Tag Archives: customs

Have a jolly, merry…. Whatever.

21 Dec

Some things are terribly predictable at this time of year; they just go with the season.

In particular, there’s bound to be someone who wants to talk about the ‘true’ meaning of Christmas.

Then again there’s bound to be someone who’ll point out that Christmas is a festival that was co-opted by the Christian church.

And there will doubtless be someone to point out how many of the customs and practices associated with Christmas actually have nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with pre and non-Christian belief systems.

And there’s also liable to be someone who points out how many of our time honoured Christmas traditions are actually quite modern in their origins.

Needless to say, the scholarship behind these claims tends to be patchy in quality and this usually gives rise to all sorts of debate, often ill tempered, and usually just as patchy in the quality of its erudition.

Being a scholar much in the tradition of patchy erudition myself, I’ve formed the vague impression that most cultures that have their origins in parts of the world where the winters are cold tend to have some sort of festival, usually timed for whenever the weather can be expected to be at it’s most inclement.

These festivals usually seem to involve people getting together, often with people they never see at any other time of the year, in order to eat and drink and pretend to have a good time while all kinds of subterranean tensions seethe away under the surface.

Obviously these festivals are a product of pre-industrial societies, industrialised, urbanised societies tend to be less influenced by the changing of the seasons, but the habits of an older society do tend to persist, even if they do evolve over time. And as a result we’re stuck with the dubious pleasures of Christmas with all its mongrel inheritance.

Naturally, there are all kinds of interesting (or at least semi-interesting) common features and contrasts to be found amongst the various ways that people celebrate towards the end of December throughout Europe, and in those parts of the world influenced by European cultures. There should be no big surprise about that; most of these cultures have diverged from common roots in similar environments.

What’s much more interesting is that there should be a parallel to our Christmas in Native American cultures.

What I’m referring to, of course is the Potlatch.

Potlatch is, in fact quite a general term and covers a variety of customs that were current in a number of different cultures on the pacific coast of North America.

This environment was very rich in resources that could be harvested throughout the summer and autumn, but the winter was incredibly harsh.

As a consequence, everyone worked hard to lay in provisions while they could and then, when the weather turned nasty, there was very little to do except eat, drink, tell stories, sing songs and generally enjoy the fruits of all that hard work you’d done earlier in the year. And at the potlatch there was even an exchange of gifts.

Each potlatch was hosted by a kinship group, (sometimes called a house or numaym) or more precisely by an aristocrat of the kinship group and the whole point was to invite all the other neighbouring kinship groups partly for a celebration, but also to conduct a certain amount of practical business. There were always tensions and rivalries between the different kin groups and these rivalries and tensions had to be expressed and managed, preferably without out and out warfare.

And the way these tensions were expressed and managed at the potlatch was very largely through the giving of gifts.

So on the face of it, the potlatch seemed like quite a jolly custom

Unfortunately, there was a darker side to the potlatch. As I’ve suggested, the people who gathered together during the potlatch were not necessarily the best of friends and, as a result, the gift giving tended to have a competitive edge.

This competitive edge led to an escalation in the value of the gifts being exchanged until, according to the classic accounts, the whole thing became utterly ruinous. (Accounts differ, however, and various aspects of the potlatch may well have been exaggerated by the various people who described it, since they all had agendas of their own).

Of course, the potlatch was criminalised by the Canadian and American authorities. This was because it offended against the prevailing notions of industry, thrift and prudence prevailing amongst the uptight white eye community, but the custom persisted since it was closely linked to the religious beliefs and cultural identity of the Native American peoples who practised it.

So there we have it.

People on different continents with completely different cultural backgrounds getting together with other people they don’t like in order to munch their way through copious amounts of food while exchanging of gifts at ruinous expense. And all with the threat of criminal proceedings following closely in the aftermath.

A typical family Christmas, in fact.

So whether you’re celebrating the birth of Christ, or the winter solstice, whether it’s Yule or Noel or just a chance to take some time off work and overindulge a little, have a happy whatever, try to be nice to each other and always remember the words of the song,

Hallelujah noel be it heaven or hell,

The Christmas you get you deserve.

(I Believe in Father Christmas – Emerson, Lake and Palmer)