Sunday, December 21, 2008

"Around the feast we gather in complete jubilation..."

Winter officially begins today in the Northern Hemisphere. The Sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator, shining directly over the Tropic of Capricorn in what is known as the winter solstice. The word solstice comes from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still.) On this night, the three stars in Orion's Belt align with Sirius -- the brightest star in the eastern sky -- to let us know where the Sun will rise tomorrow morning. (If anyone says there is no magic in the world, I say they're just not paying attention.)

The Bronze Age archaeological sites Newgrange in Ireland and Stonehenge in Britain were carefully designed to align with the solstice sunrise and sunset points. Throughout human history, this event has marked the point where the sun reverses ebbing and is, in effect, reborn. New life, new beginnings, new hope... these are the hallmarks of midwinter, and people have been celebrating variations on this theme as long as there have been hearth fires to gather around.

From celebrating the reemergence of Amaterasu the sun goddess in 7th Century Japan to the ancient Slavonic 10-day festival of Koleda; from Soyalangwul, the traditional winter solstice ceremony of the Zuni and Hopi Indians to Burning the Clocks, the fairly recent tradition in modern Brighton -- this time of year is has been revered in amazingly similar ways by just about everyone who has ever graced this planet. My personal favorite has to be Saturnalia -- the outrageous Roman midwinter celebration that was an ancient combination of Burning Man, Mardi Gras and a Grateful Dead concert. During this week-long festival, men and women exchanged clothes, slaves and masters played role-reversal, and enough social mores were happily abandoned to cause even Caligula to try and limit the celebration to five days.

Today, Wiccans and other neo-pagans honor this day as Yule, while last night Iranians celebrated Yalda -- a Zoroastrian festival commemorating the longest night of the year. Tonight, at sundown, the first day of Hanukkah begins with the traditional lighting of the first menorah candle. Next week the seven day celebration of African heritage known as Kwanzaa will commence with the lighting of the kinara. And, of course, there is Christmas -- the Superbowl of all midwinter celebrations, and the biggest birthday party in the known world.

Whether your midwinter feast includes latkes, yalda watermelon or fruitcake -- happy midwinter, everyone. Bless'd be, Shalom Aleichem and God bless us, everyone!


Mister Earl said...

Laurie, it appears that you got your title for today's blog from the song "Hanukah, Oh Hanukah." And interesting that I would think to Google the line and find that out!

Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah
The sweet celebration
Around the feast we gather
in complete jubilation

Very interesting because I had never heard that version. The version that I remember from my childhood is:

Hanukkah, oh Hanukkah
Come light the Menorah
Let's have a party
We'll all dance the hora
Gather round the table
We'll all have a treat
Sivivon to play with
Levivot to eat

(Sivivon is hebrew for dreidel, which is Yiddish for a four-sided top. Levivot is hebrew for latkes, which is Yiddish for potato pancakes.)

I have lots of fun memories from Hanukah. We used to get silver foil and blue foil wrapping paper and cut and paste them into long chains of silver loops or blue loops, or silver and blue loop alternating, and string them all over the mantle. My mom made a big dreidel out of a carton, with a the cardboard from a paper towel roll as the handle. We had decorations all over the living room.

The best thing about Hanukah was 8 nights of presents, "8 crazy nights" as Adam Sandler put it. Usually the second best present was on the first night, and the best present was on the 8th night. I usually got at least one Lionel train car or locomotive. I always set up my Lionel train at Hanukah time. Thanks for triggering these memories, Laurie.

I need to get some Hanukah candles for tonight. I guess I'll try Bristol Farms!

Happy Solstice, everyone!

Tanya said...

What a warm and welcoming photo :)

Eki Akhwan said...

Thank you for sharing this insightful stories about winter, Laurie. I wouldn't have known (and noticed that). The accompanying picture is just perfect ... the glowing warmth of fire at the peak is just a perfect thing for a reflective time of the holidays.

San Diego Farmgirl said...

Beautiful and well written, too! You put my winter solstice post to shame.

I used to celebrate by lighting a flash pot, per the instructions posted on Rockie Gardiner's horoscopes in LA Weekly. But, she passed a couple of months ago, and I miss her terribly today. I didn't bother to write down the instructions, because I assumed she'd be there forever.

Those of you in LA or NY who read Rockie, here's an interesting fact about her I didn't know until she died: she was Jim Morrison's "LA Woman"! The song is about her, and she still has the original lyrics that Jim wrote to her on a bar napkin or something like that. (Musicians are all the same, aren't they? Laurie, you have your shampoo, and Rockie had a bar napkin. haha)

Anyway, Happy Winter Solstice!

Walker said...

Love the post and your blog. Merry Christmas.

Mister Earl said...

Here's another take on Christmas and Solstice from Dar Williams:

The Christians and the Pagans

Amber called her uncle, said ’we’re up here for the holiday,
Jane and I were having solstice, now we need a place to stay.’
And her Christ-loving uncle watched his wife hang Mary on a tree,
He watched his son hang candy canes
All made with red dye number three.

He told his niece, ’it's Christmas eve, I know our life is not your style,’
She said, ’Christmas is like Solstice, and we miss you and it’s been awhile,’

So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table,
Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able,
And just before the meal was served, hands were held and prayers were said,
Sending hope for peace on earth to all their gods and goddesses.

The food was great, the tree plugged in, the meal had gone without a hitch,
Till Timmy turned to Amber and said, ’Is it true that you’re a witch? ’
His mom jumped up and said, ’The pies are burning,’ and she hit the kitchen,
And it was Jane who spoke, she said, ’Its true, your cousins not a Christian,’
’But we love trees, we love the snow, the friends we have, the world we share,
And you find magic from your God, and we find magic everywhere,’

So the Christians and the pagans sat together at the table,
Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able,
And where does magic come from? I think magics in the learning,
Cause now when Christians sit with pagans only pumpkin pies are burning.

When Amber tried to do the dishes, her aunt said, ’Really, no, don’t bother.’
Amber's uncle saw how Amber looked like Tim and like her father.
He thought about his brother, how they hadn't spoken in a year,
He thought he'd call him up and say, ’Its Christmas and your daughter's here.’

He thought of fathers, sons and brothers, saw his own son tug his sleeve, saying,
’Can I be a pagan? ’ dad said, ’We'll discuss it when they leave.’

So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table,
Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able,
Lighting trees in darkness, learning new ways from the old, and
Making sense of history and drawing warmth out of the cold.

Petrea said...

Excellently researched and written. Entertaining, too. I think you got everybody!

I love how you can gaze deep into the darkness of prehistory and find seeds of these holidays melding in similarity, growing from humanity's need to understand its circumstances on this earthly orb.

Jutilda said...

I am in awe of your theologic/ritual history. WOW Shame on Caligula for trying to douse the excitement. hee hee

The light of not only the sun but of your candle is a symbol for so many folks this time of year. Our sun isn't visible today but blanketed with a gray cloudy cover as the temperature hovers just above freezing. A perfect winter day.

Here is to this blog community - a giant Texas sized hug from me to all of you on this honorable day.

Jutilda said...

Mr. Earl - I always write my comment before reading the others so I want to thank you for not only sharing your Hannukah memories but the wonderful Christian/Pagan story. They both speak of magic, and this immediately made me think of the Gifts of the Magi, which encases that word in its physicality and its sense of wonder. I'm sure all of you know the wonderful story of the husband and wife who gave up their own personal treasures to buy a gift to the other, so I will just quote the final paragraph of the story.

"The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi. " O'Henry


Is it shallow to say that I don't really care about the whole religious thing? Maybe it's just me - it's not a big deal in the UK unless you're from a big religious family...

Scarlet x

Dixie Jane said...

To JAMJARSUPERSTAR: Giving creedence to "The whole religious thing", as you call it, not only encompasses religion, but all that is magical and mystical. Be it Christmas, Hannukah, Solstice, Paganism. All these things bring people together and a sharing in the glow of the candlelight and the warmth of the spirit. No man is an island and we, as people, do truly need each other. This time of year is meaningful in the opportunity it affords us to share what we have with others, be it ourselves or any meager gift we have to offer. I am sad for you that you do not need this kind of expression of love in your life. I wish you happiness and fulfillment in the life you have chosen.

Cafe Observer said...

JamJar: We all need something much bigger than ourselves. Something to believe in as we walk through this life, and the afterlife. Something to give transcendent meaning.

Those who feel they have no meaning in this life often devalude both themselves & other people.

Everyone believes in a god. For some it is the traditional who holds us accountable for how we respond to God & our fellow man (and K9), but for many others it can be simply the material & money. When the material is taken away, often their lives, unfortunately, falls apart as well.

With all that said, I'm not forcing you to live/believe the way anyone else does, however, we should all strive to at least live a life that upholds both love & truth.

Shanna said...

Happy midwinter, everyone!!! Thank you, Laurie, for the gift of your beautifully and thoughtfully entwined comparisons of something that is, at the center, all the same. Thank you Mister Earl for the gift of your stories. And thank you Judy for the gift of O.Henry and his story. We yearn for meaning and I hope we all take this opportunity to celebrate and to honor this time of year and to honor each other with whatever rituals we know or even invent. Love and light to all.

dbdubya said...

Well said, DJ. Whatever one's beliefs, this is a time to reflect on the joys in our lives, gather with family and friends, and give thanks.

Merry Christmas to all, and if you don't celbrate Christmas, please accept this greeting as a heartfelt wish that you enjoy the holiday season however you choose to do so.

babooshka said...

Very comprehensive and insightful post. Jamjar is right about the uk especially as it is such a multi cultural melting pot that those of that do celebrate tend to be the non religious variety, though I know many who attend midnight mass and day church of their faiths. I like to think of it as a time of giving, sharing, making up, fun and contemplation. Cafe observer's comments are thought provoking. As a dead Irish comedian big in the UK called Dave Allen used to say "may you God go with you who ever he is." The light of the candle is such a symbloic symbol of faith.

Stéphane Kardos said...

JOYEUX NOEL Laurie!!! I wish Xmas was the biggest birthday party in the known world...I was born on Xmas day! :) I'll get a bit older in 4 days! :)

Happy happy holidays!


Anonymous said...

And I on the 24th, which unfortunately led to double-duty presents: Merry X-mas/Happy Birthday. Concerning Mr. Allen's jape, the staid politically correct would amend the diety to "He or She." while the droll would go with "She."

Dixie Jane said...

Thank you, Laurie for the music in your words and the glorious light of your candle. May it shine on you with health and happiness. A beautiful and informative post by you AND mister earl. Love and more love.

Laurie said...

Hey kids!

Thanks, everyone, for the thought-provoking, introspective, passionate comments today.

Mister Earl, did you get your candles? I love the Dar Williams poem. And many thanks for sharing your memories with us. I thought of you and all of my other Jewish pals at sunset tonight. When I was a junior in high school, our competition One Act play was Diary of Anne Frank. (I played Mrs. Van Daam.) Our teacher studied at the Actors Studio and trained everyone in The Method. We took Hebrew classes to prepare, and in the show we sang the version of Oh Hannukah that I quoted in the title of this post. I once dated someone whose mother was Catholic and father was Jewish and he was stunned that I, born and raised a little WASP girl from Texas, knew so many Yiddish words and could recite so many Jewish prayers.

Tanya, thanks! I love macro shots of just about anything!

Eki, I think of this time of year as a reflective one as well. THere is something about these long nights that prompt a human being to think about the past and the future.

Farmgirl, I had no idea Rockie Gardiner had passed. She was a real New Age icon around here... and I love her even more now that I know the Jim Morrison connection!

Walker, welcome! Thank you for your kind words.

Petrea, I love the way you put it. I, too, am fascinated by the way all humans tend to grasp the same archetypal identifications -- no matter what era or continent. It is comforting to me that we are so similar.

Judy, Gift of the Magi! My favorite O'Henry story and a Christmas tale that never fails to make me cry. Thanks for the quote. (It made me cry!)

JamJar, I don't think you're shallow at all. I'm a humanist, myself... fascinated with belief of every variety, and encouraging of all my friends' faiths (or lack ofs) but personally content with the known natural world.

Dixie Mom, I agree that people need each other -- I just wish that religion didn't cause so much separation from each other based on whether or not someone else believes the same thing. Like you said: Christmas, Hannukah, a Pagan honoring of the Great Mother-- these things do bring people together. But charitable work, Buddhist meditation and the discussion of great secular philosophers also brings people together. It's my feeling Jamjar was just making a statement about the way the UK is far less evangelical as a rule than here in the States -- which is a trait I enjoy about my English friends.

Cafe, here's to more lives upholding love and truth! I'll light my candle to that!

Dbdubya, I agree. This is a time of year for people to share and give, love and reflect.

Shanna, we both love rituals don't we? Sometimes the ones we invent are even more powerful than the ones we've learned.

Babooshka, Los Angeles is a similar cultural melting pot. That's one of the main reasons I feel so at home here. THere's room for everyone.

Stephane, HAPPY BIRTHDAY! (And you too, Don, if you're reading this.) You guys with near-Christmas birthdays got gyped, in my opinion!

Welcome Anonymous!

Thank you everyone for making this such a lively, interesting place to blog. I appreciate you all and value ALL of your ideas and opinions. As Kinky Friedman said, "May the god of your choice bless you."

Til tomorrow...

USelaine said...

I feel like I just partied like a rock star -- through the millennia, across the globe, within families and without them! I *whew* need to sit down *whew* for a moment.

You have Jim Morrison's shampoo?