Now that we’re over the Mayan Apocalypse frenzy, here’s a look at the current holiday season from a more cheerful and rather more factual angle.
For whatever reasons, we humans have relationships with the annual cycles that surpass pure science and combine, with the observable facts, a mystical component that causes us to view the wheel of the year with more than simply analytical interest.
Winter Holidays, celebrating the point at which the warmth of the sun ceases its annual recession — the time when the days begin, imperceptibly at first, to become longer and to promise the warmth and riches of spring and summer — are universal in human civilizations. Doubtless it has been that way for thousands of generations (or three hundred, if you prefer). We give our holidays names like Hanukkah, Christmas, Yule, Ramadan, Kwanzaa, Bodhi Day, and so forth. We hang upon them the trappings of thousands of years of religious implication, and often attribute their origin to reasons other than the mere turning of the seasons. We invent new holidays, because we don’t want to celebrate other people’s holidays.
Humans have been around for quite a while. Even if you accept Bishop Usher’s figure of 6016 years ago (as of October 22nd) for the date of Creation, there have been 300 generations of us. If you prefer evolution, the figure expands to at least 7,500 generations in the case of Homo sapiens, and much longer if you include the Homo-this-and-thats and others who preceded us.
The main thing distinguishing us from the other members of the hominid family is our big brain. Not only has it permitted us to develop intellectually, it has also set certain constraints. For one thing, we require more energy to operate our brains than any other animal that has yet been studied. Our brains use nearly 25% of the energy from our food as they direct the operation of our bodies and process information. In contrast, chimps — our closest living relatives — use less than 10% of their energy to run their masses of gray protein jelly.
These energy requirements led to forks in the path of our development such as walking upright, which provides more efficient locomotion and better body cooling: less energy used ~ less heat to get rid of. That, in turn, freed up our forlimbs for other things. Our higher energy consumption required a diet rich in animal foods, as opposed to the largely vegetarian diet of our cousins. That, in turn, required that we live our lives in reasonable proximity to such a food supply, have teeth and digestive systems suited to that kind of diet, and so forth.
Before the days of firearms, humans depended on a combination of food-gathering skills comprised, in the case of protein, mostly of stealth and knowledge of animal behavior. Whenever possible we hunted herd animals, because herds offer a greater percentage of successful hunts for the energy expended. There are always the young, the aged and the sick or injured that are more vulnerable to creatures such as we, who are unable to outrun and overpower our prey. Herd animals tend also to be larger, and provide more food in exchange for the energy it takes to hunt them.
Herds follow seasonal changes in vegetation, controlled by the angle of the sun and heralded by the positions of the stars and moon at night. Thus, early on, we developed a critical dependence on the seasons. We slowly began to understand the movements of the heavenly bodies, and realized that those relationships had just as much to do with our survival as did our kinship with the people in our little groups. When the herds left, we had to be ready to follow. When the stars and sun told us that cold weather was imminent, we had to prepare. If we waited too long to leave for warmer climes we might be overtaken by bad weather, or be outdistanced by our food. We became intimately involved with seasons and, as a result, with the motions of celestial bodies.
Given the human characteristic of looking for answers rather than just going with the flow, it isn’t surprising that some of us developed a detailed knowledge of basic astronomy and its relationship to the passage of time, the seasons, and survival. Probably quite early on, Long-nose or Three Toes or someone else with a talent for association and a good memory realized that things in the sky happened over and over again, year after year, with identifiable relationships to animal migration and events such as berry-ripening and local fruit production.
He (or she) probably tried to get that idea across to others, but may have lacked the vocabulary to do it (perhaps, at that time, lacking speech altogether), or was simply ignored. “Hah! Here comes Three Toes with that star stuff again. He must have an evil spirit or something. See if you can hit him with that rock!”
Nonetheless, Three Toes and those who learned from him would have become, over time, the go-to guys when it came to figuring out and planning the group’s migrations and many other activities, simply because they were right a lot. It wouldn’t take very long for Three Toes, or one of his successors, to realize that they had a good thing going. When you have knowledge, you have power. If you can tell people important things that they can’t figure out for themselves (and if you’re right often enough, or they think you are), they have to be nice to you. They give you things. Their maidens come to your hut. If you’re smart, and more-or-less by definition Long-Nose, Three Toes and their colleagues were smarter than the average hominid, you keep that knowledge to yourself and rock the power.
If you’re worried that people might figure out your secrets, you protect your power by camouflaging the secrets with other ideas. Perhaps you even believe the new ideas, if they fit in with your personal conception of reality. Since you and your people have long attributed things you didn’t understand to some sort of Other Force or Forces (unwilling to believe that things just happen), perhaps you combine your knowledge with superstition, get folks to believe it, and become the first priest.
In any case, the mid-winter festivals are, in most civilizations, the most joyous and auspicious. The Spring and Summer holidays, celebrating the first crops and the harvest time, are important, but the Winter Holidays tell us to be thankful for the return of light — the return of life itself.
The Winter Holidays are about hope.
I hope yours are everything you hope they’ll be. Merry Holidays, and a happy, prosperous and — most of all — peaceful New Year to all us hominids, wherever and whoever we are.