Given the current season, my mind was drawn to consider the extraneous material that seems to accrete around religious festivals. A festival is, of course, just a feast day – but given the rather limited number of days in the year and the plethora of Saints, I presume every day could be considered a feast day. In an attempt to limit my scope for rambling, I will limit myself to the two largest Christian festivals: Christmas and Easter.
Easter is timed to steal the thunder from the pre-existing Pagan fertility festival of Eostre. This may have been named for the eponymous goddess, though the only mention of her comes from the Venerable Bede, whose journalistic integrity is in some doubt.
Beyond the name, the only obvious non-Christian accretion to Easter would seem to be an egg-laying rabbit (or possibly hare). Regardless of the chosen member of the Genus Lepus, the laying of eggs would seem to require the intervention of some mad geneticist. However, both eggs and rabbits do smack of fertility which may suggest some reference back to Eostre. Rather a limited set of accretions I think you will agree.
When we come to Christmas, however, the accretions are astonishingly extensive. As with Easter, it is timed to usurp Pagan celebrations – this time of the winter solstice. This would suggest that the timing was decided at some distance from the Equator, where (to be brutally frank) the solstice is rather a non-event.
It would seem that our interest in holly, ivy, mistletoe and pine trees refers back to this older festival and the desire to see something green in the depths of winter – this presumably pre-dated the airfreighting of avocados and Kenyan “French”beans to our shores. Mistletoe has huge Pagan significance, apparently signifying the divine male essence – presumably any readers of the distaff persuasion would point to its parasitic nature in support of this claim.
Added to the Christmas tree we have a whole range of baubles and trinkets, tinsel and (usually) a winged human figure at its apogee. Whilst a star or angel has some link to the original Christmas story, I can only assume the fairy some how snuck in with Santa’s elves.
Santa Claus evolved (or perhaps was intelligently designed) from St Nicholas or possibly Basil – both of Greek extraction and once resident in Asia Minor. He may also have some connection to Odin – though I don’t recall the red suit and bulging sack from the last time I sat through the Ring Cycle. However, the nibelungen could perhaps have become Santa’s elves – they did manage to forge at least one gold ring (only 4 more to go plus sundry birds et al).
St Nick was a busy chap – leaving coins in people’s shoes (apparently charity rather than practical joke), producing wheat without the whole tedious business of arable farming and pre-empting William Ewart Gladstone by saving young ladies from a life on the game. Oddly, his current chimney bothering antics seem to be derived from his shoe-based investment strategy.
The North Pole and reindeer mythological additions seem to be North American – though surely, elk or caribou would be more geographically sound. Wonderfully, in Sweden santa used to arrive on a special Christmas goat – a tradition I think we should embrace in these financially straightened times. With reindeer came the sleigh – again, a major saving for the Xmas goat option – and with the sleigh, the bells. These bells have now reached a degree of seasonal ubiquity that approaches immanence – any piece of music can instantly be made seasonal by the addition of sleigh bells. If historically accurate, the level of noise pollution during the winter months in the Scandinavia of yore must have been appalling.
The Christmas card was clearly a cunning marketing wheeze by the early Victorian Post Office. Their subject matter spans the full range from the Pagan and Christian Festivals to extracts from the I-Spy Book of Winter.
So many accretions, and I haven’t even started on the food. Large birds with small brassicas seem important (this does seem worryingly like a double entendre now I see it in print) – in some sort of alternative universe (such a popular narrative device in Star Trek, where it was flagged to the audience through the judicious use of a goatee beard) do they perhaps eat a quail or poussin with a cauliflower or January King perhaps? The marketing departments of the dried fruit business should have received some pretty decent bonuses in days of yore. Not only do their wares appear in mincemeat and pies, but in the Christmas pudding and cake too – they cover every meal and the snacks too!
So, the big question I have is, why has Christmas acquired so many more accretions over the years than Easter? I suppose it has, at least nominally, roughly 30 years more history – but I don’t think anyone was developing tinsel or boiling sprouts in the early years of the first century AD. I wonder if it is just that people had nothing much else to do in winter than develop ever more surreal myths. Any better ideas?
[Aren’t we all glad I avoided rambling?!]