Oh Holy Night: A Reflection on the Darkness of the Season
"Winter alone reminds us of the human condition."—Mignon McLaughlin
Christmas is a myth.
Wait, bear with me.
This is not one of those times where a snarky intellectual rips apart everything you believe. I am not trying to be a schoolyard loudmouth going around telling all the other kids that Santa isn’t real. I am tempted to be that guy. I usually am that guy, but not today.
Christmas is a myth.
But this is not a bad thing. Here in the modern rational age, we tend to dismiss myth as mere fairytales, stories that primitive minds made up to explain away what they could not understand. But myths are something deeper. They speak to the oldest parts of ourselves. Joseph Campbell calls myths “the masks of God,” they give us a glimpse of what is unseeable and teach us lessons about meaning and being and the nature of the world.
So we can say, for the sake of argument, that even if the nativity narratives found in Matthew and Luke—stories that we normally conflate together, but are actually wildly different—are historically and literally true. I think we can agree that these narratives still unfold in richly symbolic and mythological ways. The shepherd, the wise men, the angels, the manger, the star, all of these things tell us something. They mean something that the first readers of these narratives would have instantly understood.
That these particular stories are remembered and celebrated at this particular time of year is, of course, also mythological in nature.
When I first left the church, I used to hold up the much older stories and celebrations of Saturnalia, Yule, and Sol Invictus, and more specifically, all of the pagan rituals that carried over from them and were folded into our Christmas customs, as proof that Christianity was nonsense. Just a lazy reboot of older myths that we, as a species, would do well to grow out of. But over the last few days (and really, over this whole last year) I have come to think that, actually, the opposite might be true.
For as far back as we have written history, humans in the northern hemisphere have set this particular span of days apart as sacred. So much so that even as Christianity conquered Rome then Europe then the world, these days, this time that we are in right now, persisted.
Persisted so much, in fact, that Christianity itself adapted to accommodate it, eventually wrapping itself around this sacred time and filling it with Christian stories and symbols to explain why this time is important.
Industrialization and electric lights and the 9 to 5 job scene and the generally fast paced existence we live in now has severed us from time as our ancestors knew it. We don’t mark it the way we used to. We pay less attention to the rhythms and heartbeat of our planet. The breathing in and out, the cycles that all life follows. We have become less attuned, less mindful, of how the seasons affect us, how they reflect the rhythms and cycles of our own bodies.
But the ancients were far more keenly aware of growing darkness, of increasing cold, of vegetation and natural life seemingly dying and disappearing from the earth. They knew the long nights. They couldn’t escape it.
We might consider it silly now—these primitive peoples believing that the sun god had died—but the longest darkest night of the year is real. It’s harrowing. Even our understanding of the planet’s rotation does little to dampen the effect as those of us with seasonal affective disorder can easily attest. It is not hard to imagine that this darkness, this cold, this death, will only continue to grow, consuming everything around it.
But there is hope. The sun god rises from the dead. Unto us a child is born. The angle of the planet slowly begins its rotation back towards the brilliance of day.
And this is meaningful.
In my own life I have felt the cold grow stronger. I have watched as the seeds I have planted and cultivated all through the summer months wither and die, seemingly never to return. I have lost my way in the long, dark night of the soul. And honestly, it feels like that night will never end.
But the sun is coming back. Everything is seasonal, cyclical. And I agree with Hermann Hesse that this isn’t a circle, but a spiral. Though it feels that I am merely being tossed back and forth between the summer and winter of the spirit, there is growth here. The snow is permeating the soil, it’s watering the roots. The natural world and the stories that have arisen from it serve as a reminder to me.
Not only will winter pass, it is also necessary. There is no need to fear the long night.
I especially love that these myths and rituals and celebrations are not to mark the end of winter. This is not the vernal equinox (Easter) where we celebrate the sun’s triumphant return and the beginning of a season of growth and abundance.
No, our twinkling lights, our evergreens, our holly, our desire to be close to those we love, these things all serve as reminders that there is life even in the darkest and coldest of times. That we will get through this together. This is the chance to reflect on this past season of our lives, to honor what has passed away, and to prepare for the new growth that is to come.
I can’t speak much to the veracity of mangers, wise men, or angels. For those of you who hold these things dear, I hope they speak to you in new and transformative ways during this ancient and sacred time.
For those of you who, like me, are feeling the darkness a little more than we’d like or are used to, I hope you can find peace to cover you like a fresh blanket of snow. And in that stillness rest in this season. The sun will be back before you know it.
And as always, my prayer is this:
Peace on earth. Goodwill to all.