Monday, December 24, 2012
On my first trip out of North America in my early twenties, I traveled far up into the arctic circle to chase the midnight sun. Once I was so far north, experiencing the somewhat disorienting exhilaration that comes with no respite from sunlight, I became very curious about what the seasonal inverse must be like. My kind hosts in Norway invariably responded to my concerned inquiries about winter with the protest "but we have Christmas," a response I found mysterious, if charming. I had been raised in a fairly Christmas-intensive household, where I was allowed and even encouraged to have my own tree in my bedroom -- probably as a strategy to keep me from sleeping under the family tree -- but despite knowing that my parents keep their tree alive and decorated from November to February, I still felt that a holiday celebrated for a week or so seemed a feeble stay against such a long dark.
Now that I live in the Scandinavian territories of the United States, however, I am beginning to learn how to take this celebratory approach to winter dark to heart. On the day after American Thanksgiving, I found myself gathering up my christmas lights and cards, lighting candles in the windows, and mixing the first of the batches of Christmas cookies to send off to my family for St. Nicholas day. I had a good backdrop for thinking about the significance of the way Christmas is performed. At the time I was unearthing my whole set of seasonal props (and mine are extraordinarily modest, especially by either family or North American standards), I happened also to be reading literature on "socially engaged art" in preparation for my teaching next term, while being inundated with endorsements for buy nothing day "because only in America, people trample others for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have."
Especially seeing as my christmas cookie recipient list is so short (4-6 boxes get mailed in a good year), my card sending so sporadic (most cards have at least two to three years of top-up stamps since the first was attached when I had the impulse to send them), and my decorating so functional (although someday I will once again have a tree, no doubt, I have not had one in almost twenty years, and the central theme of all ornamentation except for the calendar and cookies is light provisioning), I felt prompted to consider in some detail why I still, nonetheless, find so much satisfaction in my stripped down holiday observance.
The idea of socially engaged art has a lot to do with the ways that getting people to do things in certain ways imbues their performances with certain social narratives. In the darkest days of winter, as my mother in law places holly springs in all the windows to keep the dark out--a practice she learned from Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series--and people struggle to tell each other comforting stories amidst bad news, I am struck by the deep if implicit narratives attached to the cookies we keep churning out. After rounds of macaroons, Dan Savage's mom's cookies, rosemary pine nuts, shortbread, molasses cookies, and the alternate universe chocolate chip cookies pictured above, today we will build log homes out of gingerbread biscotti and thumbprint cookies with jam from this summer, and we are cheered to hear that friends have finished the pizelle, the anisettes, the ginger stars, the almond moons--cookies that each have their own trails of stories and traditions. We will eat these cookies to punctuate the celebration of the season, but will we also send these cookies to our families and friends and colleagues and neighbors as they struggle with health issues, with finances, with depression, and both in the practices of performing our care for them and in their receiving this care, we are reinscribing our recognition of the need for extra care and cheer while the light is thin and our social bonds needing extra warming.
And also in the context of the posada story of great heros born on the generosity of strangers, although we care particularly for those we know are ours in times of challenge, the festival spirit of excess may also (if more faintly) remind of not just of the salving charity stories of the King Wenceslases, but in the very things that holidays encourage us to push out of our minds we might find traces of goals we could better explore to make the new year something that could retain more holiday warmth.