When I was a kid, Summer Solstice (just about – there might be some day’s slippage) was celebrated as St. John’s.
This is, to put it mildly, a very odd festival where I come from. For one, huge bonfires are built everywhere, and jumping over the bonfires together seems to have some resonance of marriage – or did, once upon a time. For another, possibly because there is so much contact with England, some bits of the Guy Fawkes thing have bled through. To wit, for St. John’s kids build nativities outside (This is not so much nativity, as entire scenes. Some of us, born ambitious, would include mountains covered in moss to represent the entire hillside, and have also artesian water works. ) There are houses and things for this as well as the traditional figures of the nativity. These are not the same figures or sets used at Christmas, but very cheaply modeled either red clay or plaster figurines. Think of it as part railroad modeling and part nativity. (Only I don’t think anyone ever had trains. They were too expensive, toy trains, when I was a kid, to be left outside. But the building of miniatural landscapes was there.) In front of that nativity, you put a tin for tips (and no, the language doesn’t lend itself to “here’s a tip, kid, don’t go into architecture.”) IF the adults didn’t pay attention (and here is the resemblance to Guy Fawke’s festival) you ran around with the statue of St. John clutched in your hand, yelling “A penny for the saint.” (Well, more fortunate kids did. I was informed by mom that it was not proper and we were NOT that badly off. Meh.)
So, why am I talking about this on New Year’s eve?
Because it wasn’t until I started reading on myth (and I still do wonder how much of this was based on older rituals, how much cross-cultural contamination, how much bleed from Christmas (the nativity almost for sure) and how much “yes.”) that I realized the bonfires, and the burning of everything old was a way of clearing the slate, as it were, to start anew.
It must have worked like a charm in the village because all of us saved all the old cr*p that would burn (and burning, in those innocent days, was how we disposed of almost everything that wouldn’t rot) throughout the year, and the pile in the middle of the plaza (don’t go imagining anything very grand. It was a huge beaten dirt expanse where two streets met) in front of grandma’s house, could climb to astonishing heights. Or maybe it only seemed that way to me, when I was very, very small. I do know that sometimes people were worried about the flames reaching the electrical wires, though.
Of course, most of the people in the village were so proper that I think the biggest shock in my life was when there was an earthquake and everyone ran out, realizing that the neighbors didn’t actually sleep in their full day clothes.
So there was none of that pagan singing and dancing. Sometimes there was some singing, desultory, and sideways, but absolutely no dancing and certainly not of that fire-jumping stuff. The kids played around as usual, glad to be allowed to stay up late, and the young people flirted, but the adults mostly treated it as a village social, standing around and talking. (Weirdly, there was also conversation about some of the cr*p we were burning. “Oh, that box of chocolates was good. I wonder if uncle so and so will give us a new one this year.” That sort of thing.)
And then everyone went and had a cup of coffee with milk (please don’t ask. That and toast were traditional St. John’s food. There were songs about it. No, I’m sure that wasn’t a survival of the Celtic rites. Almost for sure. Probably. Not in this universe.) and went to bed after midnight, feeling very daring. The next day life started up in the normal way, maybe with everyone a little slower and more morose due to the late night. (Children, in the village we didn’t go to bed with the chickens. The chickens wondered what was wrong with us we went to bed so early, normally.) But something had changed. After St. John’s we shifted to “summer mode.”
Well, we don’t do St. John’s here, and I live in Colorado. As dry as it is, if I tried to burn anything at all, let alone the accumulated debris of an entire year, the police would be at my door before I was done making a pile of stuff.
Also, we don’t live in innocent times. That box that contained the chocolates probably is full of carcinogenic dyes and will kill the wild life in a five mile circle, if we so much as hold it too long in a hot place.
But what remains is the memory that what we celebrated was a survival of a “new year’s” ritual, in the sense that it was an inflection point in the year.
We humans tend to hold on to all sorts of cr*p long after it’s no longer useful. It’s the nature of the beast. Habits, thoughts, ways of doing things that aren’t working, but are comfy and worn.
And then there is that illusory thing “luck.” This year, in general has been “bad luck.” Not terrible, but a sort of grinding annoyance and little things going wrong. “Getting nibbled to death by ducks.” Almost all of my friends had that sort of year, though some – overachievers – have topped it off with worse: job losses, major illnesses, or broken relationships.
Part of it is the economy, of course, throwing a pall over everything, but I’m almost sure that the economy can’t be blamed for the wild fires, the two bouts of death flu followed by the small bouts of minor flu and all the other “little stuff” – car break downs, flooded basement, etc — that made this year very bad for me to work in.
As much as we don’t want to believe in luck, we all do. And as much as we don’t believe in luck, we all know sometimes it changes, and some things make it change. It used to be if I was having a really bad run of luck, we’d go to Denver for the day, bum around, go out to eat, and then things would change. (Sometimes they still do.) Maybe all that changed was my mood, but things certainly went better after.
These rituals, these habits, these things, exist because life seems to work like that. It doesn’t make any sense (which means I resent it) but life does seem to follow this type of thing.
So… just in case it works, and because the last year we were nibbled to death by ducks, let’s send the old year off with a bang (for me this means staying up past midnight. I’m fairly sure the chickens still think I’m too early a bed-goer) and blowing on a little noise maker, then having a few teaspoons of champagne (it’s carby, you know?) with the kids, but hey, we all do what we can, right?
And mentally, I’ll be burning the flu, and the basement flood, and all the appliances that broke, and the car troubles.
Yes, of course the new year could be worse, but we won’t let it. We’re going to change our luck for the better.
In the new year, there will be jobs and love and prosperity, even if we have to fight city hall to get it.
May all our fights be joyous, may all our troubles be so tiny we don’t notice it, may our health be as good as it can be, may there be enough money for everything we need, and a little left over for what we want, and may we be productive and merry in the new year. May our luck change for the better tonight.