What’s not to love about winter? Pretty much everything
Winter, when it’s too damn dark for too damn long. And it’s too damn cold, too.
Days grow shorter in winter, with the shortest day of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere) being Dec. 22. Since I keep the hours of a cockroach, several times during winter I’m guaranteed to go to bed before dawn breaks and wake up after sunset.
In the word of the immortal Snoopy, “Bleah.” Actually, “Bleah” was written for Snoopy by the mortal but wonderful Sparky, aka Charles Schulz. Schulz—Sparky to friends—died in February 2000. Midwinter. Figures.
The reason winter’s days are short is that the Earth’s axis—the imaginary pole upon which it rotates—tilts by 24 degrees, give or take a couple of tenths. Thus, as the Earth travels around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour (good grief!), the North Pole points at the sun during Northern Hemisphere summer. Six months, and God and Sparky knows how many miles later, the North Pole points away from the sun—and so the days are short and winter is upon us.
If you didn’t understand a word of that except “summer” and “winter,” just figure it’s magic and let it go at that. Our ancestors did, which explains why so many holidays cluster around winter’s darkest days. Our foremothers used magic to get the sun back. Did rituals, lit fires, made noise.
Worked every time, too.
We still make noise to get the sun back. We call that New Year’s Eve.
That “foremothers” isn’t political correctness. Women ran our first religion. You find women’s footprints all over the Bible, from Eve (Adam’s spineless character was a cardboard cutout) to Esther (who is Astarte in disguise, but don’t get me started).
Getting back to winter, bleah, the sun hits its lowest point in the sky at the end of December. Pagans, Christians and Jews celebrate the rebirth of the sun. Christians go to Meadowood Mall and buy loud socks to give Uncle Bob to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Jews have Hanukkah—the festival of lights when Jews have to buy socks for eight days. Ancient pre-Christian pagans celebrated Modranect, the Night of the Mother, on the night of what’s now Dec. 24.
Gosh, that seems a coincidence, doesn’t it? Pagan Night of the Mother, followed by—in a completely different religion—the birth of Jesus from the Holy Mother. Well, pookie, it’s no coincidence. In truth, no one knows Jesus’ birthday, other than it wasn’t in winter (shepherds, being reasonable people, don’t put flocks in fields during winter rains). However, early Christians marketing the religion to pagans needed a date to trump Modranect, plus top the mid-winter rebirth myths of a bunch of Middle Eastern gods, including Tammuz. Also, the Romans used Dec. 25 as a holiday called the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, and Christians were lobbying mightily for Romans to take up Christianity. Presto, Dec. 25 and Happy Birthday, Baby Jesus.
Once the Romans punched their ballots for Christianity, Christmas kept a low profile for 15 centuries or so. In fact, the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1659 passed a law against celebrating the day.
And then, about a century ago came the convergence of mass-produced newspaper ads and big department stores. Modern consumer Christmas was invented by department stores to move merchandise, and it worked beyond their wildest dreams.
Hanukkah got dragged along as the so-called “Jewish Christmas,” a phrase that makes rabbinic teeth ache. However, many Jewish parents give the holiday a Christmas flavor to keep their kids happy. And so we have Hanukkah gifts indistinguishable from Christmas gifts, and some Jewish households featuring a “Hanukkah bush,” which looks mightily like a Christmas tree.
Kwanzaa, the African-American midwinter holiday, is cultural and not religious and so far has escaped runaway consumerism. Jesus is a respected prophet in Islam, but Islamic scholars have long noted that he was not born in December and stood for the opposite of rampant consumerism.
But if you do Hanukkah or Christmas, you are stuck with enriching merchants while you try to buy stuff that’s cool without going broke. And so, as a public service, here’s a gift idea: Go to eBay and search for “vintage dinner menu” (or type in http://listings.ebay .com/aw/plistings/list/all/category1437/index.html). For about $10, you have your pick of hundreds of menus from restaurants of many years ago, including one from Original Joe’s in San Francisco, where the menu itself is going for more than its most expensive entrée—$2.75 for filet mignon.
Or try a great hand-colored, century-old menu from Rose’s soda fountain in Harrisburg, Pa. Or from the days when a cuppa was a dime, a menu from the Y-Knot Motel and Cafe in Spearfish, S.D.
Hey, the RN&R delivers News You Can Use.
Now, for those of you still rankling at “Hanukkah as Jewish Christmas,” let me give People’s Exhibit No. 1: (available from klezmershack.com) a klezmer band playing “The Nutcracker.”
Or, more to the point, “Oy to the World,” by the Klezmonauts, also on klezmershack.com.
I’m going back to bed. Wake me in the spring, Sparky.