CHRISTMAS AFTERTHOUGHTS

New York, 27 December 2012

By common accord, we didn’t give each other presents this year. It was present enough to be all together as a family for the first time in a year. We also didn’t have a Christmas tree, since we had gone to New York to celebrate Christmas, because that was where the children’s lives have happened to bring them, and were staying in a rented apartment. And we didn’t go to church, because my wife and I are no longer religious and our children never were. For me, that is a relief; my childhood memories of Christmas are scarred by the dread of having to go to church. Christmas always fell during the week so I was subjected to the torment of church on the Sunday before, church on Christmas, church on the Sunday after, church on New Year’s, and church on the Sunday after that …

But what we did have was good cheer – it’s so wonderful for my wife and I to be with our children – supplemented by a good meal cooked by our daughter who is growing to be a master cook, washed down by a tolerable Argentinean wine. Afterwards, we all together went to see a film that my wife and I would never have seen in Beijing, which by chance brought us to Times Square, tawdry by day but magic by night with all its brilliantly lit advertisements: the high temple of consumption.

And so now, the morning after, with the children sleeping in next door and the plates of yesterday’s meal washed up, I can sit in bed and reflect on Christmas, doing a little web surfing to understand better this feast which has regularly punctuated the whole of my life.

For my wife and I, imprinted as we are with a Christian upbringing, it is of course the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Risen Christ, Saviour of the World. But why 25 December?After all, no date is given in the New Testament for the birth of Jesus. When I was younger, I had read that the Church Fathers had chosen December 25 to compete with, to overlay, and finally to smother, the flourishing pagan feasts celebrating the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, which falls on 21 or 22 December. But that seems to have been too simplistic. It looks more like December 25 was chosen because it was nine months after March 25, which in turn was believed to be the day on which Christ died. For the mystically inclined early Christians, there must have been a pleasing harmony in this equivalence of dates of conception – the start of life – and of death, but also of resurrection – the start of everlasting life. The unintended consequence – that Christ was therefore born on December 25, more or less at the winter solstice, a time of many pagan feasts – was seen “as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods” (1): Jesus, the “Sun of righteousness” prophesied in the Old Testament. As Christianity spread out of the Roman heartlands, and as the Christian missionaries came up against manifold feasts celebrating the winter solstice they used the latter argument more than the former to win hearts and minds and to overlay and snuff out those feasts.

What a pity those old feasts were suppressed! Not because I am a fan of the rites and rituals that surrounded them; they were distractions from the real event, the fact that the sun has reached its lowest point and is now starting its slow ascent again to summer. That’s what we should all be celebrating in the northern hemisphere, because the sun is probably our only common heritage. Our creeds, our races, our languages, our cultures all divide us. But the sun brings us together. Without it, we would not exist and our planet would be just a dark cold cinder whirling through space.

So next year let’s head on down to one of those monuments built millennia ago to mark solstices and other moments in the solar cycle, like Stonehenge

stonehenge-2

Newgrange in Ireland

newgrange-2

Karnak in Egypt

Karnak

Chankillo in Peru (the oldest solar observatory in the Americas)

chankillo

Palenque in Mexico

palenque

North Salem in New Hampshire (the “Stonehenge of North America”)

north salem

Denfeng in China

denfeng

Jaipur in India

Jaipur

or to more modern places like the Lawrence Hall of Science in California

lawrence hall of science

or, for the summer solstice, the Native American museum in Washington

Brief description of overall shoot

and let’s have ourselves a celebration! Let’s connect again, if only for a few moments in our busy schedules, with the most fundamental of all natural cycles of the world, the solar cycle.

________________
(1)McGowan, Andrew. “How December 25 Became Christmas”, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/new-testament/how-december-25-became-christmas/

Stonehenge: http://www.juliamccutchen.com/uploads/blog//wintersolstice_stonehenge.jpg
Newgrange: http://www.newgrange.com/newgrange/new_grange_solstice.jpg
Karnak: http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/adventure/files/2012/12/SolsticeKarnakBIG.jpg
Chankillo: http://0.tqn.com/d/archaeology/1/0/k/u/Thirteen_Towers_sm.jpg
Palenque: http://pcdn.500px.net/13198007/7eb491e6b4f1ac429dd6f932c0e41f56dfad312b/4.jpg
North Salem: http://www.stonestructures.org/assets/images/Winter-Solstice-Sunset.jpg
Denfeng: http://history.cultural-china.com/chinaWH/images/arbigimages/9a7d45ff336ffda1702e4ab4d11110e2.jpg
Jaipur: http://museumsrajasthan.gov.in/images/Virhat%20Samrat%20Yantra%20%288%29.JPG
Lawrence hall of science: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c1/LHS_sunstones.jpg
Native American museum: http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/aroundthemall/files/2012/06/prism-575.jpg

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Abellio

I like writing, but I’ve spent most of my life writing about things that don’t particularly interest me. Finally, as I neared the age of 60, I decided to change that. I wanted to write about things that interested me. What really interests me is beauty. So I’ve focused this blog on beautiful things. I could be writing about a formally beautiful object in a museum. But it could also be something sitting quietly on a shelf. Or it could be just a fleeting view that's caught my eye, or a momentary splash of colour-on-colour at the turn of the road. Or it could be a piece of music I've just heard. Or a piece of poetry. Or food. And I’m sure I’ve missed things. But I’ll also write about interesting things that I hear or read about. Isn't there a beauty about things pleasing to the mind? I started just writing, but my wife quickly persuaded me to include photos. I tried it and I liked it. So my posts are now a mix of words and pictures, most of which I find on the internet. What else about me? When I first started this blog, my wife and I lived in Beijing where I was head of the regional office of the UN Agency I worked for. So at the beginning I wrote a lot about things Chinese. Then we moved to Bangkok, where again I headed up my Agency's regional office. So for a period I wrote about Thailand and South-East Asia more generally. But we had lived in Austria for many years before moving to China, and anyway we both come from Europe my wife is Italian while I'm half English, half French - so I often write about things European. Now I'm retired and we've moved back to Europe, so I suppose I will be writing a lot more about the Old Continent, interspersed with posts we have gone to visit. What else? We have two grown children, who had already left the nest when we moved to China, but they still figure from time to time in my posts. I’ll let my readers figure out more about me from reading what I've written. As these readers will discover, I really like trees. So I chose a tree - an apple tree, painted by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt - as my gravatar. And I chose Abellio as my name because he is the Celtic God of the apple tree. I hope you enjoy my posts. http://ipaintingsforsale.com/UploadPic/Gustav Klimt/big/Apple Tree I.jpg

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