As this is the last day of 2014, what better way to end the year than with a little bit of beauty. Another year has passed, and another is about to begin. Like the coming of the summer or winter solstice, the beginning of a new year has always been a special time, celebrated by different societies throughout history. We pause and reflect and realize that our lives continue their inexorable march forward. We wonder what will fate bring us in the coming year. So again, let us celebrate the changing of the years. Unlike Christmas Eve, which is at its heart a religious holiday, rich with meaning and symbolism, New Year’s is a purely secular, even pagan time. As the official end of the holiday season, we always like to participate, at least in some measure, in the pure pleasures of this old yet festive ritual.
Finally, Christmas Eve has arrived!
As I mentioned in my previous post, there are few phrases in the English languages as evocative as Christmas Eve. Although Christmas has for the most part morphed into a secular, consumer driven holiday in our society, nevertheless it still retains for many in the world deep religious meaning. There is probably no other day, except Easter Sunday, that still possess the religious atmosphere that Christmas Eve (and Christmas day) does. In our technologically saturated world, a world that seems more and more chaotic and divorced from traditions as each day passes, such ancient religious days take on all the more importance.
Part of what makes Christmas Eve so special is the anticipation. It is not yet Christmas, but rather the day itself is still a few hours away. From a religious perspective, the birth of Christ has not yet taken place; the joys and gatherings of family reunions are still, for most, a day away. From a secular one, especially for children, the joys and pleasures of all those present we hope to get is still to come. We wait for that secular and cultural saint, Santa.
Whether you celebrate Christmas as a religious or a purely secular holiday, the message of Christmas, peace, love and hope, is still a messages that is universally associated with this holiday. Even for those with no religious inclination whatsoever, such ideas cannot be denied as fundamentally good.
But in the end, what I find most powerful about Christmas Eve is the mystical, the religious and the divine. The darkness of a winter night is broken by the hope of new life, the birth of Christ, and the renewal of life, as least our spiritual lives. It is the first rays of light, the first gentle glimmer of hope in a world that is too often stifled with darkness. And that is always worth celebrating.
We are quickly approaching the shortest day of the year, a day celebrated throughout history as a moment of mystical and religious awe, the Winter Solstice. Although it may seem like a rather depressing moment, the day with the shortest amount of light, the longest night of the year–December 21–the Winter Solstice is in fact one of the best moments of the year: it is the first signs of the eventual spring, for after today the days will start to become longer. Slowly but surely, and over a period of a few months, more and more light will gently descend into our world, and warmth will eventually overcome the chill and frost of winter. The subsequent rebirth of all of nature will only be the final flowering of such blessed light and warmth.
But until that time, still seemingly and painfully far off, we must live through the dark days of Winter. This can be difficult, especially during the gloomy days of late January and early February. Still, the Winter Solstice and the celebrations associated with it are a time of the year to help us prepare for those worst days to come.
What I particularly enjoy about the Solstice is the physical and cultural play of light and darkness, best represented by the Christmas Holiday, and particularly expressed by the Catholic season of Advent. A roughly thirty day period, Advent is that part of the liturgical year which anticipates, and then celebrates in the feast of Christmas, the birth of Christ. Most of our Christmas traditions, at least in the West, are in some way the product of this ancient Catholic season. Various cultures throughout different times and periods have each contributed to what today is the conglomeration of all our Christmas decor, from Christmas gifts to trees, lights, ornaments, and some of the most beautiful music ever created (not to mention, of course, all the delicious food and feasting).
And yet this season itself was originally part of the pagan, pre-Christian world of Roman and other religions or cultures. The solstice, for those societies that understood the astronomy behind the day, has always been celebrated as a day of importance. Despite whatever religious or cultural significance was eventually attributed to this time, it is in effect a celebration of the shortest day and the longest night of the year. I have always found the simple, basic nature of this celebration, the continuation of what must be a very ancient sense of wonder of the natural world around us, something which was celebrated even in neolithic times, fascinating.
There is just something about the play of light and darkness at this time of the year. The artificial display of lights in Christmas decorations on different homes, throughout neighborhoods and businesseses only adds to the ancient charm. Who has not enjoyed the different displays, sometimes quite elaborate if not downright gaudy, that people present this time of the year? I particularly enjoy lights that are big and colorful, those old fashioned Christmas bulbs that are fat and thick and filled with a multiplicity of wonderful colors. At a time when the world is becoming more and more gray, cold and cloudy, such lights are soothing to the soul. The sun is low in the sky, often a cloudy sky, and the few beams of light that seem to trickle through the greyish welkin do little to lift our spirits. The wonderful display of Christmas lights helps to relieve this burden of what is during winter a dull and lifeless world.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language is Christmas Eve. What wonderful connotations this has for those fortunate enough to have grown up in a world where gift giving and family ties are important. It is true that many people have not been fortunate enough to enjoy such a blessed time, but that does not negate the basic joy of such a night. Even for those who do not celebrate Christmas or believe in Christ, this is still a time of the year of holiday, freedom from work, and general merriment. Everyone can enjoy Christmas regardless of their own personal beliefs. And then of course there is always the best expression of the meaning of Christmas Eve ever created, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which is still as strong a staple among all the Christmas entertainment this time of year as ever.
And it all goes back to this ancient, primordial celebration of the Winter Solstice. What is it about man that he feels the need to express in some religious way these basic movements of nature? After all, as we all know, the Solstice is only a shift of the Earth, a movement that is can seem little more than a fundamental law of nature, devoid of any meaning beyond the physical. And yet we still endow this time with great religious significance. Why?
I don’t have the answer, except to say that it is part of our innate need to find some beauty in the world, some sense of the Divine and beauty inherent in that, and to celebrate such beauty as a way to bring meaning into our often chaotic existence. The need for beauty is one of the most powerful, and often underappreciated elements in man’s nature. Whether we express this through the religious ritual of Christmas, or just an appreciation of the ancient pagan roots of the Winter Solstice, we continue, in all our modern technological sophistication and arrogance, to be the elemental creatures of nature that we have always been for tens of thousands of years.
I find few things more pleasant than a well done nude painting or photograph. As in all visual arts, the use of shade and color is always important, and I enjoy how different artists enhance natural beauty by the use of different techniques. The purplish hue of this photo is particularly nice, as is, of course, the woman being photographed. Our natural form, when well presented, is always a source of inspiration, and this photograph is quite lovely.
As winter approaches, such lovely visions as the wood nymph above will have to wait for a few months, but it is always important to remember that after the dark and cold of the next few months, the warmth of spring and summer will return, and so will those delightful creatures. They are now disappearing to their secret winter abodes, but their return will be well appreciated. Such beauty always is.