Monday, December 1, 2008
Britt Recommends: December
Working at a bookstore is fun, because people ask me to recommend books, and usually, unless we're in the mystery/thriller section and they've already read "In The Woods", I can come up with a good one.
Here's my good one for December. If you're a fantasy reader, you must read this one. Even if you don't read fantasy, I recommend it. I discovered it when I was, hmmm, maybe 15. I didn't read alot of fantasy back then. But this one swept me away.
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. It's the Arthurian legend (think Guinevere and Lancelot and Camelot) retold from a female perspective. Traditionally, Morgan Le Fay has been a figure of evil, a wicked sorceress. I remember being shocked to see her so misaligned in that arthurian movie with Sam Neil as Merlin in it. Bradley's Morgan Le Fay (or Morgaine, in this book) was the first encounter I had with the figure, and in Mists of Avalon she is our protagonist, a woman trying to navigate her way through a turbulent time in history, when Christianity and the Romans were invading the British Isles.
It's a long book, and somehow reading about misty forests and ancient pagan rites and warrior women and men and great romance seems to be the perfect sort of book for December. A wonderful cosy up before the fire and immerse yourself kind of book. In my mind, Christmas and December are inextricably linked with Celtic religions and rites, and I have my parents to blame for this. They raised me on equal parts traditional Christmas hymns and songs with pagan origins, written to drive the dark away. Songs and 'Christmas' albums that recognize winter as a time to take notice of the cycles of death and rebirth, a time to find quiet and solitude in your soul; a time to be still, as the earth is still.We celebrate Jesus' birth in winter, a time when everything else is dying, and this sounds confusing at first, but is pretty neat symbolically, when you think about it. Jesus is, of course, the light in the darkness.
But I think, ironically, this terrible pagan music my parents played in my childhood, thereby unknowingly instilling in me a secret desire to dance with fir boughs and burn a yule log and eat a boar's head and wassail and recognize the solstice only deepens my understanding of the Christian meaning of Christmas. I mean, Christmas has been tied in with the old solstice celebrations since it's origin, and it's silly not to recognize this. And when you do, you start to understand about winter. About the symbolism of spiritual death to create new life. That we need the dark, as much as we need to drive it away. That dark is not synonymous with evil. That darkness can mean death, but the darkness of winter also reminds us to be quiet, and find stillness, and solitude, and reflection, and that is all necessary for spiritual rebirth and renewal.
Which, I think, is why some people tend to get sad around the holidays. Here is the earth, the cycle of life reminding us to take a time to be quiet within ourselves, and yet we spend the whole season bustling about, overstimulating ourselves with shopping and crowds and florescent lights at Wal-mart and long lines and nowhere to park at the mall and sometimes we stop to think: why do we put ourselves through this? But then we park and get out of the car and shop, because it's Christmas, damnit! And at Christmas we give gifts and drink a cup of cheer and we all act very jolly and carry on and on. And lord knows I am glad you do it, mom and dad. Because I do love getting those gifts so very much.
So. I leave you with these lines, from my favorite Pago-Christian cd, The Christmas Revels:
So the shortest day came.
And the year died.
And everywhere, down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people, singing! Dancing! To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees
They hung their homes with evergreen
They burned beseeching fires all night long to keep the year alive.
And when the new day's sunshine blazed awake, they shouted,
Reveling! Through all across the ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us.
All the long echoes sing the same delight this shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land
They carol, feast, give thanks, and dearly love their friends
And hope for peace.
And so do we
here now, this year and every year
And this, Fra Giovanni's lines, 1513 AD:
I salute you.
There is nothing I can give you which you have not.
But there is much that while I cannot give, you can take.
No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today.
No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant.
The bloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy
And so at this Christmastime I greet you with the prayer
That for you
now and forever
the day breaks
and the shadows flee away.