The Carnival season has ended and Lent is upon us. But Christmas has still been on my mind for some reason. There is something about the winter holiday season in general. I’m not a big fan of Christmas. It hasn’t excited me much since childhood. Even as a kid, all that Christmas meant was lots of presents on a particular day. Christmas follows directly after my birthday and so nothing about Christmas itself stood out to me.
I do somewhat get into the winter holiday mood because, as holidays go, Christmas sure is hard to ignore. My mother has always gone to great lengths to decorate. And we usually get together as a family. It helps having my nieces and nephew around on Christmas morning. It’s not the same without little children to get excited about gifts under the tree. All of that is nice, if only to see family. It’s just there isn’t much Christmas tradition in my family. The closest we get to that is decorating the Christmas tree, as we all have our own ornaments. And we do eat potato soup as a family meal, typically on Christmas Eve. But we don’t sing Christmas carols together or anything. Christmas simply happens, with family convening and then dispersing soon after.
This came to mind when I heard “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen“. It’s the version done by Annie Lennox. The style of the song and the imagery of the video make for an enjoyable combo, capturing a sense of old time mystery and touching on the pagan origins of the holiday season. It’s one of the oldest carols in the English tradition, although the present lyrics were not fully written down until recent centuries. There are multiple versions of the carol. The origins are obscure and the original version is unknown. The tune itself is much older, apparently going back to France and Germany. It very well might predate the spread of Christianity in Europe or else was a product of the surviving pagan wassailing tradition. Other songs are sung to the same tune, such as the “Sussex Sugar Wassail” and “Chestnut or Jack Doves Figary”.
All of that is fascinating. There is a long cultural and religious history behind winter holiday traditions and celebrations. It seems to have always been an important time of year. Somewhere between fall and spring equinoxes, one year is considered to have ended and another to have begun, the precise month and day differing between calendrical systems, but generally it corresponds to the period between harvest and planting. The central theme is that of transition and a loosening of boundaries between not just years and seasons but between this world and another, along with a loosening of the bounds of the social order. Things are brought closer together. Spirits, ghosts, gods, and Santa Claus are let loose to roam the human world.
This is why the custom of wearing masks was common from Halloween to Mardi Gras, including a masking tradition around Christmastime. Masks served many purposes. It hid your identity from those non-human beings, to protect you from harm. But sometimes the masks were to represent those very same beings, even one’s own ancestors. In general, masking and guising give one a new identity. Individuals could temporarily be someone else, of a different class or social role, and so act in ways not otherwise allowed.
With this revelry and reversal follows, along with licentiousness and transgression, drunkenness and bawdiness, fun and games, song and dance, feasting and festival. It is a time for celebration of this year’s harvest and blessing of next year’s harvest. Bounty and community. Death and rebirth. The old year must be brought to a close and the new year welcomed. This is the period when gods, ancestors, spirits, and demons must be solicited, honored, appeased, or driven out. The noise of song, gunfire, and such serves many purposes.
In the heart of winter, some of the most important religious events took place. This includes Christmas, of course, but also the various celebrations around the same time. A particular winter festival season that began on All Hallows Eve (i.e., Halloween) ended with the Twelfth Night. This included carnival-like revelry and a Lord of Misrule. There was also the tradition of going house to house, of singing and pranks, of demanding treats/gifts and threats if they weren’t forthcoming. It was a time of community and sharing, and those who didn’t willingly participate might be punished. Winter, a harsh time of need, was when the group took precedence.
This is when Jesus was born to a virgin, not to mention the birth of many other salvific gods and resurrection godmen. Jesus’ coming into the world was humble and with him came a message of hope but also of inversion, the powerful brought down low and the meek lifted up. Christianity inherited much from other religions that also placed great importance on the solstice, the greatest darkness before the return of the light, the liminal moment of time stopping and the sun reversing its course.
Two examples of virgin born godmen are Mithras and Attis. Like Santa Claus, both wore a Phrygian cap, sometimes referred to as the liberty cap because of conflation with the Roman pileus that was worn by emancipated slaves (the pileus was worn during Saturnalia, a solstice celebration). An important detail is that St. Paul came from Tarsus, the place of origin for Mithras worship that arose to prominence in the century before his birth, and so he certainly would have recognized the similarities to Christianity. Mithraism had been the most widespread religion in Europe before Christianity came to dominate under Constantine.
By the way, there is also an intriguing theory about the psychedelic mushroom known as the fly agaric, similar to the liberty cap. It grows under pine trees, is eaten by reindeer that then leap around, and is supposedly used by Siberian shamans who it was thought entered dwellings through the smoke hole. Some consider this to be the origin of much of the Christmas imagery.
Besides this, trees in general play a central role. Along with Christmas trees, there is the tradition of wassailing to the elder tree in an orchard where it was considered a spirit dwelled. Trees, of course, are an ancient symbol of the axis mundi, upon which the world turned, along with close association to the death and resurrection of gods and godmen. Also, the liberty pole became a central symbol of revolution, including during the American Revolution, and sometimes would have a Phrygian cap or pileus on top of it. The word ‘revolution’ came from astrology and referred to cycles, a returning. It’s interesting to note that the Boston Tea Party involved masking and occurred on the eve of Saturnalia.
I’m also reminded of the Santa Claus as St. Nick. This invokes an image of jollity and generosity. And this connects to wintertime as period of community needs and interdependence, of sharing and gifting, of hospitality and kindness. This includes enforcement of social norms which easily could transform into the challenging of social norms.
It’s maybe in this context we should think of the masked vigilantes participating in the Boston Tea Party. Like carnival, there had developed a tradition of politics out-of-doors, often occurring on the town commons. And on those town commons, large trees became identified as liberty trees — under which people gathered, upon which notices were nailed, and sometimes where effigies were hung. This was an old tradition that originated in Northern Europe, where a tree was the center of a community, the place of law-giving and community decision-making. In Europe, the commons had become the place of festivals and celebrations, such as carnival. And so the commons came to be the site of revolutionary fervor as well.
The most famous Liberty Tree was a great elm near the Boston common. It was there that many consider the birth of the American Revolution, as it was the site of early acts of defiance. This is where the Sons of Liberty met, organized, and protested. This would eventually lead to that even greater act of defiance on Saturnalia eve, the Boston Tea Party. One of the participants in the Boston Tea Party and later in the Revolutionary War, Samuel Sprague, is buried in the Boston Common.
There is something many don’t understand about the American Revolution. It wasn’t so much a fight against oppression in general and certainly not about mere taxation in particular. What angered those Bostonians and many other colonists was that they had become accustomed to community-centered self-governance and this was being challenged. The tea tax wasn’t just an imposition of imperial power but also colonial corporatism. The East India Company was not acting as a moral member of the community, in its taking advantage by monopolizing trade. Winter had long been the time of year when bad actors in the community would be punished. Selfishness was not to be tolerated.
Those Boston Tea Partiers were simply teaching a lesson about the Christmas spirit. And in the festival tradition, they chose the guise of Native Americans which to their minds would have symbolized freedom and an inversion of power. What revolution meant to them was a demand for return of what was taken from them, making the world right again. It was revelry with a purpose.
* * *
Trickster Makes This World:
Mischief, Myth and Art
by Lewis Hyde
Where we value the old world, carnival’s conservative function is one of its virtues, of course. The dirt ritual protects us against our own exclusions, like a kind of vaccination, and in that manner offers a stability that is lively and not particularly violent. After all, it is not just night-crowing cocks who end up dead when violence is the only way for the dominant order to protect itself. Beware the social system that cannot laugh at itself, that responds to those who do not know their place by building a string of prisons.
Where change is not in order, then, ritual dirt-work offers the virtue of non-violent stability. But where change is in order, dirt-work also has a role to play, for it simply isn’t true that these rituals are always conservative. Dirt rituals may stabilize things for years on end, but when the order is in fundamental crisis these rituals can become the focal points for change, catalytic moments for dirt’s revaluation and true structural shifts. Every so often Fat Tuesday does leak over into Lean Wednesday, and into the rest of the year as well. Regular dirt rituals are like nodes on a shoot of bamboo, repeating year after year to strengthen the growing stalk, but then, when conditions demand it, splitting open to produce new growth.
Historians have recently provided us with a number of specific cases that demonstrate this general model. It now seems clear, for example, that carnival’s ritual debasing of the Pope played a key role in the Reformation in Germany. The ritual container broke, the pollution leaked out, and the Church itself was fundamentally altered. It seems clear also that play with gender roles has sometimes leapt the fences of ritual. The historian Natalie Zemon Davis has argued that the gender reversals of various early modern European festivals served to “undermine as well as reinforce” prevailing social structures. The carnival image of unruly women, normally the object of joking and play, sometimes turned out “to sanction riot and political disobedience for both men and women in a society that allowed the lower orders few formal means of protest.” Davis is well aware that letting carnival’s “woman-on-top” have power during the holidays usually served to keep women on the bottom when the holidays were over, but once such an image exists it is hard to control, and this one sometimes also “promoted resistance,” “kept open an alternate way of conceiving family structure,” and served as “a resource for feminist reflection on women’s capacities.”
I assume that trickster tales serve an analogous double role; usually they bring harmless release, but occasionally they authorize moments of radical change. The tales themselves, at least, declare the latter point: the character who can freely play with dirt, they say, is also the culture hero who brings fundamental change.
Dancing in the Streets:
A History of Collective Joy
by Barbara Ehrenreich
The widespread occurrence of mocking rituals would almost suggest some human, or at least plebeian, instinct to playfully overthrow the existing order—whether as a way of harmlessly letting off steam or, at some level of consciousness, rehearsing for the real thing. Many of the mocking rituals associated with European carnival centered on a king of fools, a costumed character who probably first appeared in the Church-sanctioned Feast of Fools. If anything illustrates the ambivalence of the Church toward festive behavior, it was this event, which was initiated by the lower-level clergy—deacons, subdeacons, and priests—who comprised the Church’s internal lower class. This feast, described by Chambers as “largely an ebullition of the natural lout beneath the cassock,” originally took place inside churches between Christmas and New Year’s. The participating clergy dressed absurdly—in women’s clothes or their own clothes worn inside out—and performed a noisy burlesque of the mass, with sausages replacing the priest’s censer, or with “stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes” instead of incense, and “wanton songs” and gibberish substituting for the usual Latin incantations.23 As one disapproving contemporary described the scene: “They run and leap through the church, without a blush at their own shame. Finally they drive about the town … and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous performances, with indecent gestures and verses scurrilous and unchaste.”
Protestantism, serving as the ideological handmaiden of the new capitalism, “descended like a frost on the life of ‘Merrie Old England,’” as Weber put it, destroying in its icy grip the usual Christmas festivities, the maypole, the games, and all traditional forms of group pleasure.13 But this account downplays the importance of festivities as a point of contention in their own right, quite apart from their perceived economic effects. Without question, industrial capitalism and Protestantism played a central role in motivating the destruction of carnival and other festivities. There was another factor, though, usually neglected in the economic-based accounts: To elites, the problem with festivities lay not only in what people were not doing—that is, working—but in what they were doing, that is, in the nature of the revelry itself. In the sixteenth century, European authorities (secular and ecclesiastical, Catholic as well as Protestant) were coming to fear and disdain the public festivities that they themselves had once played starring roles in—to see them as vulgar and, more important, dangerous.
There is probably no general and universal answer, though, to the question of whether carnival functioned as a school for revolution or as a means of social control. We do not know how the people themselves construed their festive mockeries of kings and priests, for example—as good-natured mischief or as a kind of threat. But it is safe to say that carnival increasingly gains a political edge, in the modern sense, after the Middle Ages, from the sixteenth century on, in what is known today as the early modern period. It is then that large numbers of people begin to use the masks and noises of their traditional festivities as a cover for armed rebellion, and to see, perhaps for the first time, the possibility of inverting hierarchy on a permanent basis, and not just for a few festive hours.
Let us begin with carnival and other, somewhat secular festivities brought by Europeans to the Americas. These celebrations, which Europeans expected to carry on as vigorously—if not more vigorously—in the “new” world as in the old, posed an immediate problem in the colonial setting: What about the slaves? When Europeans caroused or simply feasted, there were always dark faces watching, waiting for some particle of generosity to come their way, or waiting perhaps for some moment of weakness to present an opportunity for revolt. In Protestant settings, such as Jamaica and the southern United States, where Christmas was the highlight of the social calendar, slaves used it as an opening to establish their own, probably African-derived festivity: Jonkonnu. As early as 1688, Jamaican slaves were celebrating Jonkonnu with costuming and dancing with “Rattles ty’d to their Legs and Wrists.”38 A little over a century later, they had won a measure of white respect for Jonkonnu, with whites agreeing to do their own chores during this brief period of black celebration. A white contemporary reported that during the holidays “the distance between [masters and slaves] appears to be annihilated for the moment, like the familiar footing on which the Roman slaves were with their masters at the feast of the Saturnalia, to which a West Indian Christmas may be compared.” 39 In the Carolinas, where Jonkonnu had spread by the nineteenth century, slaves marched to the big house, where they danced and demanded money and drinks from their masters. Thus a moment of white weakness—Christmas—was transformed into a black opportunity.
In another striking parallel to the European festive tradition, Caribbean slaves and freed blacks put carnival to service as an occasion for armed uprisings. The historian Elizabeth Fenn reports that 35 percent of all known slave plots and rebellions in the British Caribbean were planned for the Christmas period, noting that “in this regard the slaves of the Americas differed little from the French peasants and laborers studied by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and Natalie Zemon Davis.”
Inventing the People:
The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America
by Edmund S. Morgan
There were other parallels in contemporary English country life, in the fairs, “wakes,” and local festivals that punctuated the seasons, where sexual restraints were loosened and class barriers briefly broken in a “rough and ready social equality.” 82 But these were simply milder versions of what may be the most instructive parallel to an eighteenth-century election, namely the carnival— not the travelling amusement park familiar in America, but the festivities that preceded Lent in Catholic countries. The pre-Lenten carnival still survives in many places and still occupies an important place in community life, but it has assumed quite different functions from the earlier festivals. 83 It is the older carnivals, before the nineteenth century, that will bear comparison with eighteenth-century elections.
The carnival of the medieval or early modern period elicited from a community far more outrageous behavior and detailed ritual than did the elections that concern us. 84 But the carnival’s embellishments emphasize rather than obscure the fact that make-believe was the carnival’s basic characteristic and that carnival make-believe, like election make-believe, involved role reversal by the participants.
Where social tensions ran too high the carnival might become the occasion for putting a real scare into the cats and wolves of the community. There was always a cutting edge to the reversal of roles and to the seemingly frivolous competition. And when a society was ripe for revolt, the carnival activated it, as Le Roy Ladurie has shown in his account of the carnival at Romans in 1580. But normally a community went its way with the structure of power reinforced by its survival of the carnival’s make-believe challenge.
To put this idea in another way, one might say that the carnival provided society with a means of renewing consent to government, of annually legitimizing (in a loose sense of the word) the existing structure of power. Those who enacted the reversal of roles, by terminating the act accepted the validity of the order that they had ritually defied. By not carrying the make-believe forward into rebellion, they demonstrated their consent. By defying the social order only ritually they endorsed it. […]
The underlying similitude of an eighteenth-century election to a carnival is by now apparent. The two resembled each other not only in obvious outward manifestations— in the reversal of roles, in the make-believe quality of the contests, in the extravagance of the partisanship of artificial causes, in the outrageous behavior and language, in the drunkenness, the mob violence, even in the loosening of sexual restraints— not only in all these external attributes but also in an identity of social function. An election too was a safety valve, an interlude when the humble could feel a power otherwise denied them, a power that was only half illusory. And it was also a legitimizing ritual, a rite by which the populace renewed their consent to an oligarchical power structure.
Hence the insistence that the candidate himself or someone of the same rank solicit the votes of the humble. The election would not fully serve its purpose unless the truly great became for a time humble. Nor would it serve its purpose if the humble did not for a time put on a show of greatness, not giving their votes automatically to those who would ordinarily command their deference. Hence too the involvement of the whole populace in one way or another, if not in the voting or soliciting of votes, then in the tumults and riots, in the drinking and feasting, in the music and morris dancing.
It would be too much to say that the election was a substitute for a carnival. It will not do to push the analogy too far. The carnival was embedded deeply in folk culture, and its functions were probably more magical and religious than, overtly at least, political. An election, on had no the other hand, was almost exclusively a political affair, magical overtones; it was not connected with any religious calendar. 90 Nor did it always exhibit the wild excesses of a carnival; and when it did, it was surely not because the local oligarchy felt that this would renew their authority. They would generally have preferred to preserve “the peace of the country” by avoiding the contests that engaged them so hotly and cost them so much when they occurred. Moreover, the reversal of roles did not go anywhere near as far as in a carnival. In an election, along with the fraternization and condescension, there could be a great deal of direct pressure brought by the mighty on those who stood below them, with no pretense of reversing roles.
The resemblance to a carnival nevertheless remains striking. Is it wholly coincidence that there were no carnivals in Protestant England and her colonies where these carnival-like elections took place, and that in countries where carnivals did prevail elections were moribund or nonexistent? Is it too much to say that the important part of an eighteenth-century election contest in England and in the southern colonies and states was the contest itself, not the outcome of it? Is it too much to say that the temporary engagement of the population in a ritual, half-serious, half-comic battle was a mode of consent to government that filled a deeper popular need than the selection of one candidate over another by a process that in many ways denied voters the free choice ostensibly offered to them? Is it too much to say that the choice the voters made was not so much a choice of candidates as it was a choice to participate in the charade and act out the fiction of their own power, renewing their submission by accepting the ritual homage of those who sought their votes?
The Romance between Greece and the East
ed. by Tim Whitmarsh & Stuart Thomson
“The Greek novel Ninus and Semiramis: Its background in Assyrian and Seleucid history and monuments”
by Stephanie Dalley
Kindle Locations 3943-3958
More likely, in my view, is a relationship of some romances to carnivals: a festival of Aphrodite for Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe where the lovers first meet, and a festival of Artemis for the setting of the beginning and end of the story in Habrocomes and Antheia. The Hebrew Book of Esther is integrally linked to the carnival-type feast of Purim. A festival based upon a Babylonian or Assyrian version of the traditional New Year Festival was celebrated at Palmyra, where a fine frieze showed the triumph (in Roman dress) over the sea of chaos, 47 and probably also at Hierapolis-Membidj. 48 But I doubt that one can claim a carnival connection for all the compositions.
The stories with a vaguely Assyrian historical background mainly have no particular love interest of the boy-meets-girl kind. This is not because such a theme was taboo in Assyrian literature: there are very explicitly erotic Love Lyrics, which were recited in rites of Ishtar of Babylon. 49 I would like to make a suggestion as to why the erotic element was introduced into the genre (if we can call it that). The carnival element involves dressing up, pretending to be another person or disguising one’s true nature, often behaving ‘badly’ in a theatrical way. Tomas Hägg suggested that the mosaics found near Antioch and at Alexandretta may have illustrated a theatrical performance, 50 and one might invoke a similar connection for the wall-painting depicting a scene from the story of Esther at Dura Europus, because we know that rude theatrical events were often a part of Purim celebrations.
by Minas Papageorgiou
Kindle Locations 3094-3113
It should not surprise us that our people maintained or restored some of these elements throughout the centuries. A good example would be the so-called “Dodecameric,” the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany. The customs observed during that period reminds us of a series of Dionysian celebrations related to fertility that took place at the same time of the year in ancient times. For example, “Aloa” was a festival in honor of Demeter and Persephone, the “Rural Dionysia” was a joyful celebration, and “Lenaia” was a festival with a dramatic competition.
Thus, in the village of Volakas, in Drama, the feast of “Arapides,” masked men with faces painted with soot, takes place every year on January 7. The next day the “Bears” appear in the village. These are men covered in goatskin who make phallic dance movements, swear and strike with their sticks whomever they meet for good luck. These celebrations go back in time. “We are dressing up as ‘Arapides’ for good luck, for the good of our crops. This is how we found it, and so we keep it going,” say the disguised locals. Similarly, on the Epiphany (January 6), in another village in Drama, Kali Vrisi, another celebration takes place that lasts until the eighth day. It is the feast of “Babougera.” People are disguised as animals wearing masks and hang in their waist heavy bells. They dance and chase endlessly and cheerfully the people on the street. When the time for the ritual wedding comes, as part of the celebration, the disguised men grab the “bride,” who is basically a man dressed up as a woman.
All these elements, of course, are reminiscent of the traditional customs of Carnival. Strangely enough, at the same time when the ancient Athenians celebrated Carnival another celebration was taking place in honor of Dionysus, the Anthesteria festival. This included, among other things, the sacred marriage between the god and the “basilinna,” wife of the archon basileus (king), who represented the city. It is highly possible that modern carnival celebrations, such as the Vlach wedding in Thrace, have their roots in these ancient customs.
Dionysian elements can also be found in some phallic customs as part of the carnival celebrations, for example in Tyrnavos in Thessalia and Agia Anna in Evia. Besides, one of the main characteristics of the Rural Dionysia and the City Dionysia was the procession of men carrying phalloi, known as phallophoroi. In the center of the procession was a large wooden phallus, usually from a fig tree. People were also singing several “phallic” songs. Comedy, characterized by strong sexual and obscene language, derives from this tradition, as Aristotle informs us.
Religion in Human Evolution:
From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age
by Robert N. Bellah
Kindle Locations 5260-5286
It is part of the myth of Dionysus that he was an outsider, that he came from abroad, from Thrace or Phrygia, in historic times. Modern scholars as well as ancient Greeks tended to accept this part of the story as historically true, until the name of Dionysus appeared several times among the gods of the Mycenaeans in Linear B texts. So Dionysus is a very ancient Greek god, but he is “always” coming from abroad. He was very important in Athens, where a number of festivals, some of them very early, were dedicated to him. Robert Connor has seen the growth of Dionysiac worship in sixth-century Athens as a kind of religious preparation for the emergence of Greek democracy racy in the reforms of Cleisthenes beginning in 508-507.” Connor discusses the Dionysiac thiasotai (confraternities) as among the many forms of voluntary association that made up something like “civil society” in sixth-century Athens-associations that were to some degree self-governing and that fostered the practice of group discussion and group decision making. It was the combination of the social practice nurtured in such associations with the spirit of Dionysiac religion that Connor sees as an important foundation for the democratic reforms, reforms that Cleisthenes nurtured but could not have created.
The structural reforms undertaken by Cleisthenes, or by the people of Athens under his leadership, are too complex for us to describe in detail. Suffice it to say that these reforms overcame some of the divisiveness that characterized Athens in earlier times and extended the participation of the common people in the government of the polis. What is significant for us is the fact that these political changes were accompanied by, were one aspect of, a general change that was religious as much as political. It is this religious side of the change that Connor characterizes as the increasing importance of Dionysiac religion.
The myth of Dionysus is complex and ambiguous, indeed ambivalent, with a dark side as well as a joyous one, but one of its foci is that of the outsider god who comes into a city and turns it upside down, leading to the destruction of those who oppose him but to a new solidarity among those who accept him. He is transgressive, to use a term common in current discourse, a boundary-crosser crosser to be sure, but also integrative, the symbol of new community.72 Connor nor believes that Dionysiac worship in the sixth century “is best understood as the first imaginings of a new type of community.” More specifically, he writes:
Dionysiac worship tumbles into carnival and carnival inverts, temporarily, the norms and practices of aristocratic society. While these inversions may provide a temporary venting mechanism and thereby help stabilize repressive regimes, in the longer run they can have quite a different effect. They make it possible to think about an alternative community, one open to all, where status differentiations can be limited or eliminated, and where speech can be truly free. It is a society that can imagine Dionysiac equality and freedom.73
Connor gives the example of features institutionalized in the political realm “that probably originated in religious practice, for example, ‘outspokenness,’ parrhesia, and isegoria, `equality of speech.”’74 Given the importance of Dionysiac cult groups and the spirit of Dionysiac religion, Connor finds it “not surprising” that the newly established Athenian democracy would express itself in a new festival, the City Dionysia, or festival of Dionysus Eleuthereus (that is, the Dionysus who came from the border city of Eleutheria, but also with the etymological implication of freedom). He argues that the City Dionysia was founded not under the Pisistratids but under Cleisthenes or shortly thereafter and so was a kind of “freedom festival” celebrating the fall of the tyranny.75 Other specialists on Greek religion believe that the City Dionysia was founded under the Pisistratids, but that it underwent went significant reform and enhancement at the time of Cleisthenes.76 In that case, Connor’s argument would still be applicable.
What from our point of view is most interesting is that religious practice not only made possible the idea of a different social reality than the one existing, but helped to actualize it as well. Although the capacity to imagine alternative social realities is part of what we have described as the axial transition, it is interesting that in this case it does not involve anything explicitly theoretical. Indeed, Connor writes: “The festival helps us understand why our texts contain no elaborate statement of Athenian democratic theory … The ancient Greeks did not write theory; they enacted it. They enacted it in particular through the City Dionysia.”77
Circles and Lines:
The Shape of Life in Early America
by John Demos
Virtually everywhere, harvest was a peak time-a crisis even-when all hands, including those of women and children, were turned to getting the crops safely in. But there were slack times, too, especially in winter, when things slowed way down for days or weeks at a stretch.
The same agricultural rhythm meant changes also in food availability. People experienced dramatic seasonal differences in everyday diet-moving, say, from the summertime, with lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, to the special bounty of harvest, traditionally celebrated with a feast of freshly slaughtered animals (the antecedent of our own Thanksgiving), giving), and then to winter, when the dietary range would narrow to dried foods like peas and turnips and a dwindling supply of salted meats.”
A different (though not unrelated) kind of seasonal variance involved health and illness and marriage and reproduction. The evidence for this lies mostly below the surface and must be pried out through laborious demographic analysis, but its impact was certainly large. For example, marriage-making—weddings—showed making-weddings-showed a striking seasonal distribution. The headline is that weddings happened in hugely disproportionate proportionate numbers during the late fall.’2 And, going a bit further, one finds a distinct up-and-down annual “curve” for weddings (see Figure i), with much regularity from one year and one community to the next. Moreover, the distance between top and bottom was very wide; there were roughly three times as many weddings in November, for example, ample, as during the midsummer low. This particular curve was not so directly tied to Nature’s rhythms as, for instance, all the activity around farming. It could even be seen as culturally determined-since people might well have chosen differently about when to marry. Still, the link to harvest seems too obvious to ignore. When that was over, there was suddenly more time available, and more energy; there was also a feeling of release, and expansiveness, and good cheer. The impulse to celebrate might then lead not just to a Thanksgiving feast but to a wedding as well.
And there was more. This next had no aspect of cultural preference but was entirely controlled by Nature—in fact, by deep (and not fully understood) elements of human biology. It’s what demographers call the “conception cycle”; and it reflects the way pregnancies were unevenly, but very consistently, distributed throughout the calendar year. The evidence of copious local and family records yields another annual curve-in fact, a pair of curves, one reflecting births, the second, times of conception (see Figure z). Of course, the dynamic element here was always conception; once that had taken place, birth would (barring mishap) occur about nine months later. In fact, the curve shows two peaks in conception, the tallest coming in late spring, with corresponding valleys (and a difference between them approaching too percent).13
What this meant, in terms of actual experience, was many more babies born in late winter than at other times of the year. In fact, demographers have found the same rhythm in premodern communities throughout the northern hemisphere. sphere. Moreover, they have also found it in the southern hemisphere—except that there the months, though not the seasons, are directly reversed. The southern conception peak comes in November-December, which, of course, is their spring; so the pattern is actually the same. We might just note, as a final gloss on all this, that the conception cycle flattens out and virtually disappears in the modern period. The reason is obvious: as soon as contraception enters the picture—that is, planned fertility control-the timing of pregnancy is determined by innumerable individual choices; and those choices, when aggregated, spread evenly throughout the year.
We can zero in on that link by considering the word revolution and its own history of change. In fact, its not too much to say that the word moved from an originally circular to an eventually linear meaning, over the span of several centuries. Other scholarly hands have been into this history—of the word—in some detail.” Their conclusions deserve serve a careful summary. Revolution was, during the late Middle Ages and on into the early modern period, used to refer to things that turned, that rotated-circular and cyclical cal things. (In this it followed the sense of its Latin root.) Most especially was it used by astronomers to describe the orbital movement of the stars—for example, in the landmark work of Copernicus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. Then bit by bit it was brought down from the heavens and applied to more earthly matters-as a metaphor for revolving tendencies of all sorts. Then, in the seventeenth century, it became a specifically political term, but still with the underlying sense of movement around and back to pre-established positions. This was especially true of its widespread application to political events in England from mid-century onward: the Puritan Revolution (which, from the perspective of many, represented a turning back toward older and better ways), and also the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (which was widely understood as a restoration of monarchical cal power to its appropriate form and context).
And that was where the meaning of the term remained for quite a while longer—indeed, until the last part of the eighteenth century. The American Revolution, as we’ve already ready remarked, was begun in a spirit of restoration, of reengaging engaging principles and structures supposedly forgotten (or abandoned, or subverted). Thus the word, in its traditional usage, was initially a good fit. But when the political context changed—when the historical actors began to acknowledge, and even to embrace, the novelty of what they were about—the the word changed, too. This is the truly remarkable thing: events reversed a meaning that had endured for several hundred years. From now on, revolution would signify not a turning back into old paths but the creation of entirely new ones. (This result was solidified, just a few years further ahead, with the start of the French Revolution. There, too—though perhaps a bit more ambiguously—one sees a movement away from restorative conceptions toward openly innovative ones.)
* * *
Carols, Wassailers, Waits and Mummers
Why do Christmas carols make the church feel nervous?
Wassailing with Wenceslas – Christmas Carol Origins
Here We Come A-Wassailing; The Roots of a Christmas Tradition
Here We Go a Wassailing
Wassailing through History
Apple Tree Wassails
Oh Apple Tree, we Wassail Thee
Wassailing! Notes On The Songs And Traditions
When Thanksgiving Tradition Included Halloween-Like Masquerading
Samhain (Historic customs)
Halloween, a faraway origin feast
Christmas: The Birthday of Sun Gods
Happy Birthday Mithras!
Paul & Mithraism
St Paul – History, Biblical Epistles, Gnosticism and Mithraism
Mithraism and Early Christianity
Mithra: The Pagan Christ
Attis: Born of a Virgin on December 25th, Crucified and Resurrected after Three Days
Christmas and holiday season
The History of Christmas
Christmas controversies (Pre-Christian influence)
A Roman Christmas
Christmas’ Pagan Origins
Feast of Fools & Lord of Misrule
Twelve Days of Christmas
Twelfth Night (holiday)
Solar origins of the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ and Christianity.
Christmas, Yule and the Winter Solstice
Festive ecology (Christmas)
O, Tannenbaum: the Origin of the Christmas Tree
List of Christmas and winter gift-bringers by country
The History and Origins of Santa Claus
Santa is a Wildman!
Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet
Magic Mushrooms May Explain Santa & His ‘Flying’ Reindeer
Psychedelic Santa And Christmas Mushrooms
Saturnalia, Sigillaria, & Opiconsivia
The Roman Saturnalia parties and Christmas
Io Saturnalia! The Reason for the Season?
Saturnalia—A Roman Solstice Romp
The Puritan War on Christmas
Slaves Received Gift Of Role Reversal
The Carnaval Celebration that became Christmas & New Year’S Eve
Carnival, A People’s Uprising at Romans
Carnival, Processions and Parades – Interview Claire Tancons
Carnival, an upside down world
Revolution as Carnival
In Theory Bakhtin: Carnival against Capital, Carnival against Power
Occupy Wall Street: Carnival Against Capital? Carnivalesque as Protest Sensibility
Carnival to Commons: Pussy Riot, Punk Protest, and the Exercise of Democratic Culture
The Lord of Misrule
The History of Marianne’s Cap
The Maypole’s Revolutionary Heritage
Roots of the Liberty Tree
Merry Mount and May Poles
Démos, The People
Revolution and Apocalypse
Music and Dance on the Mind
Beating the bounds
6 thoughts on “Winter Season and Holiday Spirit”
Actually, there was a reason that Christmas was still on my mind. I started writing this post back around Christmas. I had gathered a bunch of material. But then got distracted by other things. Part of what distracted me had to do with some of the material I was reading. It led to writing some other posts, specifically with thoughts of carnival, dancing, depression, and identity.
All of this connects to many themes in my writing. For example, there is the relationship between carnival (along with carnival-like celebrations) and revolution. This has much to do with the history of feudalism and the commons, far beyond merely the town common.
In so many ways, the ending of the ancien regime caused the modern revolutionary era, not the other way around. If there weren’t so many landless peasants living in desperation, there would have been no large concentrated populations in the big cities that could organize a revolution. Thomas Paine understood the situation. Prior to the American Revolution, he had found himself poor and destitute. He saw the conditions of London and other consequences of the enclosure movement that privatized the commons and kicked people off the land. Most people weren’t feeling revolutionary because of abstract Enlightenment ideals.
It makes one wonder about our present situation. The commons have further eroded, outlets for communal expression have been constrained, the social order has become oppressive, and inequality keeps on growing. It feels like we are coming to another breaking point.
At the same time, in the modern form of holidays such as Christmas, there remains a lingering memory of what it all once meant and what has been lost. So many can viscerally feel this sense of something missing and this contributes to feelings of dissatisfaction, frustration, and outrage. And like those early revolutionaries with the spread of printed material, the masses today suddenly have easy access to immense amounts of knowledge to make sense of what they otherwise could only grasp intuitively.
In all of this, there is something we’ve forgotten as a society. But maybe we will come to a point of remembering it.