Saturday, 22 December 2012

Of Christmas and Kiwis

In 1991, in his finely argued essay “Of Kiwi eggs and the Liberty Bell”, the late and great Stephen Jay Gould managed the equivalent in evolutionary writing of the Irish ‘if I was going there I wouldn’t start from here’. This idea is of key importance in so much thinking, particularly in history and research into history and as with theories of evolutionary dynamics, the idea of previous pressures can often be missed in our own ideas of what things must have been like. In his essay Gould looked at the head-scratching that had taken place in evolutionary circles about why a bird the size of a Kiwi would evolve to have such large eggs. By turning this study upside down to look at the bird as it might have been prior to this time he was able to argue that it was all in the wrong focus. The ancestors of the Kiwi were much larger, but due to evolutionary pressures within their habitat they grew smaller and their eggs did not.

At Christmas we indulge in all manner of rituals and celebratory habits, often without thinking much about how these practices came into being, or if we do, presuming we know how stark the slicing out of certain notions should be, because they are pagan. Very often the pagan practices get excluded from atheistic notions of a marking of winter and attempts to cheer things up.

We have our holly and our ivy, mistletoe and Father Christmas. As well as SNOW! Not alot of any of that occurs in the Middle East where the original Christmas events took place.

The first Christmas card that I designed, back in 1983, was a simple black and white photocopy of some sketches I had done inspired by the different elements that formed a twentieth-century Christmas. I broke it up into five categories:
·    Decorations
·    Presents
·    Cards
·    Trees
·    The date.
While I have gained a great deal more knowledge since then, in many ways the structure of my thinking remains the same. However, something that I have learned is that to judge us and our traditions now, based on looking backwards to our ancestors using what we understand, is to miss all that had gone before them. It is so important to look at all that has happened in the context of what was known or believed at that time and try as hard as possible not to impose what we know now on to how we feel about what has happened or about how we might interpret motives and expectations.

Christianity has been practised as a religion for just under 2000 years. From humble beginnings it grew to near world domination and this happened through growth, assimilation and reappraisal at all times of concepts and interpretations of thinking. The assimilation of the ideas and cultures of other countries as well as other religions has been a remarkable strategy for success. To view this with cynicism is easy in our modern complicated world, but seldom are any paths as clear, as they happen, as retrospect makes them.

In October this year we visited Algeria. Looked at from here, Algeria is a North African country with a complex population of Berbers, Arabs and with a history of French colonialism that has caused pain. It is now a Communist state and it can be hard to achieve a trip there. We were lucky to be on a cruise ship (as lecturers), so had the benefit of the considerable skills of the tour staff and the purser to ensure that we managed to get onto our trips that had had to be pre-arranged. It was fascinating. It was also very surprising to realise that St Augustine of Hippo came from Algeria. He was responsible for a large body of work examining the nature and interpretation of Christian thinking. He assimilated much of the Christian teaching with his inheritance of growing up in a culture that was not the same as that of modern Algeria but as part of a degrading Roman Empire as it faded in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. While he almost certainly had some Berber blood he had been brought up within Roman culture and some remnants of the Phoenician from before the Romans. This will have been influential upon his thoughts, even if subliminally.

In our Christmas tradition many elements of pagan solstice celebrations have been assimilated and yet remain a relevant emblem for the religious aspects of the festival for those who celebrate it in that way. They are part of the culture of the region and that is important in any assimilation. Holly is our prickly variant on the crown of thorns, ivy climbs towards the heavens, the berries are sources of richness for the wildlife and mistletoe is an emblem of life in dark times. The very snow of pretty Christmas cards is symbolic of purity.

The presents given by the wise men were gold, frankincense and myrrh. It was not until I visited Oman that I even wondered what frankincense and myrrh actually came from and to find gnarled and fascinating trees to be the source of the little rocks used in incense burners was a bewildering surprise. They are trees of the desert, where the earth is dry and rain may never fall. To retain their water they have this viscous sap, which is intense and powerful in its smell, as a result of having to cope with such dry conditions. Again, we see those conditions now and believe it to have been always how it is now, which is not true. We have lichen records from the pyramids at Giza in Egypt from 1873 that show the rocks to have been less arid than now and that is only 140 years on. What the implications for the trees of frankincense and myrrh are in that is unclear, it is likely that much of Saudi Arabia and the Sahara were scrubbier than they are now, so there could have been larger tracts of land with these trees in them. Certainly the trade has always been very vibrant.

Gold is in the soil and in the earth and there is a theory that all that has been found on the surface of the earth was brought in by meteorites and that the earth’s own stash of gold is still at the centre (National Geographic article on this can be found here). This adds an extra dimension to the bright shining star in the east at the Nativity, thought to be Halley’s comet by some.

We give presents in a spirit of love (well that is the plan) and put up lights all over the place to brighten the darkness. It can all be taken the way that we want it to, so maybe even the overt materialism of the modern world is a way of assimilating something that is better than we expect or deserve.

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