Yesterday was the first Sunday of advent and also the first Sunday of the liturgical year. There is a polarity during the last month of the year that has always fascinated me. This is the darkest time of the year and just to make it more dramatic I might add profound or utter darkness. In other words, there is no hope. Imagine how it must have been in Norway a thousand years ago. The only light source would have been a fire, outside or inside. They must have had a longing for better times when the sun offered some warmth and light, and of course the chance to grow food.
I have written about some of the Norse Christmas traditions in connection with Halloween. The Norse Christmas was very similar to Samhain and we actually still have the pagan word for Christmas. The modern word is jul and the Norse word was jól. The vikings celebrated four weeks after winter solstice, and as the Catholic Church had a strategy of using old traditions instead of declaring war on them, this pagan feast became our Christmas. It also had pagan elements for a long time.
No one knows why the vikings celebrated, but it is reasonable to assume that it was a celebration of the sun. From that day the days were getting longer and they also had a spring/fertility celebration around Easter. This was an important rhythm that helped them through the year. We tend to think that pagan means pure evil, drinking blood and sacrificing people. That may have been a part of it, but pagan just means pre-Christian, and the gospel took a thousand years to reach Norway. There are some pagan traditions I wouldn’t mind resuming. The vikings had a big bonfire, just like the one we still have at midsummer, and this was probably one of the biggest social events of the season. The idea of utter darkness and a lot of light is appealing to me. Light never looks better than right now.
My ten year old daughter is also fascinated by light, and she likes winter because then the stars are much more visible, and sometimes we can even see the moon during the day. It makes me more philosophical because I see light and darkness as good and evil as well. Advent is a time for longing, which many people find uncomfortable because we want things to happen right now, but also a time to acknowledge and reflect on the existence of this polarity.
Many people, me included, try not to think about the longing they feel. So they make advent a time for creating noise and distraction. There are a lot of Christmas parties and concerts. We focus on being merry and in the Christmas spirit every day, so much that we forget to think. The stores here in Norway made a big deal out of Black Friday this year and the radio stations even talked a lot about Thanksgiving the day before. Why are we doing this? I have actually heard about people throwing out the Christmas cookies and decoration before Christmas because they are tired of it after a month of being jolly.
I have some longing I am working to fulfill myself. I started this year with one word. I am working on a manuscript that I intend to send to a publisher, so my #One Word 365 was writing. Whoever wrote that probably meant it to be something more altruistic, but that’s presumably why I am not going to complete the manuscript by Christmas. I am well on my way, though, and hope to finish by summer.
The symbolism of Christmas is clear enough. In the midst of darkness, either it is the Roman Empire 2000 years ago or just the short days in Northern Europe today, there is hope. Advent points to the king who is coming.