The winter of 1709 was a killer.
In England it was called “The Great Frost.” In France it was called “Le Grand Hiver.” Over three weeks in early January, temperatures dropped across Europe to levels not seen in 500 years. The Mediterranean Sea froze. Trees exploded. Livestock died in the barns. In Switzerland, wolves prowled village streets. Travelers died on the roads. In France, 600,000 people perished.
For most of Western history, winter has been terrifying. A time of darkness and death. A time to hunker down and hope that you’ve saved enough food, chopped enough wood and that you have the grace and good fortune to see the spring.
That’s hard to imagine now, in a time of fleece hoodies, slippers and central heating. In an age when rising temperatures render each winter milder and more toothless than the last. Sure, it’s still dark and dreary outside, but it’s no longer deadly. Often – like tonight, outside my window – winter brings grim and grinding rain. At its very worst winter is an inconvenience, and at its best a thing to be celebrated with a trip to the ski hill and a cup of hot chocolate.
When it’s needed most
In C.S. Lewis’s book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the magic land of Narnia is under the spell of a winter like 1709. The dreaded White Witch has kept the land cursed in a perpetual deep freeze. “It is winter in Narnia,” says the faun, Mr. Tumnus. “And has been for ever so long – always winter, but never Christmas.”
That quote gets at the heart of another truth about winter: Christmas is meant to be a reprieve from winter. It is meant to give hope on literally the darkest day of the year.
A lot of Christians get upset when people point out – correctly – that the celebration of Christmas on December 25 replaced a pagan holiday in Northern Europe. It happened when the Norwegian king Haakon the Good replaced the old Yule festival with the Christian Christmas celebration sometime in the 900s. For some Christians, this feels like fake news. A desecration, somehow. Yet it is true.
But look at it this way: Northern Europeans chose to celebrate the Birth of Christ on a day when it would be the most meaningful. On a day when, for a few hours, they could hold back the cold and the hunger – when they could celebrate and eat and exchange gifts – and remind one another that the world would be renewed again someday soon.
A cold year
Christmas, in other words, has not just accidentally coincided with midwinter. It has traditionally needed the depth of darkness to be a day of pretty lights. It has needed the threat of hunger to help people reflect on their blessings. Scarcity, danger and dread is the backdrop for Christmas – and the holiday is a rejection of fear and a symbol of hope.
Those same Christians who don’t like to admit the 25th of December is not the actual birthday of Christ are usually also the ones complaining about the commercialization of Christmas. They’re the folks who implore us to put the “Christ” back in “Christmas.” But in a world where there is no threat of cold – where Christians are comfortable at home in their hoodies and housecoats – what else can we expect? When the livestock are dying, you know that you need hope. When you’re inside watching Netflix, it’s not as obvious – but no less necessary.
Certainly, 2020 has been a dark year. Over two hundred thousand Americans have died of COVID-19, a disease many others consider a hoax. Politics has never been more divisive – in Canada and around the world. There are no wolves in the streets, but we are at each other’s throats. Or kneeling on them.
If we want to put Christ back in Christmas, we need to understand that this has been a cold year. If we want to see the light, we must choose to see how truly dark it has been.
For a thousand years Christmas has meant more when we feel in our bones that we want it. When we understand in our hearts that we need the hope it brings.
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