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19 December 2013updated 03 Aug 2021 6:32am

In winter, red and green should always be seen

The Christmas spirit is a pagan affair, with animistic symbolism and vibrant imagery.

By John Burnside

ʼTis the season. Well, almost. In this (rural Scottish) neck of the woods, that season has less to do with shopping malls lit up like the QE2 from mid-October than with fetching in wood for the stove and the usual regimen of power cuts – which remind us, all through the dark months, of how infantile (and wasteful) our attachment to artificial light and entertainment gizmos really is.

It is a season neither Christian nor consumerist but pagan in the truest and fullest sense, which is to say creaturely – a life of the immediate and the sensual, the individual imagination constantly reconnecting itself to the whole through the keenness of the cold and the warmth of the fire, the green of the holly bush and the stark wind howling through the gorse bones on the verge.

Of course, Christmas is celebrated in our house just as it is elsewhere, and some of that celebration will be of the usual, consumerist variety, but mostly, I think, we will stick to tradition – which is to say, to the simple, unstated sense that at the turning of the year, all that we value most is quietly suspended, gone down into the dark and the cold to renew itself by a process that, to this day, I find both beautiful and mysterious.

Mention tradition at this time of year, though, and it’s not long before a certain type of clergyman pops up to bemoan the commercialisation of this holy time, treating us not only to sermons on the proper Christmas spirit but also on how thoroughly we have lost it.

Yet when I come to deck my kitchen with a few branches of holly and a sprig or two of mistletoe, I cannot help but think I will be honouring the real tradition of the season, as I celebrate not so much a few days of absurd excess in a time of steady – if relative – plenty but the power of the imagination to carry itself through hardship, in its stubborn reassertion of creaturely life.

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For let us be frank: the true Christmas spirit is a pagan affair, its symbolism animistic, its connection to Jesus’s birth a cynical overlay in which an essential local festival was co-opted to serve a proselyting new orthodoxy. By papal decree, the Christian narrative was superimposed on local religious traditions, which may have given it greater currency but also robbed us of a vital element of our live tradition. Now, reading the old stories that Christian monks committed to paper, we have to work hard to recover the reality of those pagan tales and their ways of connecting us to the earth, not just because the scribes altered the content of the pre-Christian stories, but also because there is something magical about an oral tradition that the written word cannot capture.

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In the bleak midwinter, there is something psychologically, even physiologically reassuring about the colours red and green, for reasons we shouldn’t even try to explain rationally. Christmas plugs us back into a live tradition that recognises that the kernel of life is preserved, not by some abstract deity but by the earth itself. By the earth, and by our own, creaturely presences here – and as we eat and drink and dance our way through this pagan festival of light and fire, with its underlying insistence on sap and blood, our connection to the earth is at least capable of being renewed. No need to give up the turkey, or the parcels of frippery under the tree, to feel it – it’s there in the colours, the scent of citrus and conifer, the first snow coming through the porchlight when you return from that last frantic burst of shopping on Christmas Eve.

In one sense, nothing very remarkable is happening here, maybe nothing more than the rehearsal of some tribal sensibility, yet in another it is a kind of revelation, a moment’s remembering that we belong, like the other animals, to the earth from which we came and our richest life is in that connection, no matter how commonplace its evidences might seem.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food