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.

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(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

MY MOTHER HAS JUST DIED

Beijing, 11 August 2012

My mother died a few days ago. My brother’s email telling me so didn’t give any details, and a later email from my sister simply said that she had passed away very peacefully; the usual words.

My mother has actually been dead for a while. The person I visited last month was not my mother. She didn’t talk, she didn’t react to my talking, she simply sat there gazing blankly. It was the hollowed-out shell of my mother, a moulted exoskeleton. So the news elicited no grief from me, just a melancholy relief that she had finally been spared the indignity of living on.

Did she die well? I would like to think that she did. I would like to hope that she – a fervent Catholic all her life – managed one last prayer to the Lord her God before her heart finally gave out. But I doubt it; she probably died the way an old, badly tuned car engine sputters out, just a last wheeze and jolt and that was it, in the little room that she occupied in the old person’s home.

I have always had this picture of the generations walking in cohorts towards the final end, one behind the other; rather like regiments marching across No Man’s Land. The generation ahead of mine – my parents and my aunts and uncles – is sadly depleted; only three very elderly aunts remain. Soon even they will be gone, and then there will be no-one between me and the end. Even my cohort is beginning to thin; death has picked off the husband of my sister, a cousin … the pace will pick up in the coming years.

This vision wouldn’t bother me so much if I – like my parents – could believe that death is merely an uncomfortable rite of passage to be endured, because it leads to a greater – and eternal – life. But I cannot. Decades ago, I played Claudius in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. As he awaits execution in prison, Claudius meditates on what will come after he dies:

…to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thoughts
Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

At much the same time that I played Claudius I had come to the unalterable conclusion that there was no world beyond ours and I turned away forever from the religion of my forebears. So like Claudius, I am afraid “to lie in cold obstruction and to rot; this sensible warm motion to become a kneaded clod”. And I too feel that “the weariest and most loathed worldly life that age, ache, penury and imprisonment can lay on nature is a paradise to what we fear of death.” But I cannot follow Claudius in his belief of an afterworld, even if his vision is one of terror. I am merely afraid of disappearing forever.