When I was a teenager, my parents and I decided that our celebration of Christian holidays was fairly arbitrary. Although I was enrolled at an Episcopalian high school at the time (and thus at the height of my religious observation, going to chapel once a week and cathedral services every Friday morning), it wasn't what you might call a doctrinaire education. My required religious coursework was fulfilled by a class on Eastern Religions, and my friends and I once performed a shortened production of Angels in America for weekly Chapel.
Since no one else in my family had any firm religious convictions, we hatched a harebrained scheme by which we would arbitrarily celebrate a different religion's holidays every year. Our first choice was druidism, but we only got through Winter Solstice and Alban Eiler (two holidays which required remarkably little change from our "Christian" observances, involving a lot of tree-buying and egg-dying) before my mother declared that she was exhausted by celebrating two holidays instead of one: the druid holidays amongst ourselves and the Christian ones with my grandparents, who we were (mistakenly) convinced wouldn't be charmed by our new holiday observances.
So there died our poorly considered roundabout of religious observances. But several years later we were again struck by a faint twinge of hypocrisy as we went about celebrating the holidays of a religion that we didn't otherwise observe. We had also begun to feel oppressed by celebrations that mandated gift-giving, rather than allowing it to occur spontaneously. So we returned to the celebration of Solstice with a few guidelines for ourselves:
- All decorations would be organic in nature and non-religious in content. I type this while sitting by our Solstice tree, which is decorated only with white lights, tiny lacquered apples and red mushrooms, glass icicles, feathered birds, and minute straw baskets filled with cranberries. In a previous year's celebration, only additional ornaments that fit within the theme of "bells" were allowed. I have to say, the effect is considerably lovelier than it ever was in our less restrained Christmas celebrations - perhaps because we put more thought into our decorations and their motifs now.
- No Christmas carols. This one is rather hard for me. Usually I cheat slightly and listen to The Messiah a few weeks before Solstice/Christmas. D and I have a continuing (over the course of the last decade) argument about carols. He prefers the godawful (that's right, it's my blog, and I said it) modern carols. The worst he ever introduced me to was called (I believe) "Dominick the Italian Christmas Donkey." My taste leans more towards medieval carols, or anything pre-war. The more hymnal carols. Songs that evoke the world of historical romance for me. "The Holly and the Ivy." "Good King Wenceslas." Am I the only person on earth who still enjoys that last one? D has taken to calling me "Good King Wencelsnout" by way of vengeance.
- No gift-giving. In my family, if you see something that makes you think of someone, you give it to them, regardless of time or occasion. This way, if you receive a gift, you know it is the result of genuine thoughtfulness, and you are always pleasantly surprised by it. This gift ban functions well primarily because I was already an adult when we instituted it, beyond any sense of glee or disappointment with regards to Christmas gifts, and past any need for lessons in the pleasures of giving and duties of receiving.
- The party itself. Each year we hold a Solstice party, inviting neighbors, family, and old friends from all over the nation. The only rule of Solstice is that you must wear the one thing that you don't normally have an opportunity to wear, and wish you did. The result is a panoply of full length cloaks, velvet smoking jackets, woad tattoos, and ball gowns. My grandmother always used to come in an intricately embroidered Palestinian dress; my grandfather in a traditional Swiss wool coat. This year my friend JF arrived wearing an Italian naval cape, and his husband RK the bespoke suit he was married in over Thanksgiving. This year I had nothing to wear but the backless, plunging-necklined ancient Greek dress that I wore last year, so I spiced it up with the addition of a "familiar": a proud little bird, plucked from the Solstice decorations, who clung to my collar and wrapped its tail feathers around my throat like a necklace.
This year, the Winter Solstice fell on a Monday, so we decided to hold our celebrations on the day before, to enable as many friends as possible to come. The Solstice gods (who also happen to be the weather gods) didn't care for our meddling with the solar calendar.
On the morning of the party, our Washington, DC neighborhood looked like this:
Two full feet of snow. Now bear in mind that the weather I have seen since moving to Nova Scotia in August has been relatively mild. The worst I have seen (apart from the hurricane that hit me during my first weekend in Halifax) is a few sprinklings of flakes. After classes ended at the beginning of December, I headed to Los Angeles, my head full of sunshine and beaches, and it preceded to rain on me unceasingly for a whole week. I had never seen it rain in Southern California in my five years of traveling there. Now, after giving my exam back in Halifax (which I found cold and clear on my return), I have headed south to Washington and been pummeled by a blizzard that locals are calling the "snowpocalypse."
There is a certain bloodymindedness to the weather I have been encountering all over the continent. A certain reluctance to conform to stereotype, you might say.
These photos give you a sense of what Washington looked like, come Solstice-time.
Here, by contrast, is what it looked like inside our house:
And the slightly unfocused Dutch still life of the Solstice party that evening:
Many of our guests were housebound by the storm. But a number of hardy souls, and most of our intrepid neighbors, braved the two feet of snow to sip sangria and eat sturgeon with us, so we rollicked in the face of the blizzard.
We usually have guests do readings of favorite wintry literature in the middle of the party. This year I even composed a piece of my own (I'll post that next - it is the first thing I have written of a lyrical bent in at least a decade), but because of the snow our usual cadre of readers couldn't make it. So, alas, no readings this year. I'll leave you with the piece I traditionally close our Solstice readings with, a poem by the 13th century Persian mystic, Rumi:
My worst habit is I get so tired of winter
I become a torture to those I'm with.
If you're not here, nothing grows.
I lack clarity. My words
tangle and knot up.
How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.
When water gets caught up in habitual whirlpools,
dig a way out through the bottom
to the ocean. There is a secret medicine
given only to those who hurt so hard
they can't hope.
The hopers would feel slighted if they knew.
Look as long as you can at the friend you love,
no matter whether that friend is moving away from you
or coming back to you.