The kindergarten teachers I know each tell the same story: Roundabout the middle of December, all the kids who celebrate Christmas transform into voracious little three-foot monsters bereft of morality or self-control. All the behaviors parents worked so diligently to instill in them collapse under the long duress of waiting for Santa.
Alas, my own daughter fell victim to the phenomenon this year. It was a jarring revelation to watch my sweet, caring, sharing, loving little girl decompensate into this ruthless feral capitalist, a frothing cauldron of I want who sees herself as the only being in all of existence. Matters did not improve at school; as it turned out, putting 15 feral capitalists in a room where they could spend all day rubbing their I want woes together exacerbated the situation dramatically.
My wife and I eventually got her past this crisis of materialism, but it was remarkable nonetheless. It was as if a virus got passed from kid to kid to kid until they were all infected with an insatiable lust for more stuff.
Neither of us blamed our daughter for her behavior. In retrospect, it was thoroughly unsurprising: Here is this wee child, possessed of a moral code still in formation, gripping the live wire of Maximum Capitalism that was engineered specifically for people in her age group. It was an extension of the Consumerist Boot Camp that begins the day after Thanksgiving, her first real lesson in what is expected of her in the hollow, soulless economy she was born into.
Many of her adult contemporaries did not seem to be faring much better as the season ground to a conclusion. My wife works retail and came home every night with tales of wrath and fury spewed by customers ostensibly seeking to purchase items intended to make someone happy. Instead, their exposure to Maximum Capitalism, with its attendant insipid music score played on an endless loop, brought out the werewolf in almost all of them.
It would require a crackerjack team of sociologists, historians and economists to properly explain how the dominant methods for celebrating this holiday came to be the pluperfect mess it is today, so here’s the short version:
The Roman Emperor Constantine co-opted a wide variety of ancient pagan holidays in the name of Christianity in order to cement his rule, and the winter solstice celebration was foremost among them. Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations — his treatise on free-trade capitalism — in 1776, the same year a bunch of wealthy businessmen decided they wanted to plunder the North American continent free from British interference (read: taxes). By then, Constantine’s solstice-inspired Christmas was the biggest day on the Christian calendar, and once it was stapled to US-style free-trade capitalism, door-busters and Walmart riots were all but inevitable in the fullness of time.
Like I said, it’s the short version.
The wanton garishness at the heart of the modern consumerist Christmas season serves to vividly underscore the emptiness of soul and spirit felt by so many today. Like the holiday itself, mere life has become an exhausting, overwhelming grind bereft of meaning beyond immediate, inert gratification. Trust in longstanding institutions is collapsing, the climate itself is collapsing, the specter of actual doom hangs low over us all, and the proffered solution – Buy more stuff! – is a lie as vast as the problems themselves. “Buy more stuff” is, in point of fact, a massive part of what has gone so starkly wrong in the first place.
For many, myself included, there is refuge and profound meaning found in a celebration of the winter solstice that Constantine absconded with 17 centuries ago. Celebration of the solstice is as old as the stones; Stonehenge and Newgrange, the Bronze Age monuments in England and Ireland, are both aligned with the winter solstice sunrise. Stone arrangements left by the Anasazi people in New Mexico around 200 BC are likewise attuned to the movement of the sun.
Celebration of the longest night of the year is everywhere. The Hopi descendants of the Anasazi celebrate Soyal at the setting of the solstice sun with a ceremony of fires and dancing that lasts all night. In Iran, the winter solstice is celebrated as Shab-e Yalda, which means “Night of Birth,” in which families and friends gather to read poems and feast. It is called Dong Zhi in China and Inti Raymi in Peru, and these celebrations are striking in their similarities.
Wiccans and other practitioners of ancient witchcraft (a word they proudly own) celebrate the winter solstice as an affirmation of life itself as being sacred and interconnected. People celebrate solstice individually and collectively by dancing, feeding animals to help them through the winter, or by communing with nature in an act of deliberate release, spending negative energy into the darkness of the longest night on the promise of the sunrise to come.
It is difficult to imagine a more important time than right now to refocus our spiritual energy toward the vast clockwork of the natural world. The bill for generations of pollution and greed has finally come due, in the guise of rising seas, murderous storms, permanent droughts and towering fires, and this is merely the beginning.
“In this age of ecological collapse,” counsels Truthout journalist Dahr Jamail, “I believe an Earth-based spirituality with roots as strong as the deepest keel is as necessary as water and food, if not even more so. Nothing less than a practice based on remaining attuned to the wisdom of the Earth herself will provide the daily grounding each of us needs to stay balanced and centered as portions of the biosphere collapse around us.”
Life, renewal, rejuvenation: These lay at the beating heart of every winter solstice celebration. Though they differ in root and practice, they all respond to the same reality: The winter solstice is the longest night of the year. Its passing means the days will grow longer, and the Earth will soon give birth to itself once again in a spectacle of warmth, splendor and bounty. The winter solstice is the first step toward the healing light.
In the beginning and at the end, it is about hope.
Today is Christmas and the solstice has passed, but amid the consumerist Christmas that corporations are pushing upon us, we can still step back and reach for the spiritual renewal at the center of the ancient solstice holiday. The wonder of the turning Earth and the life-giving sun is still with us today. Christmas consumerism may have paved it over and smothered it in advertisements, but it is still there, bright green and gold, waiting to be bathed in the coming dawn.
“The solstice is an astronomical fact we can all agree upon,” my friend Alexandra is wont to say. “We are all subject to the seasons and dependent on the Earth and the other living things. This is a better basis for a belief system, and worthy of reverence. There can be no arguing about it. Peace on Earth could be the result.”
“I say this,” she declares, “every year.”