Monday, 15 December 2014

The True Meaning of Hogswatch

"The white boar lay on its side in the snow, which was now red with its blood. One eye stared at nothing. The tongue lolled. A breeze blew up. Something stirred in the landscape. Something under the snow. The branches of the ancient trees shook gently, dislodging little needles of ice.
The sun rose.
The light streamed over the landscape like a silent gale. It was dazzling. The great red ball turned the frost to fire along the winter branches. Gold light slammed into the mountain peaks, making every one a blinding, silent volcano. It rolled onward, gushing into valleys, and thundering up the slopes, unstoppable.
There was a groan.
A man lay on the snow where the boar had been. He was naked except for an animal-skin loincloth. His hair was long and had been woven into a thick plait down his neck, so matted with blood and grease it looked like felt. The man was tattooed. Blue whorls and spirals haunted his skin. The snow glowed orange from the newly risen sun.
The tattooed man made a gurgling sound, clutching at his throat, choking. His breath sounded like a saw. The man coughed and something bounced off a tree and landed in the snow. It was a black bean.
A bird trilled, high on a branch. A wren bobbed and fluttered to another twig.
The man was different. He had heavy furs now, with a fur hood, and fur boots. He was supporting himself on a stone-tipped spear. Something hurried through the wood, barely visible except by its shadow. It was a white hare.
Now the furs had gone and the man looked much older, although he still had the same eyes. The furs were replaced by long green robes, and he looked very much like a priest.
A little way off, four huge boars stood and steamed in front of a sledge put together from crudely trimmed trees. The Hogfather climbed aboard and sat down, he’d put on weight in the last few years and it was impossible to see anything other than the huge, red-robed man.
The idea of the Hogfather wearing red and white was a recent invention, it was believed. But, perhaps, it had also been remembered.
The figure hadn’t changed like the turning of pages in a book. All the images were there at once, and many others too. What you saw depended on how you looked."

I love the work of Terry Pratchett and his novel Hogfather in its own gentle, humorous way, asks very serious questions and makes some very serious points about beliefs, about imagination and about ritual.  We see the Wizards maintaining a beloved tradition without knowing exactly why or what it meant, trying to ascribe some meaning.  But still they uphold it. And then we see Death and his servant, Albert – who took over, temporarily from the Hogfather to deliver all the presents – bickering about real and unreal meaning of Christmas, I mean Hogswatch, ermm Christmas. Finally, the Hogfather, the Discworld’s version of Father Christmas, is reborn and we see that he is many figures at once.

Every year the more conservative Christians get their knickers in a twist over the so-called “War on Christmas”. Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury recently complained about the growth of “Winterval” and secularisation of Christmas - mind you he also spoke out against the overt commercialism which now surrounds Christmas, so he can’t be that bad? In the U.S., the Televangelist Pat Robinson spoke of a plot against Christmas: “Atheists don’t like our happiness, they don’t want you to be happy, they want you to be miserable. They’re miserable because they hate God. They’re miserable so they want you to be miserable.”  And, each year groups like “Christian Voice” publish a “naughty or nice” list. Companies who use Merry Christmas in their advertisements and holiday displays are on the nice list. If staff greet customers with the innocuous “Happy Holidays,” the company makes the naughty list. Groups like this claim they are winning the “ moral war on Christmas.” A war that they see as a secular attack on Christ and Christianity as the moral underpinning of our society – but were we ever a Christian country?

What people like Lord Carey and Christian Voice fail to see, fail to admit, is that Christmas, like so many of our beloved rituals and traditions, have many, and varied, origins, which we as religious liberals can see “not like the turning of a page,” but “all the images were there at once, and many others too.” As Pratchett points out, the “true” meaning of Christmas has changed in each generation, just as it’s personification has evolved – from the hunted white boar, a human sacrifice, the King of the Bean, the God of Plenty. In the Discworld Universe Gods are created through belief, they are created by people to fulfill a particular need. And believers get the God they want or need or deserve. And, you know, in the real world too, I think we create our own Gods or Goddesses too. To give some shape, meaning to life. To explain and express the unexplainable and inexpressible; we use ritual to give shape and meaning to the special and the commonplace. The Discworld Pantheon includes the small gods, the household gods, the local genii, such as Bilious the “Oh God” of hangovers. Why the “Oh God” rather than “God” of Hangovers?  His believers, if they can be called as such, are the people who wake up after a night's drinking and moan "oh god..." I know I’m an adherent of his! Anoia the Goddess of things stuck in kitchen drawers, whose offerings are potato peelers and egg whisks. She is praised by rattling a drawer and crying "How can it close on the damned thing but not open with it? Who bought this? Do we ever use it?" As she says, sooner or later every curse is a prayer. She also eats corkscrews and is responsible for Things Down The Backs of Sofas, and is considering moving into stuck zips. These deities are there not only for comedic effect – they remind us how the divine, how spiritual matters and rituals permeate human life: God is not shut out from any aspect of human life. Something, which the incarnation theology of Christmas reminds us of, too - the divine enfleshed, God revealed through every face in ever place and time. 

Whilst we Unitarians know that figures such as Father Christmas are mythic, just as in Pratchett’s universe, conflations of various myths and traditions and not “really real” we can still learn from them and be nourished by them spiritually and emotionally. Pratchett says, through the character of Death, that we need “need fantasies to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.” We “need to believe, to believe in things... How else can they become?”

We need the Christmas celebration, its varied origins, rituals and traditions, to remind us how deeply we believe in hope, especially hope symbolized by the birth of a baby; how deeply etched in our bones is a communion with the workings of the earth; how fundamental is our need for festivity, ritual and ceremony; how universal are humanity's spiritual yearnings no matter how varied their form.

But we need more. We need to assign meaning to this blessed reality in which we live, and so we depend uponprophets of the human spirit, like Jesus of Nazareth, to help us understand the miracle of life, our mutual responsibilities, and our finite role in an infinite cosmic drama. The birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago reminds us that every birth is a miracle, it reminds us of the dazzling complexity and fragility of human life and how each and everyone of us are unique, beloved of God and can change the world.

Christmas is a time to contemplate the hope of a newborn child, and express gratitude for the return of the sun. When there is pain and despair, Christmas can remind us that light and hope do return; we are never parted from the light. There has never been a moment in time when we have not been held in the light, in the love of Go(o)d. That truth is worth celebrating whether we say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” It is a truth, I am thankful for and find worth celebrating this winter season.

May each and every one of us open our hearts and minds to wonder of new life, the wonder of the divine, and to the song of the Angels, and in this coming New Year’s resolutions set ourselves the task of welcome:  rather than being a busy Inn with no room, but with the doors of our hearts flung wide open, to welcome all as Holy Guests.

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