Monday, December 24, 2012

Winter light

It's Christmas Eve.  For those of us who tend towards skepticism about things like God coming down to earth and being born of a virgin, or far worse, Santa delivering toys to all the corners of the earth on one night, Christmas can easily become a season of genuine psychological pain—too much commercialism, too much fattening food, or too much time spent with people with whom you share little except maybe a last name.  The Christmases of my childhood were so traumatic that it took a couple of decades before I could begin to relax.

And yet in my later years, I have discovered there is much about Christmas to celebrate.  There is the music—no other religious holiday has 1/10th the music. Much is transcendentally beautiful.  But lately, I have come to more fully appreciate the cultural gifts of those who have celebrated Christmas over the years.  Much is actually related to the topics I cover on this blog.  Whether it is honesty in public affairs, building sustainable societies, inventing ways that make the whole community more prosperous, or coming up with ways of keeping crooks from destroying the community, the folks who seem to do it best come from places where winters and darkness are major issues.  Christmas is one of the ways to cope.  And while it has plenty of problems, it's probably not worse than ice fishing as a diversion from the cold.

Besides, Christmas has some real advantages;
  • It's an excuse to feast.  It going to be awhile before you eat produce from the garden.  Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we eat oatmeal again.
  • It's an excuse to light candles.  Before electric light, anything that pushed back the darkness was an expensive luxury.  Candles were often kept in locked trunks.
  • It's an excuse to make music with your neighbors.  Some people are very talented so Christmas music ranges from children's carols to Bach's Christmas Oratorio or Handel's Messiah.
I happen to have a favorite Christmas composition from Bach's Oratorio BWV 248.  It is the Pastorale and when I was growing up, the people I knew called it the shepherd's song.  The reason the shepherd story is important to the Christianity of the North is that it teaches that the birth of a Messiah was first announced to folks working outdoors.  Now, it does not matter that this story is very probably not true, the lesson is still important—that people who do the important work of the community should be respected.  After all, look what your God thinks of them!  Here Bach wrote a purely musical tribute to the story of the shepherds—to the virtue of humility.  It is utterly beautiful.

And then there is winter light—the great aesthetic reward of winter.  The movie guys love to shoot during golden hour—the hour or so after sunrise and before sunset.  But because the sun is so low at the solstice, winter has extended golden hours.  I was out to Valley Grove on Saturday in time for the sunset.

The stone church straight ahead is where Thorstein Veblen was confirmed.  Any culture that can produce a religious building so unadorned, can also produce a social observer who condemns conspicuous waste.

The Veblen tombstone.  TBV was cremated and his ashes scattered but this plot holds the remains of his parents, uncle and two brothers.

And the sunset behind me.

Merry Christmas everyone.  Do some singing if you can.

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