Date Posted: December 22, 2013 Categories:49 History
Editor’s note: This essay was written a few years ago by AHS President Katie Ringsmuth and is being republished here as a special solstice / holiday greeting to the readers of this blog. Happy Holidays from AHS!
By Katie Ringsmuth
To celebrate winter solstice this year, Eric, Ben, Tom and I joined several of our Eagle River neighbors for a “Lantern Walk,” through the boreal forest at the Nature Center. Instead of the bone-chilling coldness of 10 below we experienced last year, on this night a Chinook windstorm brewing somewhere out in the Pacific blew into Prince William Sound, over the Chugach Mountains, and down the river valley, causing the primordial cottonwood, birch, and spruce trees to bend and screech furiously. Torch lights, along with our homemade lanterns, fought gallantly against the hostile gusts, but the windy darkness greedily consumed the light. Our guides instructed us to walk silently and in peace through the void, to forget the hustle and bustle of the past and the daunting tasks looming in the future. To simply be. Indeed, with restless five-year-old Ben and napless two-year-old Tom, this night was bound to be anything but silent. Eric held my hand valiantly, giving it a hopeful squeeze. For he understood that the goal of serenity for his always stressed out wife was highly optimistic. Like the forest itself, I simply felt old.
As a historian and mother I am both a dweller in the past and a worrier about the future. Each Christmas it seems as if winter darkness seeps deeper into my world, affecting everything around me, even my own children. My blue-eyed Tom is apparently developing a dark sense of humor: his favorite character in the Lion King is Scar, he was Darth Vader for Halloween, and his beloved Christmas show this year is the Grinch. Ben’s entry into public school this fall has provoked not one but two requests to know whether I am Ben’s mom or his grandma. Although the aim of the Lantern Walk was to embrace the present, my eyes kept darting toward the gnarled woods for apparitions. I half expected Scrooge’s ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Future to appear and fly me away because of my darkening views.
Maybe it’s the historian in me, but as our feet slid down the icy, illuminated trail my thoughts drifted deeper into the ancient woods. Like the forest, and me, I suppose, Christmas is old—and dark. The Old English word for Christmas, Cristes Maesse—the Mass of Christ—dates back to 1038. But rituals celebrating the darkest days of winter predate the birth of Jesus by thousands of years. The Mesopotamians spent 12 days in winter celebrating their god, Marduk, who they believed battled the “Monsters of Chaos” (something, I think, most parents can relate). Eric’s ancestors, the Scandinavians, rejoiced during the Yuletide, which recognized the return of the sun. On December 21, the Norse burnt a Yule Log, believing that each spark meant new life. They feasted on their remaining livestock, and to remind them of spring’s return, hung apples on trees. Northern Europeans honored the spruce tree, for it represented life at time when the Little Ice Age held the world in a frozen, deathly grip. My ancestors signaled the start of winter with a strange Celtic festival that combined traditions of Halloween and New Year’s Eve called Samhain. Souls and spirits from the past rose from the dead on Samhain Night, while prophets shared the promise of the future with eager Irish youth. The ancient Celts chose to celebrate Samhain sometime between summer and winter, during an interval that they believed existed outside of ordinary time, where the past and the future, lightness and darkness, merged.
The Romans celebrated the winter solstice honoring their many gods during lively festivals, including the rambunctious Saturnalia. They also celebrated Juvenilia, the feast honoring Roman children, as well as the birth of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, born on December 25. Here in Alaska, the tradition of “Starring” celebrates the journey of the magi who, by following the Christmas Star, found another infant born likely in the spring, but whose birthday is also celebrated on December 25. The Russians brought the ritual of Starring to Russian-America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Alaska Natives, who were folded into the Orthodox Church, embraced the tradition, which is now considered a traditional Alaska custom. And, of course, it was Raven, born of a virgin birth, who, during a time when the earth was covered in darkness, stole the sun from a powerful chief in order to shed the world and heavens in light. That is why, instead of an angel or star, a black, hairy Raven sits atop our Christmas tree.
My ponderings of past solstices traditions and our ancestors’ universal reliance on—and hope for—the future, reminded me that History is old, but Life is not. Feeling lighter both inside and out, I conceded that my kids were neither silent nor very serene that solstice night, but they certainly were living in the present. When we arrived at the bonfire, Eric continued to hold my hand. In the warmth of the burning spruce logs my dim thoughts began to focus on my boys, whose happy faces glowed as they sang carols and ate cookies. Like our ancestors, I saw each blazing ember, torch, and lantern as a hopeful wish for a happy future.
On the way home, we sang Tom’s favorite song from the Grinch: “Welcome Christmas while we stand/Heart to hear and hand in hand/Christmas day will always be/Just so long as we have we.”
Perhaps we need the darkness to appreciate that light. Just as we need the wax and the wane of the moon, the ebb and flow of the tide, the secular and the spiritual, the material and the mystic, and the dread and the delight of winter. I suppose that’s why tales of Scrooge, the Grinch—even Darth Vader—are so appealing to us. They are lessons in redemption; how one goes from the dark to the light. But like the ancient Celts, Dickens understood that we also need a mixture of the past, present and future to illuminate what is important in our lives. Reminders of what came before and signs of what might be help guide us through life. Allowing us to truly appreciate what we have and with whom we share it in the present. To simply be is hard. For most of us live neither in the dark or the light. Most of us live somewhere in between.