The day before this post was published, up here in the northern hemisphere we had the 2020 Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. At these latitudes, the day doesn’t get noticeably longer until December 25th, which not coincidentally is also the birthday of Sol Invictus. He doesn’t get much airtime these days, but he was Constantine the Great‘s deity of choice until he eventually decided to swap over to the other guy with the same birthday. (Or rather, the other guy who was assigned the same birthday; the historical Jesus probably wasn’t actually born on 25th December.) This is why we have Christmas, although I always raise a glass to Sol Invictus.
Christmas is one of the few fixed points of celebration left in the calendar, at least here in the UK. Back in the day, there were so many that where we would specify a date by the day of the month, people would simply reference the nearest feast-day, as for example in the title of Keats’ poem “The Eve of St Agnes” (which by my reckoning would refer to the 20th January). But these days, thanks partly to the Reformation, very few of these days are celebrated or even remembered. There’s Bonfire Night, Remembrance Day and Easter – which isn’t all that fixed – and apart from some lukewarm awareness of the various national saints’ days that’s about it.
I’ve mentioned the Reformation, but even without its help I think we would have seen this effect at some point as industrial culture developed. One of the tenets of that culture, which is so deeply ingrained that it’s hard to notice, is that things come in standard interchangeable units. This works pretty well for screws, but it gets applied to everything else, including time. One day is therefore to be the same as every other day. This is why heroic efforts are made by the food industry to erase seasonal eating, and you can buy strawberries in December, or at least something which is botanically a strawberry. This is why we have lavish artificial lighting, so that the length of the day is barely noticeable. When we do have a feast-day that can’t be ignored, its time-period is ludicrously extended so that ceases to be a special day and becomes more like six months. As the saying goes, you can tell it’s Christmas because the shops are full of Easter eggs.
Part of this, of course, is just to sell us more stuff. Presumably there are some people who want to buy tinsel in July, or who can be convinced that they do. But I wonder if there’s something more insidious at work.
For reasons that may well be material for another post, I often find myself comparing life in the UK to life in Spain. Spain, of course, missed out on the Reformation, but large parts of it are also comparatively unscathed by the Industrial Revolution. There are notoriously many public holidays in Spain, many of them saint’s days, and many of them local. The smallest political unit in Spain is the parish, and of course every parish has a patron saint, and that saint’s day will be the occasion of a fiesta. In some places, that can be a major affair that lasts for several days.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Spanish, in my experience, are much more community-minded than the British. A Spaniard is never just a Spaniard. They have a place and a heritage and an identity beyond that. They will have opinions – not necessarily complimentary – about Spaniards of a different place and heritage. Spanish car registration numbers used to include a code indicating the province of issue; when the government changed over to a new scheme without them, people demanded to have them back again. In the UK, car registration numbers also used to include a code showing where the car was registered; this scheme went away in 2001, and I had to look that up because it happened without a murmur.
So a sense of time can also be a sense of place, and neither of those conforms easily to the uniformity of industrial culture. These things tie us back to the natural order, to the passage of the seasons. They can also lead us into a dangerous localism where things like food are concerned. As Charles de Gaulle is said to have lamented, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” (I suspect this is a considerable underestimate of the number of French cheeses.) If today is different from yesterday, and here is different from there, and one person is different from another, suddenly it becomes extremely complicated and difficult to manage the world.
(It’s another deeply-ingrained assumption that everything needs to be managed, but that is definitely matter for another post.)
Awareness of the seasons is something everyone always had, at least in those parts of the world such as this which have seasons. Of course different places divide the seasons differently – there are at least three recognised seasonal schemes just amongst aboriginal Australians – but the key thing is that time is not uniform and that people need to be aware of that.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.Eccesiastes 3 i-viii (King James Version)
Traditionally, this is a time to close ranks, to defy the cold and the dark, to affirm life at the time that people have always been most likely to die. (In Old English, people’s ages were usually expressed as so many winters.) The days are getting longer, the sun is getting stronger, and spring is on its way. Feasting in the middle of winter is an act of collective bravado when you are completely dependent on the food you have managed to store up. It’s a morale-booster at the time that morale is likely to be lowest. People need this kind of thing.
Christmas has of course been hugely commercialised. We now have the secular feast of Black Friday, also known as Buy Nothing Day amongst those who object to such commercialisation. I have some sympathy with that view. Personally I don’t have enough disposable income to wallow in consumerism, and wouldn’t do so if I could, but I am still going to mark the season as best I can.
I find it an encouraging thought – and goodness knows they’re in short enough supply nowadays – that although we can conceal the march of the seasons from ourselves with central heating and artificial light, it still goes on despite out best efforts. The world is bigger than us, bigger even than Walmart, and it’s going to keep on doing what it does.
Whatever you’re doing, or not doing, for Christmas, spare a thought for Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. It really will be spring again, eventually.
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