Christmas time as we know it is a Norse holiday; a confection of Charles Dickins’ Scrooge, Clement Moore’s, Night Before… 1823 poem and Thomas Nast, the 19th century cartoonist whose depiction of Santa Claus stuck. It conflates pagan myths with Christian piety with Hallmark cards and a few adjectives like jolly and merry saved for the occasion. The Romans named it Saturnalia. Like Chanukah the calendar calls for candle lights or bonfires to answer the dark days of December. And, oh yes, there is Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
We in the Northern Hemisphere should apologize to folks below the equator, for whom this is the summer solstice, the longest 24 hours of sunlight. It must exert the imagination for them to get into the snowy scenes of North Pole St. Nick.
For me it recalls those wintry days in New York with ear muffs, galoshes, snow shovels and my trusted flexible flyer sled. It was also a time to prowl the hills and canyons of my inner landscape…to find a quiet place away from the holiday noise.
At age eight (1941) going on nine (in three months I'd be a year older) I had to make some sense of Jingle Bells with Silent Night, the good cheer of Bing Crosby singing, White Christmas alongside, a date which will live in Infamy still resounding from FDR’s voice. Gift-wrapped boxes under trees and not a sign of them under our roof. Disbelief vs. Yes, Virginia there is …… Skeletal trees outside, tinsel and bulbs inside. And then there was the superintendent holding back on the radiator heat and my mother’s curses.
For 25 cents an hour I helped at a Christmas tree lot. Yes, we had empty lots back then. This was Noble’s Lots owned by a classmate’s family. The following year an A&P was built on that spot. Why I was paid and what I did, I can’t imagine. All I remember is my nose falling off even with a scarf around it.
It was the time for a kid to grapple with a world gone askew. It’s a good thing my flyer was flexible. I’m still grappling and my sled still flies. It has taken me across wintry scenes into Robert Frost’s, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening. Whose woods these are I think I know, he says in the first line of the poem. Everyone must enter their own woods over the years. It is forbidding... dark and deep as the poet tells us, yet also lovely and seductive. If we lose our innocence, life experience is our gain.
As Stephen Sondheim reminds us the mystery of the woods, an elsewhere, remains even with the promises we have to keep…the responsibilities and the illusion of clarity we claim is ours. Maybe winter solstice is our way of coming to terms with the paradox of being, of holding in our head the dying of the light and the glitz, the mark we’ve made and the snow that covers our prints. It is a time to reconcile our lives still to be lived, the myth of the new-born, the lit darkness…..with mortality, that ultimate white out.