Sift the clutter of this festival season in the northern hemisphere, and a few things do answer the test of longevity. They are elements recognized – claimed and treasured – by many of our global neighbors. At some primal level it turns out, we do yet share ancient impulses, perhaps unawares, with kin distant to us in time and zipcode.
Take for example the midnight mass on Christmas Eve, or, among benighted Scandinavians, a pre-dawn winter gathering called ‘Julotta’. These are vestiges of a much more ancient, almost universal practice of all-night vigil (common in the West among student slackers, not on the eve of festival, but on the verge of exams, and certain monastic orders do preserve vigils as a spiritual discipline). But across the landscape of traditional societies, entire communities gather at fireside to stand off with wakefulness the prolonged hours of shadow: the night of powerlessness, of misfortune, and long odds. There, stories unspool of visitation and hope, of promise and heroic deliverance. Strength flows from the flicker of firelight on familiar faces, from shared warmth, from the murmur of voices, and the smoke of these fires rise like incense to heaven, bonding the living to the Beyond of dearest dreams, and to earliest kin who huddled for strength and hope by just such woodfires in the endless struggle to survive.
Linger by these festival fires and someone will produce refreshment to sustain the vigil, to fortify and sweeten hope. An India childhood is redolent of masala chai, reserved among the poor for seasons of heightened expectation and mystery: the aromas of ginger, cardamom, clove and cinnamon, the copious milk and sugar a reward for those who tunnel across the darkness defying distraction and drowsiness. Drunk from piping brass bowls held at fingertip, the tea is sipped with a mighty gusto even as it is passed from one to another. Others produce dainty rice pastries whose spice and raw sugar appear only after generous harvest.
And while the spicy draft works its way, the music begins: at best, minor key melodies that wander the cultural deep, the bhajans of south Asia, or traditional anthems of sub-Sahara Africa, when throbbing drums add the invitation to dance even as infants sleep cradled in the sand or in the arms of kin.
It is a heady mixture, this festival scene; a circle of light and warmth carved out of winter darkness, of song and story that bear the spirit aloft announcing that the shadows, however inky, cannot say the last word. And pausing to ponder these embers of the past, humble features of our own season, sets to thrumming the deepest self, carrying us into the mystery of human experience, its beauty and its unbearable longing.