Category Archives: Religion

Season’s Greetings

A crèche in Michigan, where I lived as a child. (Source: Medusa’s Kitchen

My father was born on 17 December 1907 at his family’s farm in Veselava, which is in the Cēsis district of Latvia. There, no doubt, was a stable and the requisite assortment of domesticated animals, but he, unlike Jesus, whose birthday supposedly occurs a week later, came into the world in a well-appointed house, complete with servants. Which is just as well since it’s freezing cold—not to mention snowy—at that time of year and my father might not have made it. So, as an immigrant growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the weather is similar, I cringed each time that I saw a nativity scene with a nearly naked babe asleep on a bed of straw. My father, who’d studied theology at the University of Latvia in Rīga, cautioned me not to take things in the New Testament too literally since it had been written nearly 20 centuries ago. Still, I felt far better once, decades later, I later learned that even scholars who limit themselves to what’s found in the Bible doubt that the blessed event occurred anytime close to Christmas. Particularly since I learned that neonatal hypothermia can set in anywhere below 77.0 to 82.4° F. As in Bethlehem, where December averages range between 57 and 47.

Separating “Christ” from “Christmas” came easily to me. After all, the Latvian word for “Christmas” is simply “Ziemassvētki,” which merely means “winter celebrations.” As such, it is as much about the winter solstice, the day with the longest night, as it is about a miraculous birth, which was a relatively late add-on. As my mother, a city girl, told me and I later fictionalized in my novel Anna Noon:

Christmas Eve in Rīga started in Dom Square. First with a Lutheran service at the Dom Cathedral, then with a stroll home in softly falling snow, amid carolers lifting their voices in equal measure to Christian and pagan songs and merrymakers cavorting as gypsies, storks and dancing bears. In my fifth-floor flat on Elizabeth Street the tree was bright with white wax candles, not the garish incandescent bulbs used here. My presents opened by starlight, not the glare of the morning sun as is done here.

Moreover, the separation was seen from the start. While solstice celebrations go back at least to neolithic times—10,200 to 8800 BC—the first recorded Christmas celebration occurred in Rome in 336 AD. In fact, some say that Saturnalia, which initially coincided with my father’s birthday and honored Saturn, the Roman god whose reign was seen as a time of peace and prosperity, served as a model for the first Christmas. There are certainly similarities. Saturbalia was celebrated by “a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying and a carnival atmosphere that overturned social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves.” It, like most winter solstice celebrations, was a festival of lights, with candles symbolizing the quest for knowledge and truth. No wonder the poet Catullus called it “the best of days.” Nevertheless, Christmas turned out to be an off-and-on affair. The Puritans, for instance, banned it in the 17th century, citing drunk and disorderly conduct. Revived in the 19th century with the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church, it remained disreputable. The family oriented occasion that we have come to know, according to some, is mainly the invention of Charles Dickens and other writers.

But both winter solstice celebrations and Christmas are not only about “the best of days” but also about the worst of days, and therein lies their true meaning. As sung in “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight.” The reason that December celebrations tend to be glutenous and raucous is that the period from January to April was once known as “the famine months.” Animals were slaughtered so they wouldn’t have to be fed, therefore a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available. Moreover, wine and beer had been fermenting since the harvest and were ready for drinking. For those with meager resources, however, the struggle for survival could be brutal. The middle-aged black man who I saw daily after moving to Boston in the Seventies who had set up a tent made of rags in a space on the street by a curb cleared of snow to provide access to a fire hydrant. And the other 554,000 people reported to be homeless in the United States alone on a given night. The mothers and fathers with one-month old infants, the same age that I was when we were forced to flee our native land. And the other 68.5 million people worldwide today who, according to the latest report, have been forcibly displaced in the worst refugee crisis since the one we experienced after World War II. All cold and hungry and far from home. Like my family and I were once. And—if only symbolically—like Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus.

‘Tis the season for all those sorts of things.

Note: Each year around this time I give a gift of winter supplies for refugees through the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian aid, relief and development organization founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein. Would be wonderful if you could do so, as well.

 

A family friendly winter solstice celebration hosted by The Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia, located just outside of the capital city Rīga.

Jingle Bells,” played in 2017 by some children living at the Aida Palestinian refugee camp near Bethlehem and Beit Jala in the central West Bank.

My Cousin in England

My cousin Juris Jurģis (second from left) with his wife Enid (far left), his son Andreis (the bridegroom) and his daughter Anna (second from right).

My cousin in England died this December. I hope that he went to Heaven, a place that I assume was more real to him than it is to me. I had always wanted to ask him if that was so. To discuss religion, both seriously and satirically, as I had with my father, with whom he had always been great friends. Both had studied theology in college—my father at the University of Latvia, my cousin at Oxford University—and both were not only spiritual but also worldly and literate. And had a great sense of humor. Only somehow I never got around to it, and now it is too late. And I am so sorry but, nevertheless, know that this is how it often seems to go with many other displaced people.

You see, much of my family was displaced in 1944, when the Soviet Army occupied Latvia for the second time. I was only about one month old and Juris only about 17 years old. But while I had my parents and maternal grandmother with me, Juris was on his own. Eventually, my family and I ended up in the United States and Juris ended up in England, reunited with my father’s sister Līdija. By the time that my parents, my then husband and I visited Juris in 1973, he was a Latvian minister living with his new family in a pleasant parish house in Leicester and the recently widowed Līda, a retired dentist, was living in London. And proud that at age 70 she had not only given up smoking (“Joost une leetle poof,” she said, stealing my cigarette) but also learned how to cook (“Joost like chemistry, no?”).

Of course, I was aware of Juris well before then. His work with the Latvian church took him to the States. And before that, there were the stories. The first one that I remember—no doubt increasingly embellished—went something like this: Juris arrived in England as a young man and worked digging ditches. One scorching day while he was shirtless—all that manual labor and those food shortages had given him a chiseled physique—an elegant lady driving, say, a Bentley pulled over and asked if he might like to relax a bit and partake of some refreshment. That certainly seemed preferable to what he was doing, so he readily agreed. Once situated on a sofa in her palatial manor house, he was able to recover enough to wander over to the grand piano. “Do you know what this is?” the lady asked. Whereupon Juris sat down, raised the keyboard cover and played, say, the start of Schumann’s last sonata. And then politely took his leave.

Our visit produced equally memorable stories. One involved an actual Bentley. We were at Līda’s house. After the roast beef—which, incidentally, slid to the kitchen floor on its way to the serving platter, no one but Līda, my mother and me being any the wiser—the vodka came out. And well after that, my then husband and I decided to accompany another of my relatives, a striking woman of a certain age who, as a beautiful young refugee working at the Harrods cosmetics counter, met a famous British comedian whose name I can no longer recall. So, in the dead of night, we lay back in her luxurious car as she drove with the sort of speed and skill that was remarkable even for one less inebriated the 80 some miles to Broadstairs, where she and the entertainer shared a house high on the chalk cliffs above the sea.

The plan was for Juris to arrive the next day with my parents and changes of clothes. Five of us would then return to London, where he had procured tickets for a performance of The Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House. Which would have worked well had he also owned a Bentley, not something befitting an immigrant minister. Which was not only particularly small but also poorly maintained. And broke down somewhere along the M2. So we had to hitch a ride with a stranger, board a painfully slow train, transfer to the Tube and trek past countless Covent Garden produce carts at  to reach our seats. All with my mother and me in high heels and long gowns.

That was how the visit with him mainly went, with an emphasis on the arts over religion, not to mention good food and drink and lots of laugher. Juris set the tone by saying that we would be fools to waste a sunny Sunday sitting inside listening to his sermon. So, instead, he dropped us off at Ann Hathaway’s cottage, where we enjoyed the delphinia, hollyhocks and dahlias in the extensive gardens and got our fill of Shakespearean lore. He also took us to his beloved Oxford—before or after that, I do not know—where we got an insider’s look at the libraries, living quarters and dining halls and then joined tourists and townspeople for a pint or two in various public houses.

He did manage to fit in a trip to Coventry Cathedral. Since I was never one for touring famous churches and, in fact, often felt apologetic for interfering with those there to pray, my expectations were low. I was not prepared for the stark juxtaposition of the old and the new. As we walked from the roofless remains of the old church, which had been bombed during World War II and wisely left unrestored, to the the new building, constructed of the same sandstone, I experienced a surprising reconciliation of my own war-torn past with my incongruent present. And as we entered, I was not only astounded at how much I was moved by the modern architecture and art but also by the sheer scale of it all. I wandered around in a daze, feeling that I had suddenly become nothing more than an insignificant speck in a vast, mysterious universe. And that this was incredibly comforting.

Remembering how I felt, I now wonder whether the talk that I had hoped to have with Juris had not actually occurred on that day.

For more on Juris, see my essay “Reconsidering Sentiment.”