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Inklings at Christmas

December 24, 2011

Santa and the Wild HuntAs yet another Christmas comes around, I find myself once again keenly aware of my Northern European identity. While many of the trappings of our modern Christmas may have been invented and commercialised in the 19th century, the roots of Yuletide are of course far older and, here in Northern Europe at least, closely tied to that period of cold and lethal darkness through which we all hunker down by the fire and wait for the sun to return.

There’s little daylight now. Even then most of it is grey, lifeless, the trees like blasted remnants of their summer selves. Even the air smells dead, sterilised by frost and cold. Yet here, by the fire, a little spark of life lives on – embers in the hearth, preserved fruits and baking in the stove, a great evergreen tree brought still living into the house and decorated and praised as a symbol of life’s power to survive the midwinter.

I love the accoutrements of this season – the signs of continuing life, survival, and the hope of returning life to come. The birth of Jesus is a perfect addition to the medley of other religious symbols swarming together into this midwinter hotchpotch – the gift-giving, slaughtered meats, and cheerful feasts of Saturnalia, the mulled wines and beers of our Germanian and Scandinavian forebears raised by the hearth over the “hallowed nights” of the Solstice, the Yule log brought out again to kindle the fire.

One of the great strengths of Western civilisation is its eclecticism. Shameless, effortless, and somehow startlingly innocent. Despite the best efforts of propagandists and ideologues, we happily rip off, plagiarise, assimilate and regurgitate any bits of our constituent cultures – and those we come into contact with – and add them to our huge incongruous jumble. Christmas makes no logical sense. Christ was probably born in spring, when the lambs are in the field, not winter; we sit and sing songs of Zoroastrian priests, desert villages, and a Roman census two thousand years old, then bung it together with Scandinavian myths, Celtic legends, and twee Victorian commercialism.

But on an emotional level, it makes all the sense in the world, and after thousands of years is still the dominant event in our cultural calendar.

So raise a tankard of steaming ale by the fir tree by the hearth, and join me in chants to pagan kings, Zarathustra, and the birth of the King of the Jews – for Santa and the Wild Hunt ride tonight!

Merry Christmas, and Good Yule!

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