TAG | Christmas and other holidays
Furlough in Jablonovka by the Austrian-Jewish writer Joseph Roth (1894-1939) includes a description of Christmas just behind the front lines of the Eastern front during Roth’s time with the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War (the translation is by Michael Hoffman, and comes from The Hotel Years, a fine collection of some of Roth’s writing):
The sky glitters overhead, the snow glitters under our feet. It’s as though the sky is a reflection of the snow. There’s no point following the village street, which is all trampled. The snow was so seductive that it would have been a sin not to walk there, where it lay crisp and deep, noble, virginal, crystal and singing. So as not to encounter our comrades and to enjoy the night and the stars and the snow, we walked up the lane behind the houses. It was peaceful, no war anywhere. Ten or twelve times a searchlight crossed the sky, but even that seemed to be a kind of strolling, a peaceable pedestrian, paler than its brothers whom I knew better in the luminous sky.
The boys came in with their pumpkin lanterns. They sang. Stable and manger and donkey were nearby, if you could follow the singing. If you could believe them, the Saviour was born in Jablonovka, not far from Josefova Gargas’s hut, and not two thousand years ago, but sixty at the most, and the oldsters still remembered the event. You could practically see the footprints of the Three Kings in the snow. The star was graspable. The Podolian plain was swaddled in faith, God was in Podolia, and Bethlehem was a hop and a skip away, much closer than the front.
Lights went out one after another, and the huts went dark. Only the sky and the snow were still gleaming as the village traipsed up the hill to the church. Its double doors were thrown open, and it was as though the altar was coming out to meet you, to welcome the visitors in its splendour. There were no pews. People stood and knelt. Although the doors were left open, it soon grew warm, it was as though the furs were warming me, and the candles, and the fervour and the Gloria after the Introitus: Dominus dixit ad me: filius meus es tu, ego hodie genui te. Quare fremuerunt gentes; et populi meditate sunt inania? What are the heathens purposing? What folly are the peoples pursuing? — Et pastores erant in regione eadem vigilantes — And there were wakeful shepherds in that place — they were here next to us, next to Rainacher and me. We took the widow Josefova Gargas home between us. The door wasn’t locked, no door in the village was ever locked, even though strange troops, Hungarians and Bosnians were furloughed here. There were wakeful shepherds here.
We sat down at the table, and ate our borsch with wooden spoons. Then we cut up the meat with our bayonets. We drank slivovitz from tea-glasses and canteens. My atheistical friend Rainacher stretched comfortably on the chair, flung wide his arms and sang: Gloria in excelsis deo. He wasn’t blaspheming. At three in the morning, we kissed the widow and the twins, gave them our four parcels, and went off to sleep. You take the bed tonight, Rainacher told me, I’ll go on the floor. It’s my present to you. And that’s how it was. We were roused at six with marching orders.
Furlough in Jablonovka was written by Roth in exile in Paris in 1939. It first appeared in an émigré newspaper in that city, just a few months after his death the same year, a death accelerated by alcohol and despair over the deteriorating situation in Europe.
Did you know that Easter was originally a pagan festival dedicated to Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, whose consort was a hare, the forerunner of our Easter bunny? Of course you did. Every year the fecund muck of the internet bursts forth afresh with cheery did-you-know explanations like this, setting modern practices in a context of ancient and tragically interrupted pagan belief.
The trouble is that they are wrong. The colourful myths of Eostre and her hare companion, who in some versions is a bird transformed into an egg-laying rabbit, aren’t historically pagan. They are modern fabrications, cludged together in an unresearched assumption of pagan precedence.Only one piece of documentary evidence for Eostre exists: a passing mention in Bede’s The Reckoning of Time. Bede explains that the lunar month of Eosturmonath “was once called after a goddess… named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated.”
However, even this may only have been supposition on Bede’s part. In the same section he says the winter festival of Modranecht was so named “because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night,” hardly the statement of a historian with first-hand information.
Eosturmonath may simply mean “the month of opening”, appropriate for a time of opening buds and arguably a better fit for the rest of the Anglo-Saxon months. They tended to be named after agricultural or meteorological events, hence “mud-month” and “blood-month”. Only one other month is, according to Bede, named after a goddess – Hrethmonath – and like Eostre, there is no other evidence of Hretha anywhere.
Known Anglo-Saxon deities like Woden and Thor are paralleled in Norse and Germanic pre-Christian religion, but there are no such equivalents to Bede’s Eostre and Hretha, which strengthens the case for them being inventions. Grimm explored the possibility of a German “Ostara” in Deutsche Mythologie, but in the absence of any primary evidence, all he could produce was conjecture. We’re also left wondering why, if Eosturmonath really was named after a pagan goddess, the staunch Christian Charlemagne chose it to replace the old Roman name of April.
There are no images of Eostre, no carvings, no legends, and no association with hares, rabbits or eggs. Yet a swift Google search turns up heaps of repeated Eostre lore. Even the usually formidable Snopes.com allocates Eostre her customary sacred hare, without any historical justification. So where do the tales come from?
The answer is found in the recent history of modern self-identified paganism. Back in the days when Catweazle was on telly, the movement was inchoate, disparate and in urgent need of roots. It was in the difficult position of claiming moral heirship from ancient pre-Christian religion, but having very few credentials to back that up.
Usefully, though, there was already a tendency (stemming from Victorian anthropology) to imagine repressed pagan roots dangling from anything sufficiently working class and folksy; and though academia had moved away from this, pagan revivalism had not. By asserting Christian appropriation of pagan customs as fact, modern paganism could claim both precedence and wrongful treatment, citing Pope Gregory’s letter as if that settled it.
Pagan origins were thus claimed for everything from Father Christmas to Morris dancing and the Easter bunny was retroactively recast as Eostre’s sacred hare, grafting a faked pagan provenance on to a creature first mentioned as late as 1682. A Ukranian folk tale about the origins of pysanky, painted eggs, was rewritten to star Eostre and her bunny. Some still claim Eostre’s name is the root of the word oestrogen, ignoring that human eggs are microscopic and that the real etymology of oestrogen in fact relates to the gadfly….
Oh well, there is (as I noted in a post entitled—ahem—“Happy Eostre”) always this (from another Guardian piece):
In an ironic twist, the Cybele cult flourished on today’s Vatican Hill. Cybele’s lover Attis, was born of a virgin, died and was reborn annually. This spring festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday, rising to a crescendo after three days, in rejoicing over the resurrection. There was violent conflict on Vatican Hill in the early days of Christianity between the Jesus worshippers and pagans who quarrelled over whose God was the true, and whose the imitation. What is interesting to note here is that in the ancient world, wherever you had popular resurrected god myths, Christianity found lots of converts.
The not always entirely reliable Sir James Fraser had quite a bit to say about Attis in The Golden Bough.
Another of those gods whose supposed death and resurrection struck such deep roots into the faith and ritual of Western Asia is Attis. He was to Phrygia what Adonis was to Syria. Like Adonis, he appears to have been a god of vegetation, and his death and resurrection were annually mourned and rejoiced over at a festival in spring. The legends and rites of the two gods were so much alike that the ancients themselves sometimes identified them. Attis was said to have been a fair young shepherd or herdsman beloved by Cybele, the Mother of the Gods, a great Asiatic goddess of fertility, who had her chief home in Phrygia. Some held that Attis was her son. His birth, like that of many other heroes, is said to have been miraculous. His mother, Nana, was a virgin, who conceived by putting a ripe almond or a pomegranate in her bosom.
…The great spring festival of Cybele and Attis is best known to us in the form in which it was celebrated at Rome; but as we are informed that the Roman ceremonies were also Phrygian, we may assume that they differed hardly, if at all, from their Asiatic original. The order of the festival seems to have been as follows.
On the twenty-second day of March, a pine-tree was cut in the woods and brought into the sanctuary of Cybele, where it was treated as a great divinity. The duty of carrying the sacred tree was entrusted to a guild of Tree-bearers. The trunk was swathed like a corpse with woollen bands and decked with wreaths of violets, for violets were said to have sprung from the blood of Attis, as roses and anemones from the blood of Adonis; and the effigy of a young man, doubtless Attis himself, was tied to the middle of the stem…
There is, of course, nothing wrong with syncretism, so in the spirit of what this day now is: Happy Easter!
Captain A. D. Chater, 2nd Batallion, Gordon Highlanders, Dec 25, 1914:
I think I have seen today one of the most extraordinary sights that anyone has ever seen. About 10 o’clock this morning I was peeping over the parapet when I saw a German, waving his arms, and presently two of them got out of their trench and came towards ours.
We were just going to fire on them when we saw they had no rifles, so one of our men went to meet them and in about two minutes the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas…
We exchanged cigarettes and autographs, and some more people took photos…I don’t know how long it will go on for – I believe it was supposed to stop yesterday, but we can hear no firing going on along the front today except a little distant shelling.
Then suddenly lights began to appear along the German parapet, which were evidently make-shift Christmas trees, adorned with lighted candles, which burnt steadily in the frosty air!
First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up O Come, All Ye Faithful, the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is a most extraordinary thing — two nations singing the same carol in the middle of a war.
And these were by no means isolated incidents.
When the high commands (on both sides) heard about these ‘Christmas truces’, they did everything they could to bring them to an end and avoid their repetition, but just for a moment…
A full explanation can be found here, but here’s an extract:
Today is a day of purification, renewal, and hope. On this day, exactly 40 days after Christmas, we commemorate Mary’s obedience to the Mosaic law by submitting herself to the Temple for the ritual purification, as commanded in Leviticus.
However, the Obscure Goddess Online Directory (!) notes:
Juno Februtis is an aspect of that great Roman Goddess as a purifier and fertility Goddess, who was especially connected with the month of February and the festivities in its latter half. She would seem to be related to Juno Lucina as a childbirth Goddess. February was the month of purification to the Romans because in their early calendar it was the last month of the year, and so considered an appropriate time to get rid of the bad, stale, or unclean in preparation for the new year.
This was new to me, but it’s an interesting, um, coincidence if accurate.
With this extract, I think, from Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales:
The silent one-clouded heavens drifted on to the sea. Now we were snow-blind travelers lost on the north hills, and vast dewlapped dogs, with flasks round their necks, ambled and shambled up to us, baying “Excelsior.” We returned home through the poor streets where only a few children fumbled with bare red fingers in the wheel-rutted snow and cat-called after us, their voices fading away, as we trudged uphill, into the cries of the dock birds and the hooting of ships out in the whirling bay. And then, at tea the recovered Uncles would be jolly; and the ice cake loomed in the center of the table like a marble grave. Auntie Hannah laced her tea with rum, because it was only once a year.
Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver. Ghosts whooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs and the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn’t the shaving of a moon to light the flying streets. At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house. “What shall we give them? Hark the Herald?” “No,” Jack said, “Good King Wencelas. I’ll count three.” One, two three, and we began to sing, our voices high and seemingly distant in the snow-felted darkness round the house that was occupied by nobody we knew. We stood close together, near the dark door. Good King Wencelas looked out On the Feast of Stephen … And then a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole. And when we stopped running we were outside our house; the front room was lovely; balloons floated under the hot-water-bottle-gulping gas; everything was good again and shone over the town.
“Perhaps it was a ghost,” Jim said.
“Perhaps it was trolls,” Dan said, who was always reading.
“Let’s go in and see if there’s any jelly left,” Jack said. And we did that.
AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday signed a law protecting Christmas and other holiday celebrations in Texas public schools from legal challenges — but also stressed that freedom of religion is not the same thing as freedom from religion…Dubbed the “Merry Christmas” bill, the bipartisan measure sailed through the state House and Senate to reach Perry’s desk.
It removes legal risks of saying “Merry Christmas” in schools while also protecting traditional holiday symbols, such as a menorah or nativity scene, as long as more than one religion and a secular symbol are also reflected.
It is, of course, sad and stupid that there can be “legal risks” associated with exchanging Christmas greetings in schools. If the new law fixes that, it’ll be all to the good, but quite what makes a “secular symbol” eludes me. I’m with the atheist shoemakers in Berlin who said this:
There are already hundreds of symbols for atheism and none of them tickle us in quite the right place… either they’re too sciency, or too literal, or just plain ugly… Well, our solution is inspired by a Christian friend (thanks Matt) who accused us of having god-shaped-holes. And we think a gaping, BLACK HOLE is absolutely perfect… And what says “I believe in nothing” better than nothing?
Quite. But it’s difficult to imagine a black hole nestling between the manger and the menorah. There is, however, another candidate, jovial, genially syncretic and refreshingly appreciative of the joys of consumerism.
Yup, Santa would do very well indeed.
How to mark Christmas, grandest and jolliest and most syncretic of festivals, this year?
With this brief extract, I think, from The Exiles by Ray Bradbury, who, of course, died just a few months ago:
A door banged wide in a little hut by the shore. A thin short man, with flesh hanging from him in folds, stepped out and, paying no attention to the others, sat down and stared into his clenched fists.
“There’s the one I’m sorry for,” whispered Blackwood. “Look at him, dying away. He was once more real than we, who were men. They took him, a skeleton thought, and clothed him in centuries of pink flesh and snow beard and red velvet suit and black boot; made him reindeers, tinsel, holly. And after centuries of manufacturing him they drowned him in a vat of Lysol, you might say.”
The men were silent.
“What must it be on Earth?” wondered Poe. “Without Christmas? No hot chestnuts, no tree, no ornaments or drums or candles-nothing; nothing but the snow and wind and the lonely, factual people….”
They all looked at the thin little old man with the scraggly beard and faded red velvet suit.
“Have you heard his story?”
“I can imagine it. The glitter-eyed psychiatrist, the clever sociologist,the resentful, froth-mouthed educationalist, the antiseptic parents-“
…on the occasion of this thoroughly enjoyable, marvelously syncretic celebration.
“For the people who were shovelling away on the house-tops were jovial and full of glee; calling out to one another from the parapets, and now and then exchanging a facetious snow-ball – better-natured missile far than many a wordy jest – laughing heartily if it went right, and not less heartily if it went wrong. The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied, baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence, to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle-deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. The very gold and silver fish, set forth among these choice fruits in a bowl, though members of a dull and stagnant-blooded race, appeared to know that there was something going on; and, to a fish, went gasping round and round their little world in slow and passionless excitement.” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)