POSTED: 14 DECEMBER 2007 - 10:00pm HST

TGI #19: The American Holiday Season

image above: Rockefeller Center looking west toward the GE (RCA) Building and Christmas tree

[Editor's Note: Normally these columns are scheduled to appear every other Sunday in the Kauai Garden Island News.The final published version may vary from this text as TGI retains the right to correct and edit the material. The copyright to the published version is held by TGI owner Kauai Publishing. Some material in TGI columns may have appeared on already]

by Juan Wilson on 16 December 2007 Revision 3.2 071214

For Better or Worse
The American version of the "Holiday Season" is upon us. I say for better or worse because as joyous as it can be, it is a time when many find themselves depressed and lonely. It might be in part because the hopeful expectations and cheerful decorations around us do not match the reality within. In reality it can be dark and wet and nasty out. We know we are being conned into spending too much for too little.

Why is the Holiday Season now? To begin with, it is related to the fact that the vast majority of land in this world is in the northern hemisphere. Consequently, most of people of this world find the harvest time ending in late October; the darkest time coming at the end of December; and the dead of winter occurring at the end of January.

This means that the hard work of planting and tending the crops is put aside for a while. The larder is full. The days are short, the nights long. As a result, it is time to celebrate and reflect.

Today most Americans were brought up as children to expect Christmas to be the culmination of everything they could possibly wish for in life. As it stands today, this is primarily expressed through shopping our brains out. What many do, without much thought about it, is celebrate the holiday by satisfying greed and gluttony. Is this really happiness?

In our adult life this is only comparable to the the expectation that your wedding day MUST be the BEST day of your life. The perfect expression of that mentality is "Bridezilla". If you have not seen it, "Bridezilla" is a cable TV reality show examining the nightmarish horrors of wedding preparations and disappointments. The corollary to your wedding being "The best day of your life" is that "It's all downhill from here".

image above: 1931 Coke ad extolling the virtues of a "Pause that Refreshes!" Got 'nuff corn syrup?

Pagan Rituals
Many ancient pre-Christian cultures measured the year by the key positions of the sun through the year. The seasons of the year were defined (and still are) by the motions of the sun in the sky. The Summer and Winter Solstice (June 21 and Dec 22) mark the beginning of those seasons and are the longest and shortest days of the year. The Spring and Autumn Equinox (Mar 21 and Sep 22) identify the start of those seasons and are the only days where the day and night are of equal length.

These dates are the Quarters of the year. Over thousands of years these times of the year have been celebrated by billions of (mostly pagan) people . In Christianity the two most holy holidays, Easter and Christmas, were designed to fall at the pagan celebrations of the Spring Equinox and Winter Solstice. These ancient celebrations co-opted by Christians focused on rebirth of the earth (Easter) and the return of the light (Christmas).

It was no accident that Christian leaders chose the Winter Solstice as the time of Christ's birth. It had long been the most celebrated holiday of the year by the dominant Roman culture of the first millennium. The Romans invented using an evergreen tree as the centerpiece of their pagan ritual.

Another pagan custom was to mark the Cross Quarter days. They were the midpoint of each season. In a way, the Cross Quarter days were the epitome, or height of each season. They turn out to be the beginning of February, May, August and November. The two most widely celebrated today are May Day and Halloween. These celebrations focused on youth and life (May Day) and age and death (Halloween).

American Holiday Season
As anybody knows who has entered a Walmart in October, the "Christmas" season has been drawn out and connected to Halloween. Christmas stock and decorations are going into the stores while candycorn and witch's hats are still on the shelves. Like a giant wave, the American Holiday Season is now a two month shopping extravaganza that only begins to peak the day after Thanksgiving and crests just about now in mid December.

For the US retail economy it represents about 40% of the year's take. For many businesses it can be the difference between a good year and bankruptcy. It has become a ceremonial dance between consumers and corporations. It is hoped by the corporations that the consumers spend beyond their limits to celebrate the season; which only ends with the last of the returned items being exchanged and the first credit card bills coming due in February - The Cross Quarter Day of Debt.

The Christians may have co-opted Christmas from the Romans, but the corporations have co-opted the "Holiday Season" from Christmas. Christmas has been secularized. The symbols today are the Tree, Santa, the Elves, Rudolf, Frosty and lately the Grinch Who Stole Xmas. These are largely symbols of the production, delivery, display and distribution of gifts.

Gone from a central role are the Eastern Star, the Manger, Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, the Three Wise Men, and the barn animals. I do not consider myself religious or a Christian. For me the loss of those Christian symbols from the public square (or today the mall), is not as important as the loss of the spiritual celebration of "The return of the light". That is the real point of it all. It is what gives us hope at the darkest hour of the year. No wonder some shoppers get depressed.

Today, the American Holiday Season begins with preparations for Halloween and goes on through Thanksgiving, peaks at Christmas and ends with a blowout party on New Year's Eve. The hangover soon follows.

Besides the hype and consumer aspects, the spiritual dimensions are real and cut across many cultures. Christians, as well as Jews, Moslems and others, see the period between the end of the harvest and the harshness of winter as a time of bounty, thankfulness, peace, celebration, reflection, and spiritual rebirth. This is a spontaneous human response to the natural world. But what about the natural holiday season here in Hawaii?

image above: R.J. Reynolds ad from 1951 for Camel cigarettes - a gift with no wrapping required

The Season of Makahiki
From a few sources I have read that the Polynesian season of "Makahiki" is made of two Hawaiian words. The word maka, "eye," refers to the constellation of the Pleiades (or Seven Sisters), hiki is a sign of movement. Makahiki, translated, refers to the rising of the Pleiades constellation in the eastern sky in mid November at sunset. That moment was the Hawaiian New Year. Importantly, it signaled the return of rain, the future growth of plants and the spawning of fish.

Makahiki season was the most important holiday of the year. It is the traditional Hawaiian celebration of the harvest. A time of personal rest and spiritual and cultural renewal.

In part, Makahiki is a form of the harvest festivals common to many cultures throughout the world. It is similar in timing and purpose to Thanksgiving, Octoberfest and similar celebrations. As the year's harvest was gathered, tribute in the form of goods and produce were given to the chiefs from November through December.

During Makahiki, Lono, the god of agriculture and fertility, was honored to ensure peace and productivity. Lono is associated with all aspects of Hawaii's winter season. He reestablishes the vitality of the land and nourishes the gardens of the people. I speculate that Lono was a historical character who was able to navigate at least two trips to the Hawaiian islands from Tahiti, bringing more useful plants to the island.

Makahiki was a time of festive events, all wars and battles ceased (Peace on Earth) , sporting competitions and contests between villages were organized (Superbowl?). Several of the rigid kapu (taboos) were eased or temporarily set aside for the celebrations. It was a time of rest and renewal in preparation for the next growing season.

The celebration of the mystical Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, was the peak of the Makahiki Festivities. The return of a messiah-like Lono was anticipated by the Hawaiians. Various rites of purification and celebration in December and January closed the observance of the Makahiki season.

The H.M.S. Endeavor landed at Waimea, Kauai, on 20 January 1778 at the end of Makahiki. It is no wonder that the Hawaiians embraced the Cook as their Lono, finally returned to them, a sad coincidence for the Kanaka Maoli.

I expect that in future years, as we pass Peak Oil production, American Consumerism will fade as the central issue of our lives. Those of us living on Kauai will have simpler lives, growing our own food, and providing more of the basic necessities for ourselves.

Then we will share a deeper connection with nature and the seasons as we pass through the year. They will be more important in our spiritual lives. Once again the natural meaning of the cycle of life will be the issue. This season near the Winter Solstice will have the poignancy that our mortal souls demand

image above:Two dozen Santas go for a ride at Busch Gardens on the SheiKra rollercoaster

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