A Christmas letter

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Insights on a few of the traditions we treasure

When our first born son was small he had to sing in a school Christmas concert. the song they gave him was ‘Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas.'

He didn't like it.

To show his disapproval he'd go moping about the house, improvising his own lyrics.

"Have a holly, jolly Christmas," he'd sing, " it's the worst time of the year; I don't know if there'll be snow, but have a mug of beer ..."

Or, "Ho, ho, the mistletoe, hung where you can't see ..."

And while he never went so far as to sabotage the concert, he was telling us something. It wasn't just the silly song. Even as a child he was rebelling against the enforced jollity, the disconnect between good will and good business.

For this mid-winter celebration goes very deep with us. Even as children we didn't want it spoiled. Our remote ancestors were celebrating it 1,000 years before Christ, cajolling fickle gods to revive the dying sun.

Lots of us feel down in December. Doctors call it Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD for short, and tell us it's caused by lack of daylight.

It could be worse. In pre-Christian Europe the winter solstice was a time of dread. Goblins and bad fairies populated the air. Specters rose from graveyards or, if their owners had died at sea, wafted in from foggy shores.

It was so bad that people banded together to drive them away. Wearing horrible masks - a custom that survives in Mummering - was one cure. ‘Town rattling' - beating on house walls with wooden clubs at night - was another. Some people still fire off noisy guns at midnight on New Year's Eve. Burning or burying a straw man called Death was also practised.

The custom of displaying and even revering evergreens in mid-winter is even older. The symbolism of ivy, mistletoe and holly still stirs us, especially the holly with its blood-red berry and its thorny leaf, signs of death and renewal.

We post-moderns may scoff at such pagan practices, yet our gift-giving (a Roman custom), cards, emails and tweets, give us away. True, we no longer knock on frozen apple trees - medieval symbol of the Paradise Tree that gives both food and drink (cider) - to ensure future fruitfulness. And we no longer drag home a Yule log and parade it through town with torches. Instead we mount an annual Christmas parade with colourful floats.

In France's medieval Provence, families not only cut a Yule log and dragged it home, but circled the house with it three times and christened it with wine before lighting it. They also sawed off a piece to keep for next year's fire.

There's an echo of this - from Normandy's invasion of Britain in 1066, perhaps? - in the old Newfoundland custom of tossing a live ember from the Christmas fire over the house for good luck.

Those of German stock can treasure the custom of sending maidens to embrace apple trees in mid-winter to ‘wake' them. No less evocative is that of families setting frozen branches of pear, cherry and hawthorn in water to blossom at Christmastime.

For many of us the most beautiful image is that of the original Martin Luther standing starstruck on a silent hillside among snow-laden firs and of bringing one home to decorate with his family. The first Christmas tree?

Fifty years after his death in 1546, an anonymous Frenchman wrote, ‘They set up trees in the parlours, and thereon [place] roses cut from many-coloured paper, also apples, wafers, gold foil and sweets.'

Soon the French had adopted the custom. Later, Queen Victoria brought it to England to comfort her homesick German-born Prince Albert.

Scandinavians even linked the fir tree to their mythic Yggdrasil or World Tree - to them the source of all life.

And who in the West is not grateful for the inventiveness of church organist Hans Gruber, who, discovering on Christmas Eve that his instrument was broken, improvised a carol for guitar accompaniment? His ‘Silent Night, Holy Night' is surely one of Christendom's loveliest hymns.

These are but a few of our the traditions we treasure. Thankfully some still survive. Churches remind us that on theological plane, Christ's mass signifies much more than the astronomical fact of lengthening days.

Theology may be the last thing on our minds as we throng the malls, mail our cards, baste the goose or turkey. Still, even the most jaded of us, even those of other faiths, can share the delight of children at this season.

For all its fault, Christmas is evergreen.

TAGLINE: Clifton resident Gary Saunders is glad Christmas comes but once a year but wouldn't want it cancelled either. Joyeux Noel!

Organizations: Prince Albert

Geographic location: France, Normandy, Britain Newfoundland England

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