The sun reached its highest point in the noonday sky yesterday. We’re entering the hottest season of the year. Wildfires have scorched vast sweeps of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida… More than 600 fires blaze across northern Alberta, incinerating some 7,000 square kilometres. Tornadoes tear through the American Midwest.
It doesn’t feel much like Christmas, does it?
But if you lived in the southern hemisphere, that’s the kind of hot weather you expect over Christmas. They’re hardly thinking about sleighbells and dashing through the snow.
Viewed from Down Under, it becomes obvious that some of our religious festivals rely more on cultural and pagan roots than religious ones. Wicca, for instance, celebrated eight seasonal festivals – the summer and winter solstices, spring and autumn equinoxes, and the halfway points between.
Here in the northern hemisphere, Christmas and Easter coincide fairly closely with the winter solstice and the spring equinox. So we sing,
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan;
Earth was hard as iron, water like a stone.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow…
That kind of carol makes no sense at all in Australia. Nor do most of the secular songs we associate with Christmas: Jingle Bells, Frosty, White Christmas….
Similarly, the symbolism of Easter relies on spring. We visualize the Resurrection in terms of plants returning to life, baby bunnies frolicking, sunlight restored…
But south of the equator, Easter comes as leaves fall off the trees, flowers wither, and bunnies are considered a pest.
The timing of Easter at least has some historical validity. It relates to the Jewish Passover, which follows the March equinox. But nothing in the biblical record states that Jesus was born December 25.
Some churches insist that it couldn’t have been December, because shepherds were still out in the fields. Traditionally, we’re told, shepherds bring their flocks in by mid-October, before cold weather strikes.
But even that argument presupposes icy northern winters. Bethlehem can indeed have frost in winter, but Christmas is often balmy by Canadian standards – mid-70s in Fahrenheit, 20-plus in Celsius.
For generations, southern churches meekly followed the practices of their northern cousins. They imported evergreen Christmas trees by the freighter-load. They decorated those trees with fake snow and icicles. They dressed in Santa suits, lit candles for long dark nights, and jingled sleighbells.
More recently, though, they’ve begun developing their own more seasonally appropriate customs. Here’s a recent carol:
Carol our Christmas, an upside down Christmas; The snow is not falling and trees are not bare. Carol the summer, and welcome the Christ Child,
Warm in our sunshine and sweetness of air.
Another carol puts new words to a familiar tune:
O little town of Bethlehem, the Southern Cross looks down, As once a star shone bright and clear above an Eastern town, Oh come sweet Jesus, come to us, New Zealand’s shores are warm, And here are loving hearts enough
To shield you from the storm.
Perhaps paying attention to the experience of folks down under might help us sift the truly religious elements of our festivals from the secular accretions.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author of 17 books and several thousand magazine and newspaper articles. He welcomes comments; firstname.lastname@example.org.