Saturday 22 December 2018

Christmas during the Forgetting

Winter sunset over the Bog of Allen

Every year my daughter was growing up, I brought her to the Wren Day at the local forest, and was pleased to be part of a ritual that dates back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Now that my daughter is a teenager, we haven’t been back in a few years, but I returned last year to visit it again. I was crestfallen, then, to find that the festival was cancelled … they couldn’t get enough people to come, they told me, in order to pay for the insurance they now need to pay.

I should explain that wrens are little songbirds that remain here through the winter, and their ritual here comes the day after Christmas. On that day we and hundreds of our neighbours would gather in the local woods, and in a clearing with park benches and a tea shop, musicians played traditional Irish music while locals gathered with hot drinks around fires or danced to the music, and children gathered around for the “Hunting of the Wren.”

In the ritual, local men dressed up as “wren boys” -- which for our group meant looking like Robin Hood’s Merry Men – gathered around a statue of the songbird. The wren, the men explained to all the gathered children, was sacred to the Celts – the old Irish name for it, dreoilin, means “the Druid bird.” One day a year, local “straw boys” – dressed like haystacks, their identities concealed -- hunted the wren as a prize, and the Wren Boys swore to protect the bird.

As the musicians played in the background, however, and as the children listened wide-eyed to the Wren Boys tell their stories, a group of Straw Boys snuck up behind them, hitting sticks together menacingly, grabbed the wren and ran off. The children erupted in delighted outrage, and the Wren Boys led hundreds of local children in a chase through the woods until they retrieved the bird. Eventually, the two sides came to an understanding, shook hands, and placed a small crown on the statue’s head, declaring the wren the King of Birds.
Straw boys approaching.

A friend of mine who specialised in folklore said the slaying of the wren meant the slaying of winter, and the pact to accept and cherish it meant the acceptance that winter would return – an important detail where we live, a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle where the winter nights are long and dark. In some eras, when Irish customs were being stamped out, the ritual had to be carried out in secret, but they did so anyway, so devoted were they to keeping it alive. Now, our local Wren Day is gone.

Of course, other communities will likely still celebrate it, but I suspect fewer every year. This is one of hundreds of ways in which the traditional, local and national cultures have been gradually steamrolled away by the mass pop culture of Hollywood.

I realise that I’m complaining about the loss of a tradition I didn’t grow up with myself, but the same is true of local culture in my native USA. Songs of the Appalachians and Ozarks, the rituals of towns and clans, are more and more preserved in amber by aficionados or tourist boards rather than lived by children, while family traditions grow more homogenized and dictated by the mainstream media, more focused on buying things quickly and discarding them. The same process has happened across Europe and, I’m told, non-Western countries where children are raised now by screens rather than blood.  

In each of those places – in every place we have been human – mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, teenagers and children gathered around campfires and hearths, around tables and altars, and shared the songs and stories that made them who they were. They passed down skills and dishes, rituals and holidays. In more and more places around the world now, only the older people remember such things, while the kids play video games or watch Youtube memes, their bodies sitting next to their grandparents but with an interior world that would be alien to their forebears.  

Of course, we’ve done this with holidays as well, so that all the festivals people here used to celebrate to mark the passing of the year have disappeared in the last few generations. Mention May Day, Lughnasa, Midsummer, Twelfth Night or to people these days and you get blank expressions – except the last two as titles of Shakespeare plays, among the few who know Shakespeare anymore.
Musicians at Wren Day
A few generations ago, a neighbour tells me, local children used to gather and dance around the May Pole in a field near us; today, I doubt any of the local children would know what May Day was, and the same could soon be true of Wren Day. A half century of Hollywood has done for this country what centuries of starvation and imprisonment could not.

Nowhere is this more true than around Christmas, which has metastasized from a holy day into a shopping season. For only a few weeks lamp-posts and cubicles grow plastic boughs and wreaths, and normally functional roofs sport enough lights to be seen from space. Radio stations put aside their normal playlists to endlessly repeat a handful of Christmas-related rock ballads over and over. Haggard faces jam the malls and shopping districts, news announcers track the spending numbers like a telethon host, and grim office ladies start aggressive campaigns to cover every surface with coloured cardboard and festive glitter.  If you’re like me, you want to boycott this seasonal magic as much as possible.

Don’t misunderstand; I cherish my own memories of Christmas, love the seasonal spirit and can carol with gusto. For that reason, though, I ration my exposure to the season; the decorations become a backdrop after the first time you see them, inspiring songs quickly grow annoying, and enforced spending leeches the joy from giving.  

The radio and television floods us with images of how our holiday is supposed to be: we are supposed to eat too much, drink too much, spend too much and listen to the endlessly repeated holiday songs, whether we actually enjoy these things or not, in the name of tradition.

But most of these customs are not the real Christmas traditions, and many were just created as marketing gimmicks by corporations. Only in the 1930s, for example, did a Coca-Cola advertising campaign cement our modern version of Santa Claus in the public mind, with a red-and-white colour scheme to match their product. Some version of Father Christmas has existed before then in other forms, of course, but even in the early 20th century ago people depicted him in a variety of outfits, often a green robe. He was often shown as thinner as well – perhaps it’s not a coincidence that his obesity began when he started advertising soda pop.  

Some of the Christmas songs we treat with reverence are not particularly old either, and some of them were also marketing campaigns: "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," for example, was invented as an advertising gimmick for Montgomery Ward stores in 1939. Families on this side of the Atlantic tell their children that Santa lives in Lapland, rather than the North Pole, but that seems to have been a similarly late addition to the Christmas legend, developed mainly by the Finnish government in the 1960s to boost tourism.

No one is saying that all modern creations are bad, of course, and you can like whatever you like. I’m simply saying that the actual customs that our forebears kept for hundreds or thousands of years disappeared quickly and recently during the Great Forgetting of modern times, replaced by less wholesome and healthy customs manufactured by people with agendas.

In fairness, this is the only time of year many Americans are exposed to classic movies like It’s a Wonderful Life; repetition has turned them into white noise, and they were of course mass media products of their own time, but they remain a window into a less wasteful past. Likewise, if people are going to read novelists like Dickens, recite poetry, visit family members or sing songs in a group, it will probably be around this time of year.

But here’s the thing: many of those things used to happen every day. People used to spend every day with loved ones, and singing and storytelling used to be normal, and while not everyone in every era read books or saw plays, they used to be far more common a century or two ago than now. Every day used to be more like the best parts of Christmas today.

Take wassailing as an example. Today a few people here and there still sing carols around the neighbourhood around Christmas, or even wassail -- like carolling, except that the carollers were invited in for drinks. Only several decades ago – in the time of motor-cars and electricity, and within the memory of people still living – it was much more normal, even in America. Here in Ireland, though, people didn’t just do it at Christmas, but all through the winter, in a union of drunken party, social gathering and prayer that has no modern equivalent.

Such customs broke up the long darkness of winter, kept families from getting cabin fever, and let them check on each other. It allowed each family share with their neighbours – food drinks and stories -- in a pooling of resources. It strengthened the feeling of community, so that burdens were lessened because they were shared, and joys were heightened because they were shared.

The other thing to remember is that there’s nothing stopping us from bringing back many of these older rituals, which we might find still serve their old purpose. Wassailing would be a great thing for many older people --- or young people, for that matter – who don’t get out much. Give it a try, offering snacks or cider as you go along – if one in a hundred houses lets you in, that’s one house that might join you next year. Most importantly, you’ve planted a seed for everyone who heard you, and made it seem more normal. It doesn’t have to stop at Christmas either – remember that the twelve days of Christmas ends January 6 – or just make plans for next year.

Try singing some of the older songs; if you are tired of hearing “Fairytale of New York” or “Santa Baby” for the thousandth time this month, try looking up the music or words for “Angelus Ad Virginem,” “Tomorrow Will Be My Dancing Day,” or other neglected carols from ages past. Alternately, try looking up different versions of familiar carols; “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” came in many regional forms, from mournful to jaunty, before settling on our current version. For my part, I’ll talk to people about reviving Wren Day here, and see who’s interested.

Wherever you are, your climate, neighbourhood and family will have your own customs – but look at what your grandparents, or their grandparents, did and what could be revived. Many of those customs, field-tested over generations, were more fun, and healthier for body and mind, than whatever the television’s telling you to do.

Sunday 16 December 2018

The White Christmases of our forebears

This was originally published in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper. 

Across the world people celebrate Christmas – or some related Western holiday that has been caught in Christmas’ cultural orbit – with a set of familiar symbols. In California and Calais alike stores sell cards of snowy landscapes, and paint frosted evergreens on their windows in Florida and Florence. We all listen to carols about snowmen and reindeer, holly and mistletoe, stocking-caps and logs blazing on a fire. We watch White Christmas, and feel disappointed when we don’t get one. 

Yet few people question why we embrace such relentlessly Nordic imagery. Most of us are not Saami and have never seen a real sleigh or reindeer, nor do holly and mistletoe grow in most of our regions.  

Generations of Hollywood films have conditioned us to expect snowbound Christmases, even though they are no longer the norm for Missouri (Meet Me in St. Louis), modern London (Love, Actually), or most of the other cities where such movies are set. 

I realised I did the same thing yesterday; when I wanted to post a photo on Christmas Eve, I took one from a few years ago, when we had an unusual snowfall. It was the photo that looked “Christmasy” – the others would look a bit unseasonal to our eyes.

Nor, of course, do any Nordic images have anything to do with the Middle East where Jesus lived, even though most of us grew up putting stable-and-manger figurines in a little snow-bound setting.

In fact, many of our White Christmas images seem to come from one original source, the story that has been repeated so often over the years – A Christmas Carol. Almost every inhabitant of the First World knows the name Ebenezer Scrooge, of course, but few of us realise how many of our holiday customs – Santa and Christmas trees, carolling and family gatherings – were influenced, if not necessarily invented, by that book. 

When The Girl and I read the story, however, I was impressed by how much attention Dickens paid to the weather. On almost every page, it seems, he has a new description of chilled bones, nipped noses, frosted fields, iced-over pools and paths trodden through snow. Characters see their own breath indoors, and when Scrooge looks outside, he must scrub away the layers of frost on the window – inside.

Early on Dickens writes:

Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened so, that people ran about with flaring links, proffering their services to go before horses in carriages and conduct them on their way. The ancient tower of a church … struck the hours and quarters in the clouds with tremulous vibrations afterwards, as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. 

In the main street, at the corner of the court, some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered, warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. The water-plug, being left in solitude, its overflowings silently congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice. 

Dickens wasn’t making up such scenes; he was a child when London saw the last of the Frost Fairs, markets and gatherings held on the frozen surface of the Thames River. His writings came at the end of the Little Ice Age, a period of two or three centuries when the global climate dipped. During this time Dutch artists painted images of skating on canals in April, invading armies easily crossed from Sweden to Denmark across their oceanic straits, and famine was common across Europe. Our Christmas images come from a time and place when the climate was genuinely different.

Since then, in the late 19th century to the early 21st, places like London have seen far less snow and ice at Christmas, and Ireland less still. As the climate grows hotter in the decades ahead, we are likely to see ever-warmer winters and fewer White Christmases still, unless the melting Arctic ice disrupts the Atlantic current that keeps Europe mild.

Most interesting, though, is a possible reason why the climate dipped in the few hundred years after 1600; Europeans colonizing the Americas. Columbus and other Spaniards brought disease that wiped out 90 per cent of the local population, the theory goes, which meant millions of farmers no longer farming. Billions of trees grew up from what had once been crop fields, and each of those trees contained tonnes of carbon that were sucked out of the atmosphere.

The rise and fall of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the main factor that controls the climate; when more carbon dioxide gets pumped into the air, as we are doing now, the world gets hotter, and when more gets sucked out of the air, as happened in the 1500s and 1600s, the world sees colder winters that lasted into Dickens’ time.

Among other things, this tells us what we need to do to stop the runaway climate change scientists predict for the rest of the century. Turning more fields into trees again – something simple and within the power of most of us – would not risk even a little Ice Age at this point, and it could help our descendants one day see White Christmases again.

Sunday 2 December 2018


Thanks to everyone for continuing to check in, and sorry for the reruns; I'm taking night classes and am studying for exams. This was originally published August 2010. 

Across my native USA, I whenever neighbours or townspeople lobby for more bus and rail services, pundits and politicians usually sputter something like this:

Trains and buses are a waste of taxpayers’ money. There’s no reason for them to exist. Look at the ones we have now – they’re mostly empty.

Anyone who’s ridden a bus or train recently knows that’s not even remotely true. Buses and trains are often filled to capacity, here and in America – I’m writing this from a tight squeeze in a packed double-decker. Even if those critics were right, however, they never apply that same logic to cars, for they never say:

Asphalt is a waste of taxpayers’ money, and so are highway overpasses, parking garages, car parks, traffic signals, streetlights, traffic cops and auto company bailouts. Look at the cars we have now – they’re mostly empty. 

Passengers might be the most under-appreciated factor in how much fuel and money you waste. As I write this, for example, a business headline boasts of Toyota’s multi-million-dollar plan to boost fuel efficiency by 25 percent, with the usual discussion of what this will mean for the economy and the climate. Any of us, however, can boost the efficiency of our cars by several hundred percent instantly, with no additional expense or technology, simply by getting more people in the car.

This fact is also forgotten when we judge car owners by the wastefulness of their vehicles. An SUV is a spectacularly inefficient machine compared to a Prius, for example, but pack that Dodge Durango full of people and suddenly it is greener than the electric hybrid driven alone.

To use another example, your bus could be less efficient than an SUV in kilometers-per-litre, yet all of you bus passengers are making one of the greenest transportation choices around, thanks to the fact that so many seats are filled.

One of the easiest ways of cutting your expenses, fuel and carbon footprint, then, is simply to share rides with other people. Since most of us travel similar routes from clusters of houses to clusters of offices, there is no reason why carpooling should not work for most of us.

According to the website, the average car in Ireland, driven 10,000 kilometers a year, will cost 1,750 euros in petrol. Divide that by four people, however, and you each save 1,300 a year. Carpooling could even pay for itself, if you propose to friends and co-workers that they pay you slightly more than the cost of fuel, as compensation for driving a little out of your way.

Some people might think they want to listen to music or a podcast on the way rather than talk to other people, and there’s no reason you can’t do even if the car is crowded. Most people, however, could do with more company. A June 2006 study in the American Sociological Review found that the number of close friends people say they have fell by a third in the previous 20 years.

Most people don’t go to poker nights or Kiwanis meetings anymore, and the number of people who know their neighbours has also fallen, but the number of hours spent commuting has more than doubled in the last few decades. Most studies show us lonelier and more stressed than people of previous generations, probably because we spend less and less of our lives being the social animals we evolved to be, and more and more staring at glowing rectangles.

Perhaps this paranoia about human company is one reason so few of us have taken up carpooling, no matter how much money they would save. A brief internet search shows that while more web sites encourage people to carpool, many people seem fearful of meeting strangers. “How could I possibly trust that the people … I’d travel with are honest guys and not awful criminals?” asked one blogger – sentiments typical of many comments on the subject, even though criminals are unlikely to use a morning carpooling route as their cover for a nefarious plan.

Contrast this with the 1930s or 40s, when regular people carpooled, hitchhiked and picked up hitchhikers, and movies and other media showed this as normal. In wartime USA and Britain carpooling, like many other self-sufficient activities, was declared a patriotic duty – propaganda posters warned against people who selfishly took up a whole car to themselves, or who let the troops down by wasting energy. Hollywood movies showed stars carpooling, Dr. Seuss drew cartoons about how many people you could pack in a car, scoutmasters gave speeches about saving fuel and money.

Nor did the posters approach carpooling as a nice way to enjoy the morning or as a hip new part of eco-fashion; rather, they could be stern in a way that few advertisements are today. “Hitler rides in the empty seat,” said one typical poster. People need this. We are counting on you. 

Today many people, in many countries, are struggling again. It’s not exactly war, and not like any previous Depression. It does have a home front, though, and could benefit from some of the same solutions that were understood to be so sensible, for so long.