The Darkest Month

...So how do we experience these last darkening days? How does the darkness affect us?
Are we simply swept up in holiday business, buying the perfect presents, sending cards and greetings, partying, etc.?
Are there things we do, inside us and out, that honor the profound turning of the seasons?
What does this season offer us and how do we respond?
(John's Question)

This week's Question plunged me into an exploration of seasonal iconography, cob-webbed memories of Christmases of long ago,
and the sorts of silliness an anthropologist is likely to engage with when turned loose. Prime time for Nacirema and Naidanac studies.

HAB Christmas1945
(the author, Christmas 1945)


No other month is so overstuffed with Lore: the mythic, the celebratory, the symbolic—and more elements are added year by year, decade by decade, and the roster of semi-obligatory activities ('traditional') seems boundless: pageantry, enactments, the Manger, the Wise Men (see Amahl and the Night Visitors), shepherds abiding in the fields... and all that Christmas music, most of it cloying, bathetic, sentimental, vacuous... but essential. And Santa and Father Christmas. Trees, wreaths, strings of lights, foods of the Season (Roast Beast, plum pudding, fruit cake...), family gatherings, suet for the birds, wrappings and unwrappings...

It all comes down to sol stice (Latin sistere, 'stopped'), and what seems to be the need, at least in Northern climes, for a strong shove to get the length of daylight to grow again. And it's the month when RETAIL profits are made for the year, hence the 'Black Friday' and other inducements to spending that seemingly arose from nowhere. Well, not exactly. In Philadelphia there was a Wanamaker's Parade from 1920, and the Macy's Parade from 1924, traditional openings for the Season, which became national after the 1946 television coverage. Indeed, the television of our lifetime has been THE medium of dissemination of the Christmas Season as it's now practiced in North America: a panoply of manufactured traditions. Here's a small gallery of Santas and their fellow travelers:

The Dutch Sinter Klaas:

Zwarte Piet has been a fixture of Dutch Christmas celebrations for a very long time.
His role is to punish froward children
"In the bag: the serious adventures of naughty Grietje and Pietje..."

Krampus is an Alpine/Bavarian variant, rewarder of good children and...

...and where should we even begin with Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"?

A Christmas Carol has been with us for 180 years, and is as beloved and obligatory as ever. Scrooge and Tiny Tim are... omnipresent.


Can you imagine the effect of this verse on the 9-year-old me, fascinated by the power of words?

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an' Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

Don't we know archaic barrel
Lullaby Lilla Boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly dont love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker 'n' too-da-loo!
Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloupe, 'lope with you!

Hunky Dorys pop is lolly,
Gaggin' on the wagon, Willy, folly go through!
Chollie's collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarm bung-a-loo!

Dunk us all in bowls of barley,
Hinky dinky dink an' polly voo!
Chilly Filly's name is Chollie,
Chollie Filly's jolly chilly view halloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Double-bubble, toyland trouble! Woof, woof, woof!
Tizzy seas on melon collie!
Dibble-dabble, scribble-scrabble! Goof, goof, goof!

(If this is not familiar, consult Walt Kelly's Pogo)


So so so many invented traditions, of which we might ask: WTF?:

  • Rudolph arrived as a Monkey Ward coloring book in 1939,
    and was turned into the unavoidable song by Gene Autry in 1949.
    A Little Golden book appeared in 1958.
    The first red LED appeared (at GE) in 1962.
    In the 1960s General Electric footed the $4.5 M bill for the stop-motion animation of the tale,
    since 1964 "the longest-running Christmas special"

    (Can you name the A-team of Santa's reindeer? Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen,Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen...)

  • A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

    Sesame Street:

  • Muppet Family Christmas

  • Pink Panther "A Very Pink Christmas"

  • Garfield Christmas Special

  • The Simpsons Christmas

  • The Smurfs' Christmas

  • south park - non offensive non denominational xmas

  • Pee Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special

  • The Grinch and Martha May Whovier Headline Grinchmas at Universal Theme Parks

    How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1957) (NB that The Grinch was conceived as Ted Geisel's alter ego...)

  • Barbie commercials, 2007-2020

  • (and many many more...)

(BEWARE! This may be the Ultimate Earworm!)
I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas (Gayla Peevy, 1953)

and Gayla in 2016:

And this just in: Glad Christmas Comes (Eliza Carthy & Jon Boden) ...and don't miss "Jingle Bells"


Some other stuff to factor in: December Saints Feast Days (the one I already knew of was The Feast of Stephen, December 26 (Boxing Day)
("...beware the snoo lay 'round about, All kerchoo achievin'." ... "snoo? what's snoo?" "not much, what's snoo with you?") )

and for Extra Credit, what gets Boxed on Boxing Day?