, it always snows, and families are lovely, and mums do everything, and men are hopeless and buy a turd in a box and have to get helped out, because their rancid brains are full of stupid, and it always snows. Stop the madness. Stop it now.

via Why is every Christmas TV advert like a nail gun to the tearducts?.

As many of you may already know, I have become very dischuffed with the whole Christmas thing over the past few years. I’m not going to go into the whole dreary thing again, but do read the linked article in full. It sums up so much so well about how we have completely forgotten what Christmas used to be about. Two thousand years after a man was nailed to a tree for suggesting people should be nice to one other*, the meaning of Christmas now appears to be entirely about buying more tat to improve the bottom line of big businesses everywhere. Who are we fooling?

* With apologies to Douglas Adams for the very poor paraphrasing.

Evergreens at Christmas

Before shiny tinsel and lights, it was the tradition to decorate the home for Christmas using evergreen plants, such as holly, ivy and mistletoe. All three have, therefore, long been linked with the winter festivals, and have accrued their fair share of superstitions and myths. Decorating rooms with branches of evergreens in winter was a Roman tradition, and decorating with greenery is also an ancient Jewish tradition. It should come as no surprise, then, that Christians incorporated such traditions, though this is probably more because the Pagan traditions proved to hard to stamp out!

Apart from their attractive appearance, Christmas decorations of holly are also guardians against evil, although it is considered bad luck to keep them up after Twelfth Night — January 6, which coincides with the Old Christmas Day. Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions still hold to this calendar for their Christmas season, which is why some folk are getting all Christmassy just as the rest of us are packing away the tired decorations for another year.

There are something like 600 species of holly around the world. Holly supposedly derives its name from the word “holy”, though more accurately it seems the word comes to English from Germanic roots. Tradition says holly’s evergreen leaves represent eternal life, its thorns and red berries are symbolic of the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ at his crucifixion. Probably from Pagan times, holly’s prickles make it an ideal deterrent against all evil spirits, which is the reason for making holly wreath displays for front doors, and decorating the rooms of our homes with it to ensure a happy and misfortune-free Christmas. Superstition does decree, however, that you must pick the holly before Christmas Eve, or be open to the evil intentions of any enemy you may have in either the real or the spirit world.

Because of its association with the Roman god Bacchusivy used to be hung outside inns and was naturally considered a good luck plant. If it grows on the walls of a house it is said to protect those inside from misfortune and the ministrations of evil spirits, but should the plant die then those inside are in for misfortune, probably of the financial kind. Again, the name comes to us from an old Germanic form. The heart-shaped leaves are said to symbolise the coming to earth of Jesus.

Mistletoe featured prominently in Greek mythology, which also appears to have influenced the Scandinavian myths about the plant. It all begins to get a bit complicated from there, what with Loki,Baldr and HöðrFrigg and an arrow made of mistletoe. If such things take your interest, type mistletoe into Wikipedia! Surprisingly, although mistletoe is commonly known as a Christmas decoration, it wasn’t well known until a couple of centuries ago.

According to tradition, the mistletoe must not touch the ground between harvesting and removal as the last greens at Candlemas – which is not on Twelfth Night as you might think. You might also note that while it is perfectly permissible to cut down a few branches of mistletoe, never take the whole tree, for this will result in the dire bad luck. It may also remain hanging through the year, as a ward to protect the house against fire or being struck by lightning, until replaced on the following Christmas Eve.

Many of us may know the tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe. This seems to be a Scandinavian custom, where any two people who meet under a hanging mistletoe are obliged to kiss.

Finally, a warning about a piece of mistletoe which has been much kissed under — unless it is burned on Twelfth Night, says a superstition found in many European countries, all those who kissed beneath it will be quarrelling before the year is out.

The next instalment in this short seasonal series ought to be about Father Christmas himself.

 Related posts: Merry Christmas!

 

Merry Christmas!

Ah, Christmas. The season of gluttony and debt. Once a religious festival, now just a glorification of consumerism.

That’s been my jaundiced opinion of the festive season for some years now. I outgrew the schmaltz and fake snow, the forced happiness and tawdry tinsel some time ago, but then I don’t have children. Christmas is really a time for the little ones, before the magic gets tarnished by the reality.

Disliking the overly commercialised aspects of Christmas doesn’t stop me being fascinated by it. Where do all those “traditional” elements spring from? Why are some pre-Christian traditions still stubbornly followed, some 200 centuries after the events supposedly commemorated this time of the year? Then again, there are some superstitions and traditions that have fallen by the wayside. There’s more to Christmas than the goose getting fat and plum pudding.

The Christmas festival of today is a confection chiefly cooked up by the Victorians, with a fair measure of early 20th century Americana thrown in. However, the roots of what is essentially a midwinter festival go back an awful lot further than that.

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In the beginning

On the shortest day of the year, a little after sunrise, a sunbeam begins its journey along the stone passageway of probably the most impressive prehistoric structure in Europe. Even though the passage of Newgrange, a spectacular monument that sits on a ridge overlooking the River Boyne, north of Dublin, is slightly twisted, eventually the sun reaches about 25m to the far end. The beam touches the front edge of a stone basin, which is set below intricate carvings of spirals and solar discs. The soft light illuminates the basin, thought to be the inner sanctum of the tomb, where the cremated remains of ancestors may have been placed, for about a quarter of an hour. Then the sunlight retreats and darkness returns. This event is repeated for a week or so either side of the winter solstice, then leaving the stone basin in the chamber in darkness for the rest of the year.

Newgrange is about 5000 years old, older than Stonehenge by some centuries. I think we can safely assume the careful observation that lets the winter solstice sunlight touch the resting place of the ancestors predates the monument’s construction by some time. Indeed, it is now thought that Stonehenge also has stones set specifically to observe the winter solstice sunset, as well as the more obvious and famous midsummer sunrise. Observing, following, venerating the change of the seasons is deeply rooted in humankind.

Particular emphasis seems to have been given to those seasonal changes when the nights began to get shorter, and the weather would get better again. The symbolism of death and rebirth was not wasted on the ancients. When you could never be certain you or your family would make it through the winter alive, marking important points in the calendar, and making offerings to ancestors or gods to help you through the remaining dark days to spring, could be crucial.

Marking the midwinter point, therefore, is deeply ingrained in our civilisation. So deep that many of the customs and traditions have managed to survive a millennium and more of Christianity. It also seems the original Christian observances were eventually shifted to closer match the deeply ingrained winter festivals in date. December 25 as a day of celebration can apparently be traced back to the Romans, for example. It is said December 25 was the culmination of either the feast of Saturnalia or possibly Dies Natalis Solus Invicti (birthday of the unconquered sun). Saturnalia, it seems, is responsible for the festive merrymaking and giving of gifts, and the Roman new year has left us with decorations and acts of charity.

Whose birthday is it?

Christ’s birth date is not given in the New Testament. According to some scholars, Jesus was conceived around the time of the spring equinox, which popularised the date for his birth as December 25 in the AD 220s. Despite this, celebrating birthdays, even of gods, was rather frowned upon, so it seems Christmas was not a feast at this time.

Early Christians celebrated the birth of Christ as part of Epiphany, which falls on January 6 in the Gregorian calendar. This really emphasised the baptism of Christ. It wasn’t until the revival of Catholicism towards the end of the 4th century that Christmas itself began to be promoted. Even so, Epiphany continued to be the more important celebration.

Orthodox Christians still use the old Julian calendar to place Christmas. This is why they appear to be kicking off their Christmas Day celebrations on January 6, the day when we in the west are pulling all the decorations down and looking forward to the rest of January in gloom.

Christmas Day itself became more prominent after various monarchs decided to hold their coronations on December 25, Charlemagne and William the Conqueror being just two.

It took until the Middle Ages for Christmas to really take flight. It’s around the 12th century the idea of Advent occurs, which eventually gave us the Twelve Days of Christmas, December 25 to January 5. Advent marks the first day of the liturgical year, starting on the fourth Sunday before Christmas day, which is why your Advent calendar tends to cover the whole of December, although in 2010 Advent started on November 27…

Eventually, all the feasting and merrymaking became so lavish and elaborate that puritan Protestants began to strongly condemn the celebration as a Catholic invention. Following the Parliamentarian victory over Charles I during the English Civil War, the new Puritan rulers, seeking to remove the remaining Pagan elements of Christmas, banned the celebration in 1647, despite protests and folk openly continuing to celebrate.

The ban was ended in 1660, with the restoration of the monarchy. However, by 1820 some writers worried that Christmas was dying out. Authors began to look back to earlier times, such as the Tudors, when the season was full of celebration. Efforts were made to revive the traditions of Christmas, helped no end by Charles Dickens publishing A Christmas Carol in 1843. If our modern Christmas has a beginning, the tale of Scrooge and the three spirits of Christmas must surely be one of the prime candidates.

So much to tell

Rather than get side-tracked by all the religious kerfuffle surrounding Christmas, let’s take a quick look at the other traditions that mark Christmas in the modern world. I will cover some in more detail in future posts.

From pre-Christian times, we get the use of evergreen plants to decorate our homes. Holly, ivy and mistletoe all had mystical significance, as I mentioned earlier. Christianity has added further layers to decorating homes with evergreen plants, but that can wait for another time.

While decorating trees is a long-established tradition in parts of northern Europe, it only really became fashionable in Britain after it was introduced to royal family celebrations by Prince Albert in the 1830s. Now, it’s big business, as are Christmas cards, another Victorian innovation made possible by a reliable and inexpensive postal service. The tradition of pulling crackers is another Victorian invention.

The Yule log is a northern European tradition, albeit a remnant of the original Pagan celebration. The fire used to burn the log is always started from a remnant of the log that burned during the previous year’s festivities, and the log should burn for twelve days. Nowadays, a Yule log is frequently a cake or pastry of some kind.

Let’s not, of course, forget Father Christmas, Santa Klaus, or St Nicholas. St Nick is the patron saint of Christmas Day, and had a reputation for the giving of secret gifts. Santa comes to Britain via the Dutch Sinterklaas, a soupçon of Nordic pantheon, and a hefty dose of 19th century Americana. Santa, his history and evolution, is worthy of an entire essay of his own!

The modern Christmas is a complex beast. It mixes ancient traditions with modern habits. It’s evolved from a celebration of the turning of the year into a something of a commercialised monster: it’s been calculated that about a quarter of all personal spending over a year happens around Christmas. I am planning a short series of articles about specific features of the season, so watch this space.

Whatever you think of it, and whoever you plan to spend it with, have a very merry Christmas!

 

This article was first published at x404.co.uk.