Thursday, December 21, 2006

The shrunken head upon my Christmas tree

Eileen gave us her holiday-inspired ruminations yesterday. Today I offer a few of my own.

Last week, just as Hanukkah was revving up, I mentioned the syncretism that haunts the various celebrations occurring at this time of year: both Christmas and Hanukkah have quietly absorbed rituals that don't have all that much to do with the historic events they commemorate. The birth of a child in a Bethlehem manger and the miracle of eight nights of oil are not innately connected to fir trees festooned with electric bulbs, holly and berries, gift giving, lighting candles against long nights, the celebration of winter's advent and the dwindling of the year. The present has a way of not forgetting what is ancient in human history: the impulse to joy at winter solstice, for example. Eileen was wondering about where god might be in all this end of the year activity, or in the command that sent Abraham with a knife to a mountaintop. Right now I'm wondering why it is that, even in the absence of gods, the short days and the long darkness here in the northern hemisphere move us not to gloom but to hope. I also wonder (following Eileen's train of thought again) if hope isn't really what we mean, in the end, by love.

Back to syncretism. The great historian of Anglo-Saxon England, Bede, wrote of a king of East Anglia who couldn't completely commit to the New World Order instigated by Christianity's advent. Rædwald kept two altars in his temple, one for sacrifices to the parvenu God, "and another small altar on which to offer victims to devils [that is, the pagan gods]" (Ecclesiastical History 2.15). Here we see vividly the syncretism for which the period is now renowned: a commingling of traditions without synthesis and (at least for people like Rædwald) without much cognitive dissonance. A contemporary analogue of Rædwald's dual altars might be the Easter Bunny: clearly this furry little fertility symbol, striding into houses to deliver more fertility symbols (eggs), has little to do with the person whose resurrection is being commemorated on that day. Easter silently gathered to itself primordial celebrations of spring, procreation, fecundity.

As you can guess, I have no problems with syncretism. We can be as purist as we like, declaring that randy rabbits shall have no part in our paschal solemnities, or that having a Tanenbaum in a Jewish home is like hanging a cross instead of a mezuzah, but we are thereby denying a part of what makes us creatures of history: our reluctance to abandon the ancient when asked to replace old celebrations with novel ones, our inability to forge wholly new identities, our intractable gravitation towards the cycles of birth, death, light and dark that provided humanity's first glimmer of an awesome and endless exteriority, of what might be the divine.

This is a long way of explaining why the Cohen family of Bethesda, Maryland -- who do in fact have a mezuzah on their door and a hanukkiah blazing away each night at their window -- also have a Frasier fir in their living room so decked with lights it can barely support itself. Yes, it is a Christmas tree, and it is topped with what looks to be an angel ... but on closer examination that Seraphim on the topmost branch is actually a dachshund in a white robe with a halo, a saintly version of our dog Scooby. You won't find a nativity scene beneath the Christmas tree, nor "small altar on which to offer victims to devils ," but on its boughs you will spot the following objects dangling: ornaments shaped like disco balls; two toucans; Sponge Bob Square Pants in a Santa hat; a pickle; some cows; a flamingo in a hula skirt; and a shrunken head. In our family we have a saying: "It isn't a Christmas tree without a shrunken head."

Happy holidays, everyone. May the year ahead bring peace, love ... and hope.


Eileen Joy said...

Wonderful post, JJC. Our Christmas tree doesn't have shrunken heads or a dachshund angel or even Spongebob Squarepants, although we do have the Powerpuff Girls and lots of Snoopys and a pickle. Just the other night there was this hysterical story on NPR about a Jewish family in, I think, Washington State, who, tired of all the outrageous Christmas decoration in everyone's front lawns, decided to create the Hannukah "bush"--essentially a large artificial shrub--not to be confused with a tree--which can be hung with special Hannukah ornaments. This has become big business for the family, who also manufacture and sell inflatable menorahs, dredles, and the like, for display on the front lawn. During the interview, everytime the commentator [also Jewish, by the way] tried to get the mother to admit that a Hannukah "bush" was really just a kind of sublimated Christmas tree and the mother kept saying, "no, no, no [!], there is a long tradition in Judaism of important bushes, like Moses' burning bush, etc." To which the commentator said, sure, but your Hannukah bush isn't on fire and it has ornaments. Back and forth, back and forth, etc. It was very funny. Anyway, I just thought you might want to know that, in addition to your tree, menorah, etc., that you also need a Hannukah bush. Cheers, Eileen

Karl Steel said...

"no, no, no [!], there is a long tradition in Judaism of important bushes, like Moses' burning bush, etc."

Etc? There's the shrubbery in which Abraham discovered the ram that saved Isaac's life. That's all I can think of.

My favorite bit of syncretism: driving around a military base a few years back with my brother (an Air Force doctor) et famille, we saw a peculiar display on a Colonel's front lawn: four angels blowing their horns, but rather than a baby in their midst, there was Snoopy. I asked my brother about it: "well, he's a colonel. No one can do anything about it."

Great post (both of you). More to say later I hope.

JKW said...

Delightful, Jeffrey--and this from a man who used to spend Christmas on Long Island with Jewish friends, happily sitting beneath the Hanukkah bush. Enjoy the holidays!