12.20.11 On the shortest day of the year, cultures in northern latitudes from Japan to Finland celebrate the return of light. It makes sense to recognize a thing so elemental in its absence, another paradox of human perception. Like you can’t have your cake and eat it too…
I wrote my master’s thesis on the human assimilation of Divine Light, a sort of trippy but nerdy synthesis piece that read early Greek Christian philosophers in conversation with the textbook narrative of photosynthesis. Ah, the energy of youth. I really didn’t have to learn Greek, stack up more debt, and invade the biology department to understand that I function plant-like.This time of year my mind and body slow down. Winter is for contemplation, restoration, healing. Summer for action, growth, and wandering.
Part of what I was trying to unravel was how cultural forces collide and combine. Christmas in northern Europe is a good example, though the history can be sketchy. In Norway, well-documented because of its relatively late adoption of the new religion, King Haakon the Good decreed around 960 that Yule celebrations would be held December 25 to coincide with the recognition of Christmas, the timing of which had been set down some time in the 4th century by the Roman church from a carefully redacted interpretation of the gospel accounts of the Census of Quirinius. The holiday that came out of that superimposition recognizes the fire of the yule log and the symbol of the evergreen tree alongside the Christian idea of the Light of the World during the time long associated with Midwinter.
It’s hard to get your head around a Christmas tree when you look at it. Blue spruce or Douglas fir, festooned with sentimental kitsch, topped with a star or an angel. In the Lakota sundance, celebrated in midsummer, a split cottonwood tree is bedecked with prayer ties, bundles, and the silhouettes of a human and a buffalo. Both trees are symbols connecting past and future through growth, which is really a message about hope not being ephemeral but eternal. Like light.
Our holiday issue focuses on nonprofit giving and features five organizations that work to bring about good, not for the gain of profit, but because they believe they can make a better place out of the world. In the bleak midwinter, think about what kind of change you want to make when the sun comes back.––Giles Morris