2007-12-25

Putting Saturn back in the Saturnalia

Two Christmas seasons exist. One is the Christian religious season, observed in the western European liturgical calendar for twelve days between December 25 to January 5. It is preceded by the season of Advent, traditionally a period devoted to quiet activities and inner reflection. The other Christmas season is a secular holiday. This holiday corresponds with a merchants' marketing season that builds in a frenzied crescendo across a span of roughly two months to end in a flurry on the evening of December 24.

Every year one observes the citizens of Western countries working through some tensions that exist between the two. Observant Christians often express the desire to get their holy day back and complain of the 'Christ being taken out of Christmas.' When I lived in the States I regularly encountered articles in which someone endeavoured to explain the 'original' Christian meanings of holiday symbols such as the wreath, the evergreen, the holly and the mistletoe. Meanwhile, the nature of a pluralistic society makes it polite to acknowledge that not everybody observes the hooiday in a religious sense. It remains a time for friends and fun anyway, and it is always in order to wish others well. For this holiday the more secular images, being more inclusive, dominate. As always, the most inclusive people of all are the merchants, who welcome the business of all comers.

However one observes the holiday, if indeed one does at all, the fact remains that the original meaning of the holiday is pre-Christian and its symbols traditions in a variety of ways. Many good sources of information exist. For an informative thumbnail sketch on the web, check out John Steele Gordon's essay in the latest Wall Street Journal.

My friends in other parts of the world often ask about how Christmas is celebrated in east Asia. In Taiwan our cultural equivalent is really the Lunar New Year that we celebrate, depending on the moon phases, somewhere between mid-January and late February. That's when shops close and families feast and children get presents. This holiday entails the largest movement of people in the world.

Christmas is a fun but relatively minor holiday. It is a harbinger for the new year season here and gets people in a festive mood. We don't get off work, but it's a great excuse to slap on a Santa hat and gather with friends at a restaurant or karaoke place (called KTV here) and enjoy yourself.

Concerts devoted to Christmas music in Taiwan are usually charity benefits sponsored by Christian organizations. Performances of Handel's Messiah often fall into this category. Most concerts in December, though, are normal concerts. We hear all kinds of music; the holiday doesn't have the same effect on programming as elsewhere. Taiwanese people enjoy their touches of whimsy, though, so for a concert on December 24 or 25 performers often evoke the spirit of the season in some way: performers wearing Santa hats, ushers wearing reindeer antlers.

Christmas in Taiwan is just festive enough. You can have fun without drowning in it.

(For drowning, we have Lunar New Year!)

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