My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.
“Ozymandias” sonnet by Shelley
I’m starting to feel like the grumpy old man next door when I go to museums. Case in point: this week’s sojourn to see the “Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharoahs” exhibit, at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. I was decidedly underwhelmed. Or, perhaps I should say overwhelmed by the crowds of people in small spaces, coupled with constant video and barking audio displays, to the point where it was hard to stand and just take in the 3200-year-old artifacts. I am such a history buff that I thought I’d be a little more impressed, so why wasn’t I? I have a theory, plus an important museum hack to share.
The sun never says to the earth, “You owe me.” Look what happens with a love like that. It lights up the whole sky.
Poem: “The Gift” @1350, by Hafez, tr. D. Ladinsky
‘Tis the season, quite literally. We are approaching the turning point of the season, the lever of our mini-universe, wherein the sun will be at its Most. Here in Northern California, it will be at the lowest point to our horizon and the furthest south, which means we’re at the Solstice, baby!
Even though other latitudes and longitudes will feel that dance of the sun differently, everywhere is going to feel the sun at its Most. Those at this latitude, the 90% of humans who live on the majority of the land masses on this side of the equator, will feel this as the shortest day of the year. Tomorrow holds promise because it will be longer (for 90% of us anyway). Folks on the south side of the equator will enjoy the longest day of the year, although they might revel in our revelry, too.
People long ago lived under a differently aged sun, but they also did this dance, and they also experienced the sense of cold/hot, shorter/longer, death/rebirth, and dark/light that we are experiencing. ‘Tis the season to get me thinking all about ancient celebrations of solstice. Fair warning: this is not just a laundry list of the top 12 pagan chants or a random set of ten holiday traditions… I’ve done some of that in previous blogs, and you can google plenty of other examples. This is not just about how Queen Victoria popularized Christmas trees or Good King Wenceslas or Saturnalia or even Stonehenge–let’s go a little broader and deeper than Northern Europe. How old and how omnipresent are celebrations of the solstice? How do we know?
Dear Reader: this is one of my favorite holiday posts, so I couldn’t resist a repeat for 2022.
Pretend this is the Jeopardy category: Common Bonds. The Wild Hunt, mind control, and the 1871 Polaris disaster. What do they all have in common? Got it? Add in fan fiction, Zwarte Piet, shoemakers, Martin Luther, reliquary theft…. Yes? Norse mythology? Saving girls from prostitution? Louisa May Alcott, Thomas Nast? How about Shadrack, the Black Reindeer?
It will soon be Christmas Eve, after all.
The mythology–the extensive fan fiction, which is what mythology is, isn’t it?–around the legends of Santa Claus and Christmas have roots that go waa-a-a-y beyond the Coca Cola commercial. Although I dug deep into a comparison of Santa and Jesus back in 2021, there are Santa rabbit holes to be discovered. Even if we just talk about Santa and his helpers, there’s plenty that even that Greek scholar and seminarian Clement Moore didn’t envision.