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January 4, 2005
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December 25, 2004
Weíve reached the first holiday with a history of five previous posts. The Arboretum began late in 1999, way back in the Twentieth Century. That seems like a long time ago now, though five years is not much out of two thousand Christmases, but our lives are shorter than our cultural memory. I was groping to find my way in those early posts, and though clumsily constructed, the one from í99 is notable for containing the closest thing Iíve ever come to an introductory ďwhatís going on hereĒ statement. Itís a bit obscure now, since part of my explanation involved a passing astronomical moment; not a mystic star, but an instance of the full Solstice Moon at perigree, which gave rise to much internet-distributed speculation about just how big the Moon was going to look. In fact, it didnít look any bigger than usual, but I used the intense scrutiny given to an aspect of the natural world that we normally take for granted as a model of the level of attention I meant to bring to my observations in Central Park.
At the time, I promised to look as closely as I could, and to make report of what I found for at least one year. One year having become five, Iíd like to think the project has found some success. Sometimes Iíve strayed from the Park, what with war and disaster, and the mere personal disasters of Life, but Iíve tried never to leave behind the specificity of Natureís phenomena or the guiding voice of the Western Tradition.
In 2000 I presented a photo-essay of some of the more ornamental sights to be found in the Park in Winter; in 2001 it was a poem in praise of evergreen endurance. In 2002 I answered the Cherry riddle of the Spring in the form of a Christmas card, while last yearís card was rather more straightforward, as Iíd had the good fortune to obtain an unusually unobstructed photo of one of our wintering Owls.
I should also note the 2002 post from the twenty-fourth, in which I discussed what itís like to be born (or at least to have a birthday) on Christmas Eve. That coincidence may have something to do with my warm feelings for this season, but as Iíve said, Christmas is our preeminent holiday, however we construe it.
And now itís here again, and what have I to offer?
A cup of cheer, or rather, a bowl.
This yearís card comes out of the old tradition of the Wassail. The Wassail is both a drink and an activity, ancestral to our Christmas caroling. Revelers would wander the countryside with a bowl of intoxicating brew and sing seasonal songs from house to house, in hopes of being invited in to refill the bowl.
The traveling songsters remain a part of our Christmas imagery, but the custom, like much of Christmas, has deeper roots, extending into a pagan past. Originally the songs were sung not to neighbors, but to the trees. In particular the Apple trees, whose cider provided the basis for the wassail itself: the inebriating liquor that kept the singers warm as they went about ďtraveling the mire.Ē The songs were really in the nature of prayers; blessings bestowed on the orchards in order to ensure a bountiful crop for the New Year.
We last saw the Apple on May Day, as the blossoming branch of another seasonal custom. Since then the flowers have come to fruit, and the harvest is in. Pressed into service and pressed into liquid, the cider (with perhaps some fortification) serves as the seasonís sacrament, the blood of the tree as potent as the blood of any god.
So hereís this yearís card: the Wassail Bowl offered around in the spirit of the old songs. The Gower Wassail is a good example, and from it I take my motto, a magical incantation of time and place:
We know by the Moon that we are not too soon;
We know by the Sky that we are not too high;
We know by the Stars that we are not too far;
We know by the Ground that we are within sound
Pinioned between these points of Heaven and Earth, we will find that we are exactly where and when we ought to be.
December 21, 2004
The Solstice is here again, arriving, as always, a few days before Christmas. The Year being a cycle, its beginning could be pegged at any point, and indeed cultures all over the world have chosen a variety of dates. For us, in the long night of the north, the Winter Solstice makes a good starting point. As we slip into survival mode in the interregnum between the harvest and the next sowing season it seems a sensible time to turn the cycle over. Weíve reached the shortest day (or longest night) and though the coldest days may lie ahead itís better to get through them early in the Year, leaving us something to look forward to.
Of course we donít actually call the Solstice by the name of the New Year, nor Christmas for that matter, but itís clear that the three are linked; a trinity at the heart of the Holiday Season. Long before the first Christmas people had taken the measure of the seasons and their days, and found this low point in the Year; extrapolating to the rebirth of Light seems only natural in this darkness, and explains why Christís birthday is fixed in this vicinity even when there is no real historical basis for the date.
So the Solstice, Christmas and New Yearís are all more or less the same Holiday, but itís a multifaceted occasion that bears a triple celebration. The Solstice must have been the original holiday, but now itís New Yearís that approaches a pagan festival, with its parties pushing towards debauchery. The Solstice is mostly a mention on the daily weather forecast, a matter of scientific calculation without much relevance to our day-to-day activities. Christmas maintains the burden of Mystery, though weíve consequently managed to turn it into a celebration of the most secular ideals of our capitalist culture.
For my part, Iíve tried to keep it close to the Earth. The Holiday ameliorates Winter, but Winter is a part of it. On three of the past four years Iíve presented a photo-essay featuring some degree of early snow as a prelude to the season. But in 2001, at least, I took a different tack, and lacking any really spectacular weather at the moment (though it certainly got good and cold yesterday) Iím going to do the same this year.
Because the Solstice isnít just Winter, itís The Holiday. Christmas, New Yearís, whatever you call it, itís clear that thereís a big holiday somewhere in this vicinity. Our biggest. And itís worth finding a legitimate way of celebrating it. One of my main ways of doing it has long been to make a Christmas card, such as I presented on the Solstice in 2001. This year Iíve collected as many of those cards as I could find, going back into the 1980ís, and Iíve archived them on the web.
Thus I humbly present:
The Official Arboretum Christmas Card Garden
This is in the nature of a homemade and slightly used Christmas present to my readership, but I like to think it has some value. The collection includes cards that few will remember, as well as outtakes, alternate versions, extended editions, and a much improved scan of the '01 card.
The Slideshow is the best way to view the gallery: an edited walk through the collection with brief commentary.
A Thumbnail overview is also available.
How many Christmases can you remember?
These are some of mine.
But if youíre wondering about this year, well, youíll just have to waitÖ