Solstice Thoughts (written 2017)

Dec. 23, 2021

Solstice Thoughts (written 2017)

Dec. 23, 2021

Imagery of light and darkness figure prominently in the depiction and celebration of Christmas, reflecting the holiday’s association with the winter solstice as the night of longest darkness slowly, reluctantly, gives rise to the rebirth of hope. The duality of the Yule season, represented by the conflicted partnership between Santa Claus (St. Nicholas) and Krampus (or his malevolent kindred, Perchta, Mari Lwyd, etc.) can be felt and expressed on a personal as well as an archetypal level, for in this wintry gestation the ghosts of the past, the phantoms of loss, wistfully linger around the stained-glass shimmering tree lights.

The Yuletide myths of ruthless vigilante monsters such as Krampus who attack and devour children may symbolize the bleak, indifferent, at times brutal, afflictions of winter. Like the Grim Reaper wielding his lethal scythe, winter, particularly in pre-modern times, was a harvester of humanity, bringing death to the young, weak, or infirm. In times when food was scarce and hard work, service to others, mutual respect and assistance, was essential for survival, those who were greedy , lazy, or uncooperative were detrimental to a community. To help keep children in line and influence them to become useful members of society, parents could use these myths as frightening warnings against indolence, selfishness, and disobedience. The prevalence of folklore involving tyke-gobbling witches and beasts (as in “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood”) may also be evocative of parents’ suppressed ambivalence regarding their children, love mixed with occasional resentment and anger, particularly if the children are demanding material things the parents cannot provide them. Although nowadays these ogres are less commonly invoked as disciplinary tools, parents and other elders often use less frightening aspects of Christmas folklore to admonish naughty or disobedient children, telling the kids that Santa will leave them coal instead of presents, or that, as my grandmother warned, Santa’s red birds are watching and reporting every misdeed. These threats, innocuous when compared with the gruesome folk tales of the past, nevertheless cast a faint shadow of fear over the exuberant holiday anticipation. As I look back on my Christmas memories, Grandma’s red bird Santa spies, formerly a source of childhood worry, now are a humorous example of my grandmother’s rather dark imagination. The unease they once caused has been replaced by far greater emotional turmoil associated with the holidays–the feelings of sadness I experience, having lost nearly all of my close family members, and the dread of the future, of time relentlessly passing. In a similar manner perhaps, the monsters of myth, wintry personifications of fear and death, may have helped emotionally prepare children for real-life terrors and sorrows, the moments of darkness, so that they can more fervently appreciate the moments of light.

Dickens’ ghosts in A Christmas Carol, like the flesh-rending ghouls of yesteryear, remind us of Cronos’ reaping, the ravages of time and grief. Dragging chains of karmic bonds, these gloomy spirits reveal tantalizing moments of happiness lost, once-savored visions now tainted by mourning as loved ones die, good fortune fades, opportunities wither, and the will to live sickens. As with the grisly gremlins of Yuletides past, the ghosts impart a grim but timeless message that is even more relevant in this age of rampant materialism, demonstrating the dangers of egotism, selfishness and materialism. The ghosts, dark oracles offering unsolicited otherworldly advice, nevertheless reveal a path to redemption, a glimpse of the light.

Although Christmas nowadays lacks much of the joy it had when my mom was still alive, I still find a sense of magic in the pageant of darkness and light. The mutilcolored tree lights wistfully welcome me into their shimmering radiance, red as flames, golden as the sun, green as the fragrant pine, blue as the intersecting sky and sea. They and the surrounding darkness they illumine cast a spell of remembrance and renewal, the spirit of the season, its bittersweet longing and struggling hope.

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Writings by Alison Armstrong

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