United by a fear of darkness

Spirit of the Age
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A COUPLE of years ago, an enormous superstore in the Japanese city of Osaka decided to adopt a Western seasonal motif to draw in customers. On its facade it erected a five-storey high Christmas scene. At the top was a giant star of Bethlehem. Beneath were angels and then shepherds. And in the stable at the bottom was a huge Santa Claus, crucified on a cross.

It's not only the Japanese who have their wires crossed when it comes to seasonal lighting. I am not talking about this year's Oxford Street abominations, courtesy of those most festive products, Bird's Eye and Tango (fishfingers and fizzy orange - now there's a Christmas dinner to conjure with). No, I am thinking of the various festivals of light around this time of year.

We have had Diwali, in which Hindus light small earthenware lamps filled with oil, traditionally in commemoration of the god Rama. We are well into Advent, when Christians maintain "the people who have walked in darkness" will see a great light when the Christ child is born. And today Jews will light the seventh of eight candles marking the festival of Hanukkah to mark the miracle of a single day's supply of oil burning in the temple for eight days.

There is something atavistically moral about our attitude to light and darkness. Light is wholesome, open, comprehensible; darkness is unknowable, inexplicit and dangerous. No wonder that we want to burn candles to pierce the darkness, particularly at this dreary time of year.

"We share pagan fears about the darkness and dress them up in our own theological garb," says Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, author of The Explorer's Guide to Judaism. "They go back to the sheer dread of that totally dark world in days before electric light." All the more alarming to our ancestors, then, when their great natural light seemed to diminish in the days up to the winter solstice. The Romans confidently called it natalis solis invicti (the birthday of the unconquered sun). But older religions believed the orb would wane indefinitely if they did not chant to bring about its rebirth - something some people still do, according to Steve Paine, a witch and spokesman for the Pagan Federation, the members of which celebrate the solstice by lighting a Yule log or - in the case of more modern pagans who do not own a hearth - by "drilling holes in a log and putting candles in it".

Martin Palmer chuckles discreetly at the thought. "Much of what we think of as pagan was invented by antiquarians in the 17th century," says Palmer, who is director of the multi-faith International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture. "Anyway, there's nothing quintessentially religious about partying in the dark. It's a common-sense strategy for getting through the long dismal winter. It's what the different religions add on that's interesting."

Or what has been altered or adapted in recent times. Take Diwali, which once centred around one of the great cosmic struggles between good and evil, in which the god Rama defeated the demon Ravana. "In recent years the emphasis has shifted from Rama to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth," says Palmer. "New Year festivities have also been added, comparatively late, which have nothing to do with the light and darkness motif."

There have also been changes in Hanukkah. What was originally a minor festival, says Magonet, has grown, most particularly in Christian countries, to become a Jewish competitor to Christmas. Some kids get presents on every one of the eight days in a kind of one-upmanship and some families even call their Christmas tree a Hanukkah bush.

There has been a similar shift in the Christmas story. There was a subtle ambiguity in the package as the Church designed it. The liturgy of Advent speaks as much about preparing for the four last things - death, judgement, heaven and hell - as it does about the coming of God made flesh. Wise men bring gifts but also prompt death squads and the slaughter of the innocents. The day after Nativity is the Feast of St Stephen, the first martyr, recalling the cost of the love the child brings.

"But today our society does not tell that story," says Palmer. Increasingly we tell a sanitised version, or just the story of Santa Claus. "There is none of the ambiguity of real life in the secular Christmas: you either accept it or reject it and say `I just work over Christmas' or `We take a cottage in Wales and ignore it all'. Something fundamental is being lost - and from all the faiths."

In part Palmer blames schools. The early response to the need for a multi- faith curriculum was to look at other religions through a Christian template - to find the Hindu or Jewish equivalent of feasts like Christmas. The attitude persists in phenomena such as Kwanza, the pseudo-African festival that American blacks have wilfully invented to replace Christmastide ("traditional" dish: Liberation Salad, with lettuce to symbolise the green of hope, olives for the black of African-American skin and tomatoes for the blood shed in the struggle for equal rights).

"What kids everywhere quickly worked out," says Palmer, "was that they could use all these festivals to extract more presents from their parents. Then it became consumerism that drove the changes. So despite their different origins the festivals have received identical packaging - and there's not much that can be done because it has all become a vital element in our national economic life."

Even the pagans have acquiesced. "Our main celebration is Yule," says the witch, Steve Paine, "but we still give our children their big presents on Christmas Day. It's hard not to take part, though we only do it because of the children." Even paganism, it seems, is not what it was. Happy holidays!

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