Last night, I lit the winter solstice candles. It’s a time-honored tradition, you know; the candles - nine in all - sit in a metal (usually gold-colored) candelabra. One lights the middle candle first. Then he or she takes that candle out of its holder and uses it to light the other eight, left to right. The four candles on the left represent the seasons of the past year. The four candles on the right represent the seasons of the coming year. And the candle in the middle represents the birth of the sun, and a new beginning every December 21st.
Where did I get this information? I pulled it out of my ass. That’s right, I made it all up. (If you’re at all shocked, know that your stupidity makes baby Jesus cry.) And really, I’m far from the first. All our most cherished holiday traditions were stolen from some poor saps whose names we don’t even remember now. What do evergreen trees and mistletoe have to do with the virgin birth? What do bunny rabbits and colored eggs have to do with rising from the dead? These symbols all belonged to various non-Christian peoples that found themselves under the rule of Constantine’s newly christened Christian empire. In order to unite his disparate people in one religion, his church incorporated pagan traditions in their celebrations.
Of course, modern-day Constantines have different reasons for celebrating holidays they ordinarily wouldn’t give a crap about. My maternal grandmother was a Communist - and, therefore, an avowed atheist. However, she was also extremely gullible. A Christian neighbor was appalled that Grandma didn’t have a Christmas tree. “But you must have a Christmas tree!” she exclaimed. “For the children!” Neither the fact that both she and her husband were atheists, nor the fact that they were of Jewish descent, changed the neighbor’s mind. Terrified that her children would grow up warped, Grandma got a Christmas tree, and the family celebrated Christmas together every year thereafter. Jesus was never mentioned, so one would assume that the holiday was mostly about presents - which is kind of an ironic thing for a bunch of Communists to be celebrating, if you think about it.
All over the world, non-Christians celebrate Christmas, mostly because it’s a state-sanctioned excuse to buy things, eat a lot, and spend time with family. My family was among these. But the great thing about my family is that we’re half Jewish, half Christian, and don’t believe in either religion. Which frees us to enjoy all the fun parts of religious holidays (food, presents, pretty lights) without the boring stuff (fasting, praying, wearing funny hats).
This was the chief reason I chose the menorah for use in my Constantine-y quest to change the meaning of every holiday symbol. Well, that and the fact that menorahs are 25% off after Hanukkah. (Didn’t know that, did ya? You want a solstice menorah now too, don’t ya?) I have fond memories of Hanukkah - the latkes that introduced me to greasy potato-based foods… the candles that introduced me to pyromania… the dreidels which taught me how to gamble. My family celebrated the Festival of Lights every year. Usually after Mom remembered on the second day or so while my sisters and I were watching The Simpsons. Then, at the commercial, she would coax us off the couch for a few minutes so we could light the candles. Then we would stand there awkwardly, knowing that we should probably say a prayer or something, but being helpless as none of us knew any Hebrew. Then The Simpsons would come back on and we’d all rush back to the miraculous light of the television set.
Wiccans and other New Age-y make-your-own-religion types tend to scoff at any mention of organized (particularly monotheistic) religion. They like to celebrate the solstices and the equinoxes with a host of their own made-up symbols - or a hodgepodge of Old European pagan symbols. I say, if you want to be really disrespectful to organized religion, take the symbols and traditions that are already there and give them your own meanings. It’s subversive, it’s silly, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
I’m still working on Christmas. The pine tree and the presents and the mistletoe and all that. But rest assured, it’ll probably end up having something to do with the Smashing Pumpkins.