Christmas: the light and the dark

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Simon Schama, the British historian, wrote a nice piece in last weekend’s Financial Times about Christmas and Hanukkah.  Some years back, he took heat for daring to comment that the emphasis on lights in Christmas (all those twinkly bulbs on the tree!) and Hanukkah (all those candles!) was just a holdover from the very traditional celebration of light at the Solstice. 

 

 

Hm.  Is there really any doubt about this?

 

 

Anyway: he repeated a very nice Mishnah story I’d never heard.   In it, Adam was very grieved by the onset of the first winter, realizing that he’d caused it himself, and fasted for eight days, right before the Solstice.  When he realized that the days were getting longer again, he rejoiced for eight days.

 

 

Partner asked me about the timings of sunset and sunrise around the Solstice the other day, so I resorted to Wikipedia.  Do you know how many cultures observe the Solstice?  Pretty much all of them.  And it’s always about light, one way or another

 

 

Okay. Now let’s talk about Christmas tragedies.

 

 

This year alone:

 

 

        A house burned down in Stamford, Connecticut, killing five people.

        A man – dressed as Santa, yet – came into an Grapevine, Texas house and shot six family members, and then shot himself.

 

 

Remember the Banda Aceh tidal wave in 2004?

 

 

Remember the 2003 earthquake in Iran?

 

 

Well – what of it?  Bad things happen all the time.  There’s no reason that they shouldn’t happen now.

 

 

Except that they seem especially painful now, this time of year.

 

 

It’s the darkest time of year.  The darkness is winning, and we desperately want to see the light triumphant. When we see bad things happen, it’s as if we can actually feel the struggle between light and darkness.  And we do not want the darkness to win.

 

 

The only exceptional event that I’ve listed above is the man in the Santa suit who killed his family members on Xmas.  It makes you think about the expectations of families on Christmas – the desperate effort to believe that everything will be all right – and that these unrealistic expectations might be enough for make someone snap and kill his family.

 

 

That’s a special kind of madness, especially horrible.  I tried to think about what it would be like to see a family member in a Santa suit come into the room toting a shotgun, and –

 

 

Enough.

 

 

Let the darkness go.  The days are getting longer again.

 

 

As I’ve said once before in this space: hail the Unconquered Sun!

 


 

For Hanukkah: Jewish superheroes

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Speaking as a Gentile, of all the Jewish holidays, I like Hanukkah best.

 

 

Fine, it’s not a High Holiday, it’s an observance.  The gifts are bush-league: chocolate coins, colorful pencils.  Maybe, if you’re lucky, you get a shirt and pants.  But the candles are pretty.  And it’s eight days long.  And who doesn’t like potato pancakes?  Or playing dreidel?

 

 

But I was especially amused to find the above image on Tumblr recently.

 

 

Evidently Ben Grimm – the everlovin’ blue-eyed Thing from Marvel Comics – is Jewish!  

 

 

I love the yarmulke, and the prayer shawl, and most especially the big smile, and most most most especially the fact that this was drawn by classic Marvel artist Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg).


 

I like the idea of Jewish superheroes.  They’re fictional characters right alongside Miss Elizabeth Bennett and Artur Sammler and Genji, so why not?  I looked online, and found that Doc Samson (who’s a sort of semi-Hulk in the Marvel universe) and Volcana (a heroine/villainess in the Marvel world) are both Jewish, as are a few others.  (Evidently the DC universe is non-denominational.  Although I would not be surprised to discover that the Kents brought up Clark as a Methodist.)

 

 

A Kuwaiti Muslim writer named Naif al-Mutawa has, for the past few years, been developing a line of Muslim comics called “The 99.”  The backstory is that a group of Medieval Muslim thinkers / philosophers / clerics harnessed the energy of the 99 names of Allah, but a villain tried to absorb all the power himself; he mostly failed, but the energy of the 99 names went out into the world, and has been absorbed by 99 other people.  One by one they come forward: The Light, The Powerful, The Listener, the Healer, the Destroyer.

 

 

I like this too.

 

 

We still love mythology, don’t we?  And superheroes are the playactors in our modern versions of those miracle stories and myths.  Did you notice, in last summer’s “Thor,” that the title character died to save his friends, and came back to life?   And I seem to recall the very same thing happening in 2006’s “Superman Returns.”  And think of all the angst and cosmic love triangles in the various X-Men stories –

 

 

Enough.

 

 

Cosmic drama and resurrection are terrific things, but sometimes it’s nicer to have candles and potato pancakes and chocolate money.

 

 

Gut yontif, Ben Grimm, wherever you are.

 


 

Popol Vuh

Popol


I love old religious texts.

 

 

I know, I’m a nonbeliever.  So go sit on it.  I love the color and invention that all of earth’s cultures have thrown into the business of figuring the world out, on (admittedly) limited information.

 

 

I have read the Shinto stories about Izanami and Izanagi dancing around the pillar together. And doing it wrong.  And having children that don’t turn out quite right, and putting them in a boat to get rid of them.

 

Epic of Gilgamesh!  Classic.  Lots of running around.  Gilgamesh has a big Incredible-Hulk best friend named Enkidu (they pound on each other for a long time, then decide they like each other), and they go off to defeat the Huwawa.

 

 

I used to own Prichard’s edition of “Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament.)  Both volumes!  Delicious stuff.  (I had to get up just now to make sure I don’t still have them; I can’t believe I was such a fool as to get rid of them.)  I have a dim pleasant memory of a Sumerian text called the Ludlul Bel Nemeqi – “I will praise the lord of wisdom.”  It is a sad gentle psalm to the gods, from someone who’s suffering.  Some things never change, do they?

 

 

The Egyptians had lots of early stories, lots of mythologies.  Too much to put together!  The Osiris-Isis- Horus-Set one is probably the best-represented.  But there’s the Ra story (which I think Isis sort of preempts later), and the Ptah story (not sure why this one didn’t get more play).  Also the wonderful folktales.  “I shall enchant my heart, and shall place in on top of the flower of the cedar . . .”

 

 

But my real favorite is the Popol Vul.

 

 

It is, to translate, “The Book of the Council Mat.”  It is a document written down sometime (perhaps) in the 1600s by a member of the Quiche Maya people of Mexico and Guatemala, detailing many of their origin stories and root myths.

 

 

I wish I knew enough Quiche to read it in the original.  Even in English it’s fascinating.  It has characters with names like Xpiyacoq and Xbalanque and Xmucane and Ixquiq.  People are always playing ball games, and eating other people’s hearts, and getting pregnant by eating special gourds, and sleeping in the House of Knives. 

 

 

And then, strangely, even after all of the fighting and chopping up bodies, the main characters rise into the sky, and become the sun and moon and the evening star.

 

 

Now that’s creative.


 

 

I am Loki, the Troublemaker

Loki


I have already posited that I am the earthly avatar of Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles.

 

 

Having gone this far into blasphemy, why should I stop there?

 

 

Maybe I am also Loki. You know: the trickster. The killer of Balder The fellow who caused Ragnarok.

 

 

Like him, I am perverse. I enjoy stirring up dissention and trouble. Even as a kid! I told my barber that my poor sister Susan, who had to drag me there and sit with me until I got my haircut, that she had “fat hams and a big butt.”

 

 

Now where did that come from? A flash of divine inspiration, obviously.

 

 

I love telling people the endings of books and movies, as I’ve documented before.

 

 

Sometimes – and this is really horrible – reading bad news makes me feel good. Go ahead, I think. Make it worse. Make it really nasty.

 

 

I dunno. Maybe this is positive, in some way, or some manifestation of some deep counterintuitive force in the universe, like antigravity, or dark energy.

 

 

Or maybe it means that entropy is working on the human level too, and that we’re all anxious to work downward, back down into the mud, until we’ve burnt ourselves out completely.

 

 

Or maybe I’m just mentally ill.

 

 

At the end of “Das Rheingold,” one of the last things that Loge (Loki) sings – after having helped Wotan trick Alberich out of the Ring, which soon turns out not to be the smartest thing Wotan might have done – is:

 

 

Bedenken, will ich’s;

Wer weiss, was ich thu’!

 

 

“I’ll think about it – who knows what I’ll do?”

 

 

I repeat those words to myself every day, gloatingly.

 

 

Who knows what I’ll do?

 


 

I am Ganesha, the remover of obstacles

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Kids love to play superhero games, like: If you were a superhero, who would you be?

 

 

Well, speaking for myself, I wouldn’t want to be any of them.  They have to wear tights and capes and things and fly around and save people.  What a nuisance!.  It would be more fun, I think, to be maybe an Egyptian or Indian or Chinese deity: you’d get to wear a lot of jewelry, in addition to dancing and playing the flute and riding your peacock and smiting people.

 

 

So let’s rephrase the question: If you were a mythological character – any mythological character – who would you be?

 

 

No question for me. I would be Ganesha.

 

 

Dear elephant-headed Ganesha, the Lord of Beginnings and Remover of Obstacles.

 

 

I remember when I was in grade school, I couldn’t open my locker. I was in tears. Mister Glass, the tall crewcutted threatening-looking assistant principal, approached me, asked me in clipped tones for my combination, and in short order opened my locker for me, while I watched, slack-jawed.

 

 

But apparently, he passed some magical power to me. And, ever since, I’ve found that I can pull off the same trick.

 

 

Can’t open a package? Just let me! Door sticking? Doesn’t stick when I open it! Computer isn’t acting right? Gee, it’s fine when I use it!

 

 

It is little short of miraculous. Correction: I am little short of miraculous.

 

 

The other day at work, a co-worker came to see if I had the key to a locked closet. “No,” I said. “That’s padlocked, and they never gave me the key for it. But you never know.”

 

 

I rose from my desk, secure in my power, and glided down the hallway, with him (awestruck) in my wake. We got to the closet, and I touched the padlock –

 

 

And it lifted away. It wasn’t even locked.

 

 

I am Ganesha, the remover of obstacles.

 

 

Pray to me at the beginning of your endeavors, and I will bless them.

 

 

I am also partial to sweets, so the occasional box of chocolates, or even a Snickers bar, couldn’t hurt.

 


 

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