We have believed a shitload of ridiculous things over the years; some amusing, some dangerous and some merely bizarre.
We have believed that if a woman is thrown into a millpond and drowns it proves she is not a witch. We have believed that everything can be possessed for a price, even other people.
We have believed that the emperor of Japan is the direct descendant of the goddess of the sun and god of the moon, unless of course we have believed that the sun is a god and the moon a goddess, which makes it hard for us to understand the Japanese. Inscrutable doesn’t begin to cover it.
We have believed that gods and goddesses live in the trunks of trees, and that the big boss god could be cajoled or appeased with the bleeding hearts of young virgins or bleating goats.
We have believed that a prophet once travelled between two cities on a miniature flying horse with the face of a woman and the tail of a peacock, and that sacred underwear protects believers from spiritual contamination and speeding bullets. We have believed that sprinkling water on infants, if done correctly, can keep the baby from an eternity of suffering should he or she die prematurely.
Oh, the things we have believed!
And in believing each of those things, we have found something to make this time of year special to our particular school of magical thinking.
In our time, when true believers are tossing gay men off rooftops and candidates for the US presidency are applauding at rallies where other wise guys call for the death penalty for gays, the queer ear needs to be particularly alert to the imprecations of wise guys, wherever they’re found.
During this season of extreme expressions of both belief and disbelief we are often chided to “remember the reason for the season” — usually by the proponents of a particular belief. You know who you are, you chiders!
But the reason for the season has neither more nor less to do with the birth of a baby boy to a Middle Eastern refugee couple in a desert village more than 2,000 years ago than it has to do with any of the above beliefs or the religions that produced them.
The universal reason for the season is that, at a calculable time on a knowable date the sun will cease to slip away to the south, stand still for an immeasurable moment in the time space continuum, and then begin its solar return.
Then we will know that soon the ground will thaw, the snows will retreat, all will be turgid and moist and warm and green again. Crops will grow and we will eat.
And that, my friends, is the reason for the season.
The true oldest profession is the fabrication of stories to explain why. How can we know for sure that it will happen? What can we do to guarantee that it will?
My own family had a crackpot tradition, a few thousand years ago, of lighting bonfires through the winter as we watched the Sun wander southward and felt our days grow cold. We had been told, by some wise guys, that to do so would bring back the Sun.
So we lit our hilltop bonfires from Samhain to Beltane and, as promised, the Sun returned.
Those wise guys (who included more wise gals than you might think) were amply rewarded for having the prophetic power to know this. And if they could know how to assure the return of the Sun, what else might they know that could be useful and comforting? And what would they want in the way of a little extra roast fowl or a slightly more comfortable shelter to spend the winter?
And so the priest craft was born.
But the return of the sun doesn’t mean that the emperor of Japan is a god, or that Abraham’s voice in the desert wasn’t a mushroom hallucination, or that the hidden Imam is only a heartbeat away. It just means that things will grow green again and we will eat, and that we will continue to do so as long as the earth circles the sun. Or is it the other way around?
In discovering this, we have bound ourselves in Gordian knots of creeds, theologies, cosmologies and fairytales that great numbers of us still don’t see as problematic. We still give the professional wise guys an honoured place around the campfire, and a little something extra off the roast. And these days maybe a private jet. And their own special funny hats.
So wish me “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” or “Joyous Kwanzaa” and I’ll either respond in kind or enjoin you to “Have a good Solstice.” But no matter what your own wise guy (or gal) tells you, please remember the real reason for the season, according to this wise guy.
We shall eat.