Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Garden of Holidays Greetings: Happy New Year, Merry Christmas, Season's Greetings, Happy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Solstice, Welcome Yule!


            I'm a little late with my 'holiday season' letter. Did I say that right? Should that be 'New Year's letter'? 'Christmas letter'?
            And I can't get past the holiday season greetings "issue" that popped up absurdly this year. Provoked by political manipulators, some people started worrying about whether one holiday greeting was more appropriate than another.

            I have a proposal. Let's put the 'happy' -- or the 'merry' or any 'good' word-- back into holiday greetings. Once we've got that element taken care of -- a 'good' this, a 'happy' that; Greetings! Welcome!-- we've accomplished our purpose. The rest of the phrasing really doesn't matter to anybody. (Or shouldn't.)

            Everybody celebrates something this time of year, even if it's nothing more than a week or two off from school, or a day or two off from work. Holidays are a break we all need. Our traditional late December holiday season falls close to the winter solstice, a natural point for all societies to take a break from their routines. The 'festival,' or 'feast,' or way you celebrate that break is the way societies have marked that break from the routine time to 'festal time' when everyone is invited, in fact expected, to put aside their work or ordinary activities.

            For millennia civilizations have acknowledged the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year,as a special time. If you live in a temperate, season-driven, sun-dependent climate, it's a natural time to remind yourself of this dependence and appeal to whatever spiritual power your community recognizes to make sure the sun remembers that it's time to start coming back up in the sky, lengthening the days, and returning to us (in its appointed time) the growing season that human life depends on.

            That makes the solstice a good time to perform the sacrifice, sing the right songs, and utter the prayers that we believe those special power likes to hear from us. And so, since we have to gather all together to do these things right, we might as well figure out some ways to have some fun as well.

            Solstice festivals in pagan Europe were known as Yule time, from which the expression "yule log" still endures. The Yule log -- and in view of its purpose it had better be a goodly hunk of wood -- was supposed to be dragged in from your own land or received as a gift (apartment dwellers got this clause inserted in the festival rulebook) and placed in the hearth, where it was subject to greenery decorations and doused with ale or cider (on the theory that the consuming spirits had the same taste in beverages that you did), then set ablaze by a piece of last year's log and expected to last not only through the night but to to smolder for 12 days more days before being put out. That could be a chilly period unless the Yule log was permitted some companion logs to share the fireplace.

            Like the Yule log, the Christmas tree derives from the same North European notion of a "world tree," known to a Teutonic peoples as "Yggdrasil," an ash tree associated with the sun and the bringing of light. Another custom calls for finding a Yule branch with a flat side to use as candle holder for three candles.  

            Many Yule customs influence holiday traditions today -- the Christmas tree, decorative holly or other greens, burning candles.

            In the Mediterranean, the Romans had their Saturnalia a few days before the solstice, introducing a period of gift-giving, continual partying, and gambling, and the overturning of ordinary social rank. Here we find the root of the traditional office Christmas party.

            Our notion of when to begin, and celebrate, a new year probably also derives from the winter solstice. It's a new ear because the sun is in fact observably "returning" to the northern hemisphere, the days are lengthening, and it looks like the whole party is going to last for another year.

            Almost anybody looking forward to another year of existence on earth -- and that's a pretty wide tent -- would likely be receptive to a celebratory salutation of "Happy New Year" and "Seasons Greetings."

            While the salutation of "Merry Christmas" is unlikely to be used much by people who are not Christians, everyone can appreciate that it's the thought that counts. We all want to be told to be "merry" or happy about something.

             I am greeted by "Good Shabbos" at the end of services at my wife's temple, and though I do not use this salutation myself, it is hardly anything to get uptight about.

            Similarly, my father-in-law was charmed to receive a "Merry Christmas" from an almost certainly Muslim waiter in a Moroccan restaurant on Christmas Day in London, when all the English-owned businesses were closed but third-world establishments were kind enough to feed some hungry American tourists. ("God bless us everyone!")

            Nor do I have any hesitation in saying "Happy Hanukkah" to others at the appropriate times, though often I have no idea when that is. It's a holiday that derives from a national event (similar in kind to Independence Day) and is not directly related to the winter solstice, though the lovely phrase used to describe this holiday,"Festival of Lights," offers a strong similarity to the Yule/Christmas line of holiday customs and symbols.

           And for those who haven't yet discovered this application at home, leftover Hanukkah candles work wonderfully when inserted into the widely enjoyed Christmas decoration called "Angel Chimes."

            You can try that one at home -- while wishing your friends, family, neighbors, office mates, and other acquaintances some version of Season's-happy-good-Hanukkah-New Year's-Christmas-welcome-merry Solstice!