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.