Sunday, December 10, 2006

‘Tis The Season To Be … Chary

[ char·y: Very cautious; wary: e.g. chary of the risks involved.]
As we approach the season of good cheer etc., the main story in the British newspapers is the banning of Christmas. That is, local councils banning explicitly Christian Christmas displays – public representations of the Nativity Scene on window displays, Xmas cards, office decorations etc. Sometimes the official reason given is that these might offend minorities. (Or rather, other minorities – Christianity itself now being a minority religion.) Bans on other grounds, such as health-and-safety, are being viewed with suspicion as pretexts for similarly motivated bans. For example, carol singers have been banned by Torquay hospital in case they spread germs. In another case, Salvation Army and other brass bands raising money for Xmas charities have been threatened with prosecution not on the grounds their tunes were explicitly Christian, but that some of the songs (like Jingle Bells) were not religious - and thus did not qualify for the waiver on purchasing an entertainments license (£21 a time), leaving them open to a £6,000 fine.
The central protest is one of a hypocritical suppression of Christian religion - that Christmas is a Christian religious festival and that other religions are not having their festivities interfered with in this way. The Church Of England’s Bishop of York has criticised this as the work of “aggressive secularists and illiberal atheists”, while religious biographer A.N. Wilson, the most articulate secular voice for the defence, has suggested in an essay that anyone who is offended by Christian displays “clearly ought to have psychiatric treatment.”
Commentators are evidently unaware this entire controversy has in effect spread from the USA (Alistair Cooke devoted one of his ‘Letter From America’ broadcasts to the matter the year before he died), where it is part of the ongoing debate on the constitutional separation of church and state on which the US was founded (largely by 17th-C religious refugees from England) to avoid having an ‘established’ church like the Church Of England dictating an official state religion. (Opposing such rulings and arguments are rulings defending freedom of expression, etc.) For example, the current cinema release The Nativity Story has had trouble with its adverts in municipalities such as Chicago. Modern England is relatively free of the violent disputes that occur between ‘the religious Right’ movement and secular or ‘alternative’ groups in America, though there are ominous signs this may change.
This Hallowe’en, in England’s religious, and New Age, centre Glastonbury, the Catholic charity Youth 2000, held a “Lightswitch” festival to create an alternative to the usual ‘pagan’ Hallowe’en festival, during which young female militants in the group took the festival’s metaphor of lighting up darkness literally, and threatened to “burn out” the local New Age shops selling charms etc to ‘cleanse’ the town of ‘witches’ and ‘whores’. They also wanted to ‘throw salt’, a ritual or superstition sometimes followed at table to blind the Devil that sits behind a person’s left shoulder, and in exorcisms. (For Da Vinci Code fans, the painting The Last Supper shows, as an omen, Judas accidentally spilling salt.) The pagans set about creating their own protective magic circle. (After police were called, Youth 2000 were told they will not be returning to Glastonbury next Hallowe’en.)
The ‘Christian-ban’ motif first appeared in the British press in 1998, when City Council in Birmingham (which has a large Asian population) rebranded Xmas etc as a “multi-cultural” festival they named “Winterval.” But at the time the press treated it as another “loony left council” story – an example of how far ‘killjoy’ left-wing councils would go to devalue traditional values to follow a dogmatically-inspired ‘democratic’ socialist agenda. The ‘killjoy’ motif is still prevalent as a more general story protesting the current trend towards a ‘nanny state’. The headline or subhead on the current version of these stories is along the lines of “Now they want to ban Xmas!” A.N. Wilson and others argue that even if few now attend church, Britain’s heritage is still a Christian one. True enough - most of the conflicts in UK history derive from church politics, the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ being the most recent survival of this.
Wilson’s essay [“God Haters Who Want To Expunge Britain’s Past…” Saturday Essay, Daily Mail 2-12-06] claims Shakespeare as an example of Britain’s Christian heritage. This is presumably a reference to the “Shakespeare Code” theory. This theory, introduced in Clare Asquith's 2005 book Shadowplay was also the central theme of historian Michael Wood’s 2005 BBC-TV Shakespeare series. The “Shakespeare Code” theory argues that the real meaning of his plays was that they contained a secret code representing the survival of the Catholic faith persecuted by the Elizabethan Protestant regime. Shakespeare has been regarded in the past as a sly sycophant whose ‘history’ plays, though brilliant drama, are more propaganda than history (as with Macbeth), altering history to avoid offending the monarch in power. (His unhistorical portrait of Macbeth, long unquestioned, has offended Scots nationalists, who are currently calling for recognition of the matter.
Whatever interpretation you favour (sycophant or subversive), you can see the underlying reality is religious schism, intolerance, and propaganda. Going right back to when the Church Of Rome first replaced the older Celtic Church of Britain, at the time of St Augustine’s mission around AD 600, pagan festivals were converted to Christian ones: one of the main points of dispute was how to calculate the date of Easter. The ancient water-cult practice of well-dressing became a tribute to Christ, the Irish fire-goddess Bri-de became St Bridget, and so on. (The photo below shows a Norman church built inside a prehistoric henge. Church tactics developed by St Augustine for converting the heathen including building churches on ancient pagan sites, the festivals held there being thus taken over also.). Going forward to the 17th-C birth of Protestantism, as Calvinism, the original Christmas killjoy was Cromwell, whose Republic banned Christmas in the wake of a bloody civil war caused by church-versus-state politics. The Puritans banned it not to create a church-state separation, but as a reflection of their strict creed, as frivolous nonsense which encouraged drunkenness, idleness, calling it The Devil’s Day. Today, one could argue the chariness of many people about the church’s role in public affairs is not based on an ignorance of Britain’s heritage but a familiarity with it.
What is still missing from the debate is a long-term view of Britain’s overall heritage. Just as the country is now becoming less Christian and more multi-faith, Britain for most of its past was actually heathen or pagan (to use the church’s early labels for unconverted country folk, pagani). Christmas is a version of a midwinter festival predating Christianity, which did not adopt this calendric slot for its commemorative “Christ Mass” until the mid 4th Century AD. Before that the birth of Christ was celebrated in other months (January, April, or May), and the ‘winterval’ slot was celebrated by events like the Roman ‘Saturnalia’ (the week before Xmas), and December 25 itself was Natalis Solis Invicti, in Latin ‘birth of the Unconquerable Sun.’ These Roman examples would have arrived with the Roman Occupation in the 1st Century AD, just at the Norse brought ancient ‘Yuletide’ traditions with them in the post-Saxon era. (For an outline of Britain’s luni-solar festivals, see my earlier guide here.)
Church built inside prehistoric pagan henge siteAfter the apparent solar ‘standstill’ of the midwinter solstice on December 21-22, the 25th is the first day when the sun can be visibly seen to grow in strength again, with the days now getting perceptibly longer again, so it is likely a prehistoric festival dating back to the days when men and women first tracked the movements of the sun by erecting standing stones. Similarly, modern Hallowe’en is a commercialised (Americanised) kid-oriented adaptation of a Celtic festival (called Samhain) when the spirits of the dead emerged on the last evening of the old year. (The Christian festivals put at this spot in the calendar were All Souls and All Saints). Some ancient ritual may have been displaced by a few days (ancient festivals could be week-long) to the 5th November Bonfire Night. Officially this is an Anglican and Protestant Christian patriotic festival when effigies of ‘the Guy’ (Guy Fawkes, the Catholic soldier who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605) were burnt. Again, this is suspected to be a takeover for official political (anti-Catholic) purposes of an ancient “bone fire” pagan festival, which may be a relic of Celtic Samhain, or something even older.
Recently, I attended a presentation by two archaeologists with a new theory about Stonehenge. Their book adopts the theory (from evidence such as pits full of pig bones), that Stonehenge’s main festival was a “bone fire” one commemorating the passing of the Midwinter solstice. All the New Agers who have seen Midsummer as the time of the ancients’ annual gathering there are thus mistaken. (In modern times, they have converged annually on Stonehenge June 20th to celebrate ‘Druidic’ Midsummer, in such numbers the County Council declared an Exclusion Zone around it after the 1984 ‘Battle Of The Beanfields’). Unfortunately what the Midwinter festival was originally called has been lost in the mists of time.
Happy Winterval … or whatever it is you’re celebrating.