Bringing Light Into Darkness: The Christmas Tradition of Light, Charity and Fun
Traditionally Christmas began as a way to bring light into darkness, to use ritual to provide a sense of warmth and plenty in a period that was otherwise cold and sparse. Pulling together around a burning hearth and celebrating was, at its very base, a way of maintaining a sense of warmth and wellness, of warding off the doldrums that a long, cold winter could bring. Though often referred to as having pagan roots, the human needs that Christmas addresses attest to the psychological and emotional sensitivity of older cultures and their understanding of the benefits of ritual, celebration and community. In the absence of light from the sun, people found a way to come together and generate another kind of light, a light of the spirit.
So what are the salient components of this kind of ritual that we can not only celebrate during the holidays, but learn to bring into our lives throughout the rest of the year? From a modern perspective, the holidays provide the psychological lift gained from resourcing within the community and affirming a positive sense of connection. Of huddling together for warmth both for the body and the spirit.
In our modern era we put great emphasis on self examination and reflection as a way of dealing with emotional problems but a look at how the druids might have dealt with basically these same issues reminds us that community, attitude, ritual and creating positive circumstances amid challenging ones, can have a powerful impact on how we feel. Ronald Hutton an historian at Bristol University in the United Kingdom. He suggests there are three themes running through these holidays, those of light, charity and fun and that each one of these has very practical roots. So let’s take them one by one.
On the practical side Christmas dates from a time of year when days were shorter and darker and when food was rationed so that it would last all the way through a long winter. The darkness frankly got to people as would have the lack of easy mobility and the nourishment and comfort of food. The festival says Hutton, “depends on certain basic human needs. One is the obvious: for light, warmth, greenery and merrymaking in the darkest, coldest and most dismal time of the year.” Christmas is an excuse to light candles, gather around a blazing and equally importantly, warm fire. Long before the Christmas tree it was in vogue “holy and ivy”was brought indoors as decoration and a reminder of the plush greenery that surrounds us when the sun shines longer. And the word “gather” is of particular importance throughout all of these themes, Christmas is synonymous with community and having meaningful relationships, according to current research, helps us do everything from reduce disease to live a longer life.
And then there is the need for extra charity for those less fortunate. In medieval times this charity was designed to help those in need to survive the long winter. For them, watching others feast and celebrate while their bellies were empty would have been painful. And for those enjoying plenty it wouldn’t have wise given that people lived year round in close proximity, helping your neighbor was better for the health of the whole community. And there are other benefits to charity recognized intuitively in medieval times that have also been borne out by modern day research.
“Our findings”, says Donald Moynihan lead researcher, “make a simple but profound point about altruism: Helping others makes us happier. Altruism is not a form of martyrdom, but operates for many as part of a healthy psychological reward system.” Reflecting on being generous one study finds, makes us want to keep a cycle of generosity going because we feel better about ourselves when seeing ourselves in this light.”
Another review of 40 studies on the effect of volunteering on overall health and well being was published in the journal BMC Public Health. It found that volunteering extends beyond making us feel good about ourselves and our lives, it is also linked with decreased depression and a lower risk of dying early.
“From the time that evidence survives,” continues Hutton, “midwinter was a great time for the giving of food, drink or money to the less fortunate. In the Middle Ages people known as hogglers or hognels in each parish would often volunteer to collect and distribute them. In addition, poor women and children would go from door to door asking for such gifts, a custom known, according to your region, as Thomasing, gooding or mumping. The fitter men from the poorer families would visit their wealthier neighbors with plays, dances or songs, and earn the goodies in return; that is why customs such as mummers’ plays, sword dances and carols are so important at this time.” Now we see a picture of a celebration with true personal and social roots taking shape.
Hutton further describes the winter as a time when thieves and robbers stayed home and law abiding family folk could relax and renew their energy in relative peace, they could do what I, as a born Minnesotan, like to think of hibernating and recharging my batteries. But as a psychodramatist who uses role play as a form of healing his next point is of particular interest to me. As part of the gaming and relief that winter brought, “masters and mistresses could pretend to be servants, the greatest churchmen give up their places to the most humble, and schoolteachers do the will of their pupils. It is traditionally the time of the Lord of Misrule, the Boy Bishop and the Feast of Fools. In our more democratic age, there is less need for such role-reversals …None the less, the paper crowns and silly jokes in the crackers are a modern reminder that it is the festival in which to stop taking the world so seriously.”
J.L. Moreno, father of psychodrama used this principal in all of his work. When hired to improve hospital staff dynamics for example, he had the workers reverse roles for a short time with each other. Nurses became janitors, doctors nurses and so forth. He was not only doing the obvious thing of creating empathy but also, by playing roles one didn’t normally play, providing what is known in our trade as “role relief”. Vacations do this, tired moms get to feel pampered and reminded that they do, in fact have their own likes and dislikes, their own personalities. Worn out professionals leave their work behind for a week and get up to other things.
The millennials seem to have intuitively addressed this in the ease with which men now do household or childcare tasks and women bring home the bacon. Theoretically according to role play theory, this should enhance a sense of spontaneity and creativity that will generalize to other roles as well as enhancing mental, emotional and behavioral flexibility. Expanding our “repertoire of roles” is central to our emotional health says Moreno. Moving in and out of roles gives people a feeling of not being stuck, of feeling energized and “relieved” of the burden of rote behavior.
So this holiday season take on a new role, try on behaviors that are different or if you’re really adventurous, reverse roles for a few moments and see what comes out of it. And make a toast to those you love and tell them why you love them, say a prayer of praise and appreciation with your families, sing songs, play and affirm the joys not only of the season, but of the sustaining beauty of family, friends and community.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on December 17, 2017.