If you grew up in North America, whether in the Arizona desert or the Florida swamps, you probably spent December adorning your home with ancient symbols of Northern European winter. Not everyone put up miniatures of the Nativity, but most decorate with plastic replicas of Christmas trees, Santa, Yule logs, reindeer, holly, ivy and mistletoe – most of which we had never seen in real life.
Once we moved to rural Ireland, though, they began to make sense, like jigsaw pieces when the full picture becomes clear. The reindeer were from Nordic countries, of course, and Santa is a composite of characters from many countries, but the others were used in Britain and Ireland for many generations, and we soon saw why.
You see, a rarely-mentioned fact about these islands is that we are less than a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle. We don’t think of Ireland as being so far north, as the Atlantic current comes straight up from the Bahamas and bathes the island in comparatively warm water. “Warm” is not an intuitive way to describe the ocean around here – when it splashes over the rocks, it doesn’t feel like the Caribbean – but it is warmer than other waters so far north, and it keeps the island just above freezing most of the winter. For comparison, at this same latitude in North America you could once find polar bears.
At Midsummer – the longest day of the year – you can walk around in twilight after 11 pm and before 4 am. Until we moved here, I never understood the title of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his play in which lovers change their allegiances several times in a night. The longest day is the shortest night, so the title emphasizes how quickly love can turn – in a “Midsummer Night,” the equivalent of a “New York Minute.”
Winter brings the opposite, with nights as black as tar for seventeen hours at a stretch. They seem longer, for even the daylight hours rarely see the sun, but only a dim grey glow from behind the dark clouds. Green forests turn ashen and skeletal in the hours of twilight before the darkness descends again. Before electricity – which only reached parts of rural Ireland in the 1970s – flames provided the only light.
Generations now have grown up with streetlights outside and houselights a flick away, and can little comprehend the unsettling power of long darkness. No wonder every culture in the North had a word for it. The ancient Irish built circles of standing stones, and according to some theories to see the first morning light after the solstice. To the Norse it was Yule, and to Saxons it was the Mother Night.
It made sense, then, to devote the shortest day of the year to celebration, knowing that a new solar year is being born. It made sense to bring in the few plants that remained green and cheerful even in winter, like holly, ivy, the less-remembered rosemary – and in Nordic countries, a decorated evergreen.
It made sense for everyone to gather in church and sing together, and then for everyone to leave and visit each other’s homes, their lanterns ploughing through the dark roads, as they went from house to house singing and toasting each house in turn.
Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and other holidays from the Christian calendar came to us from a very different culture and landscape, the desert lands to the far south and east. Once adopted by peoples of the long darkness, though, they were transformed. Whenever Christ was actually born, the obvious time to celebrate his birth was when -- after a long and harrowing plunge into the abyss -- the world seems to exhale, the days are born and grow again, and another year of life, with all its possibilities, appears before us.