"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

Four Days to Christmas: Winter Solstice in Silver and Blue

From “The Winter Solstice” in Christmas: A Short History from Solstice to Santa by Andy Thomas:

“‘Solstice’ is derived from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), and so literally translates as ‘the sun stands still.’ This describes perfectly what happens to the sun as we see it in the sky, usually on December 21 or 22…. At this point in the earth’s orbit, the heavens appear to pause. Thus, what the naked eye sees for three days or so from the winter solstice is the sun rising and setting in effectively identical places. But then, around December 25, positions begin to change and the sun starts its new cycle toward lighter days….

“For the ancients, this was a momentous time, because it meant they could now definitively look forward to life becoming just that little bit more survivable again. Somewhere in our bones, we still feel that joy.

“A celebration of light in the darkness at this time of year raises its head in many cultures…. They all revolve around the same jubilant fact: the sun has begun its slow curve back, so summer and warmth will return, crops will grow, and nature will be abundant once again.”

From Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram:

“During the summer, with its drawn-out days, the sun has little chance to tarry in the ground, but in the autumn it hastens more swiftly across the firmament, yielding further time to rest in the rocky density below. Then, at last, during the long nights of winter, and especially at the winter solstice, the sun lingers and sleeps in at the heart of the earth, nourishing the dark ground with its lustrous dreams, infusing the depths with the manifold life that will soon, after several moons of gestation, blossom forth upon earth’s surface.

“It is a story born of a way of thinking very different from the ways most of us think today…. Yet the tale of the sun’s journey within the earth holds a curious resonance for many of us who hear it… [for] the story brings us close to our senses, and to our direct, bodily awareness of the earthly cosmos.”

Five Days to Christmas: A Collection of Angels and Santas

From Miracle on 10th Street and Other Christmas Writings by Madeleine L’Engle:

“The morning star is low on the horizon. There are three more stars pulsing faintly in the city sky. But even if I can’t see a skyful of stars they are there above me nevertheless; the Milky Way, our own galaxy, swings somewhere in the vast dark above the city lights.

“All those stars. Suns. More suns than can be imagined. Great flaming brilliant atomic furnaces, the bursting of their atoms providing life. Providing life for their planets. Perhaps there are planets where that which was created by love returns love, and there is joy and worship and praise, and man sings with the angels. “

From A Christmas Story by Jean Shepherd:

“At the far end of Toyland in Goldblatt’s, on a snowy throne framed with red-and-white candy canes under a suspended squadron of plastic angels blowing silver trumpets in a glowing golden grotto, sat the Man, the Connection: Santa Claus himself….

“In Northern Indiana Santa Claus is a big man, both spiritually and physically, and the Santa Claus at Goldblatt’s was officially recognized among the kids as being unquestionably THE Santa Claus. In person. Eight feet tall, shiny high black patent-leather boots, a nimbus cloud of snow-white beard, and a real, thrumming, belt-creaking stomach. No pillows or stuffing. I mean a real stomach!”

Six Days to Christmas: Shiny Baubles, Tiny Trinkets

From “The Glad Evangel” by Kate Douglas Wiggin in The Ultimate Christmas Collection:

“Then hang the green coronet of the Christmas-tree with glittering baubles and jewels of flame; heap offerings on its emerald branches; bring the Yule log to the firing; deck the house with holly and mistletoe.”

From “The Chimes” by Charles Dickens in The Ultimate Christmas Collection:

“The streets were full of motion, and the shops were decked out gaily. The New Year, like an Infant Heir to the whole world, was waited for, with welcomes, presents, and rejoicings. There were books and toys for the New Year, glittering trinkets for the New Year, dresses for the New Year, schemes of fortune for the New Year; new inventions to beguile it.”

Seven Days to Christmas: Silver and Gold

From Nutcracker and Mouse King by E.T.A.Hoffmann:

“The huge fir tree in the center carried many gold and silver apples, and, like buds and blossoms, the sugared almonds and colorful bonbons and goodness knows what other tidbits emerged from all the branches. However, the loveliest and most praiseworthy feature of the wonder tree was the myriad of tiny lights that twinkled like tiny stars in its dark boughs….

“And the tree itself, shining in and out, warmly invited the children to pick its blooms and fruits. Around the tree, everything shone very grand and bright — what gorgeous things there were — why, who could describe them all?”

From “Ukraine” in Vintage Christmas Traditions edited by Linda Davies:

“[In Ukraine] … the holidays start on December 4th with the Feast of the Presentation, through to Malanka, a New Year’s celebration.

“A Ukrainian legend is shared about a family who were so poor they couldn’t afford to decorate their Christmas tree. They went to bed feeling sad, but during the night spiders came out of the woodwork, and wove intricate webs on the tree as decorations….

“The following morning, the sun’s rays shone through the windows, turning the spiders’ webs into sparkling silver and gold.”

Eight Days to Christmas: Red and Green

From The Victorian Christmas by Anna Selby:

“The 6 December is the Feast of St Nicholas, a saint whose real history — the little that is known of it — would seem to make him unlikely material for one of the best loved of all Christian saints…. He became a monk, an abbot and eventually the archbishop of Myra and … also became the patron saint of an extraordinarily diverse number of people including the Russian nation, virgins, children, Aberdeen, parish clerks, pawnbrokers, boatmen, fishermen, dockers, coopers, brewers, scholars, travellers, pilgrims, those who had unjustly lost lawsuits and even thieves.

“His transformation into Father Christmas — aka Santa Claus — was a gradual one. Because of his own generosity, he was very much associated with the giving of presents. So on the eve of his feast day, children would put out hay and carrots for his horse and, in return, they would receive a present from him the next morning….

“Present giving in the depths of winter was not just a Christian tradition. The Romans did the same thing during their Saturnalia festival and the Vikings’ Woden would deliver presents in mid-winter, too. And, in Britain, there was the ancient character of Father Christmas, familiar from the mummers’ plays. The Church pragmatically decided to continue the tradition but under the guardianship of a Christian saint. St Nicholas fitted the bill. In fact, there was nothing very saintly about the earlier Father Christmas who was a drinker, fighter and lover!

“But the Victorians reinvented him, spliced him together with St Nicholas, changed his robe from pagan green to cheery red and brought in the reindeer and sleigh.”

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