Posted in books, Holidays, movies, Office Life, writing

What Would Dickens Say?

The season of commercial excess is upon us, unfettered, in all it’s foul glory. Like a juggernaut, the exhortations to ‘Buy! Buy! Buy!’ come fast and furious now, and no matter how much we may bemoan the crass commercialization of this season, most of us will dutifully heed the call, in some measure. Stores opened on Thanksgiving Day this year to begin the buying frenzy, an unprecedented move that horrified and outraged many.

Scrooge would be so proud.

I caught part of “A Christmas Carol” on tv this afternoon and thought how little things have changed since Dickens’ time. Employers demanding people work on Thanksgiving… can working on Christmas Day be far behind? Sure, there have always been those who had to work regardless of holiday – emergency services like police, firemen, nurses, doctors, military. When I was in the Navy I stood watch on Christmas Eve, although I admit I don’t recall if I ever worked Christmas Day itself. If I had to, I did. We were very flexible with our festivities. I remember a large gathering at the house I rented off-base with three others while in Okinawa. Our whole group of friends gathered at our place to exchange gifts and share a meal. It was one of the loveliest Christmases I ever spent. I don’t remember what day it was, likely not Christmas Day itself.

Since that time I’ve never worked on a major holiday, but my current boss would probably like for us all to. The child labor that Dickens campaigned against and the atrocious working conditions of his time may be (mostly) gone in the First World, but they are alive and well and being exploited on a daily basis around the world: Mumbai, Shenzhen, Sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan…

Scrooge learned his lesson on putting money above all else, but that attitude is encouraged and expected at all US businesses. It’s all about the bottom line, profit, keeping the shareholders and Board of Directors happy. My boss allows no mention of “Christmas” or any specifically Christmas-themed decorations (when I left last Tuesday I noticed a large tree in front of one of the buildings on campus strung with holiday lights, and thought “that’s gonna chap her ass…”) so we are having a ‘Winter Celebration’ in lieu of a ‘Christmas’ or even ‘Holiday’ party this week. I wonder how she’d feel if she knew she had a pagan in the office. I want a Yule tree, and a Yule log, and lots of holly and ivy and mistletoe, and lots of wassailing…

I have to think Dickens would be none too pleased. We’ve learned nothing, we haven’t evolved one bit since his book was published in 1843. Cash (or credit) is still king. The rich get richer.

In the meantime, enjoy what I consider the definitive version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, “Scrooge” from 1951, starring Alastair Sim. Just wonderful. And whatever you’re celebrating, have a happy.


Wæs Hæl! (Be you healthy!)

Posted in Holidays, writing

Winter Solstice


Druids Cutting Mistletoe on the Sixth Day of the Moon
December 21, 2009 at 17:47 UTC (9:47AM PST) marks the Winter Solstice. We arrive at what in northern latitudes is the shortest day of the year, a time that has been celebrated and observed by many cultures, as far back as 10,000 years ago. The word itself comes from Latin sol meaning sun and sistere, to stand still, giving us what translates as “sun standing still.” For an instant in time the sun seems to stop and then begins reversing the process of long nights and short days, leading us back to the long days when the sun hardly seems to set at night, and in northern Scandinavia it doesn’t. But for now, we are savoring the longest night of the year, in preparation for the coming spring and the rebirth of the sun.

Scientifically speaking, the earth is closer to the sun by about 3 million miles now than in the the Northern Hemisphere summer. However, due to the tilt of the axis the Northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun, and the Southern hemisphere is tilted towards it. While we in the North are in the grips of winter, our planet-mates in the south are enjoying Midsummer.

Our ancestors built monuments and observatories that would align with the light on this day, the most famous of these being Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in England which is aligned to the setting sun of the winter solstice. There are many others: Newgrange in Ireland, Newgrangewhich admits the light of midwinter sunrise, is approximately 5,000 years old making it older than both Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids; In North America, the ancient Anasazi built the Chaco Canyon Sun Dagger which was designed to not only mark the solstices, but the equinoxes as well.

The Romans celebrated Deus Sol Invictus (or Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the “birth of the undefeated sun god”) on December 25. The ancient Norse burned Jul (Yule) logs in honor of Thor, the god of thunder. In days past these would be entire tree trunks, which could burn for a day to a week. Today, modern pagans of many traditions – Norse, Wiccan, Druid, etc., have reinvented the religions of their ancestors and celebrate with song and magic, feasting and merrymaking. For some of them it marks their New Year. We decorate our homes with holly, ivy, mistletoe and evergreens, all symbols of eternal life. Holly is also used to deflect negativity, and mistletoe, growing in trees between heaven and earth, was sacred to the Druids. It was cut on the sixth day past the full moon closest to Yule-time. This year that means the new Celtic year, with the first month of Beth (birch) in the Celtic tree calendar begins December 21/22. For Wiccans, Yule is a sun festival, and a lesser sabbat. While there is a great deal of mixing of mythology and traditions among the neo-pagans, most groups view this as the rebirth of the sun god. One of the more popular myths is that of the Oak King and the Holly King, who battle for supremacy throughout the year, with the Oak King at his strongest in the summer, and the Holly King defeating him and ruling for the winter. Candlegrove has a very nice page on the origins of solstice traditions from around the world, and there’s a lovely Wiccan Solstice ritual at Deaf Pagan Crossroads.

Happy Solstice, and Blessed Be!