I’m a southern-tropical guy. I grew up knowing two seasons only: hot and less hot. Christmas for me was always with sun shining and 35ºC outside. Then, I moved to Europe over one decade ago and everything changed.
It’s September or October when we start to notice that the days are getting shorter, nights longer. By the end of December we just worship the few remaining hours of light. We fell like Calvin:
I learned that there is a whole psychology connected to this season’s change. It’s October, we say “Shit, it’s 15ºC outside…”, we wrap ourselves in warm clothes and go for a hot chocolate. It’s April, we say “Great! it’s 15°C outside!,” we wear a light pullover and go for a walk in the park.
The depressing dark and cold weather by the end of the year is made bearable by the approaching festivities. We feast on November 11 on St. Martin’s Day. (If you never tried, you can’t miss the traditional Martinsgans in Germany and Austria. The usual boring yellow-and-brown daily German dishes give place to a delicious multicolored roast goose with red cabbage, potato dumplings, Brussels sprouts, baked apples, and chestnut.)
Then, one month later, people get crowded in human-warm Christmas markets drinking hot wine and eating caramelized apples. I don’t like either of them, but no matter the cold, it’s better to stand outside with others, than alone in our heated houses. (Mr. Scrooge had a hard time to understand that…)
Finally, it comes Christmas eve. The family gets together and people exchange gifts in a millenary tradition going back to the Roman Saturnalia. Thus, in the north I found the meaning of Christmas: to offer a bit of comfort in the hardest moment of the year. Or as Annie Edison once put it:
“[Christmas] is the crazy notion that the longest, coldest, darkest nights can be the warmest and brightest.”
(You don’t know who Annie Edison is? Serious, you really need more TV time.)
In fact, all this psychological support to face winter that we get from traditional Christian celebrations shouldn’t be a surprise: Christian mythology is deeply wrapped in the seasons as felt in the northern temperate zone, where it was developed. More, it has a clear 1-year cycle.
The story starts when Mary gets a call from Gabriel to tell that she was pregnant. This is middle of March, beginning of spring. Summer comes and there is a parallel story going on with side characters: St. John—the guy who later baptizes Christ—is born on June 24, marking the solstice. Summer is over, days are getting shorter, weather colder. But there is still hope: the new god is born by the end of December. He is predestined to bring the light back. Then, winter dies out giving place to a new spring. The god dies and immediately resurrects completing the cycle. Mary can get pregnant again.
The influence of the light/darkness cycle goes much beyond religion. It is everywhere in the Western culture, from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars. Another example?
My favorite opera is Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The story by Emanuel Schikaneder is about the ongoing war between the Queen of the Night and Sarastro, a sort of Sun king. They fight and light wins, while Sarastro sings:
“The rays of the sun chase night away; the hypocrite’s surreptitious power is utterly destroyed!”
And it’s great that Sarastro win. Now, Papageno and Papagena, allegories of mindless living beasts with no other worry than to reproduce in the spring, can have many children. Between the level of the king-gods and the level of the natural beasts, Schikaneder tells the story of Tamino and Pamina, in love with each other and together facing challenges to be allowed into Sarastro’s temple. Humans seeking knowledge in a naïve masonic allegory. (The story is also plenty of 18th-century chauvinism and racism, which always remind me of a witty observation by the Nobel-laureate physicist Edward Appleton: “I don’t care what language an opera is sung in as long it is a language I don’t understand.”)
Anyway, darkness x light, winter x summer. Could it be more obvious?
But you have to live in the north to feel that. If you live horizontal in the tropics or upside down in the southern hemisphere, all these myths, metaphors, and allegories don’t hold. They don’t match the light/darkness cycles that inspired them.
Sometimes, they are re-adapted. In the south of Brazil, for instance, we find the equivalent of the Christmas market in June, the middle of winter there. People get crowded in St. John’s festivities drinking hot wine and eating caramelized apples.
In general, in the tropics and in the south, we live in eternal cognitive dissonance. We follow the Christian European traditions, with the same celebrations on the same dates. But they don’t make sense. Or better: we don’t feel their sense. What’s the meaning of Christmas at south of the Tropic of Cancer?
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- I leave you with Diana Damrau, my favorite Queen of the Night. She is trying to convince Pamina to kill Sarastro. There’s some serious singing going on there.