Adam Gopnik’s third lecture considers the making of the modern Christmas, winter’s holiday.

He describes it as a “profoundly compound festival” and discusses its origins.

It marries “not just many different pagan holidays but also the two chief kinds of festivals that exist in the world: the reversal festival and the renewal festival”.

There’s talk of Saturnalia and Kalends, and the ways in which the renewal, one-night-only stuff, holds sway (the lighting of candles, giving of gifts, staying up late) AND the renewal elements (the mother-and-child imagery, rites of fertility).

He suggests this could be partly why our holiday dinners with family are so tense and uncomfortable: because we’re being expected to renew and reverse all at the same time.

How could we possibly avoid the bickering with all that stress?! ::grin::

A different kind of tension lingered beneath the writing of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol; and yet another tension in the narrative itself, because we don’t really know whether Scrooge has woken up as a “reconciled capitalist or a secret revolutionary”.

And tension, too, between the ideas of what makes for a good Christmas story, which erupted after the success of Dickens’ tale.

Anthony Trollope had quite different ideas, apparently. In one story of his, a woman’s good intentions at night in a Paris hotel go terribly awry. Altruistic impulses after dark (whether in the presence of ghosts or not) are not to be trusted, Trollope declares, with a good jab at Dickens.

And the most devastating sort of tension: that expressed in war. AG considers the truce between the soldiers at the front on Christmas Day, 1914, during The Great War.

There’s a lot of connective tissue that I’ll leave for you to discover. Here’s where it ends up: “The Dickensian Christmas is in some ways a product of the Somme.”

Well, I’ve said it before: what I really love about the Massey Lectures is the way they integrate such seemingly diverse ideas.

Random Winter Facts:
– Gustav Holst (yes, of The Planets) wrote “In the Bleak Midwinter”
(like AG, I thought this was a very old traditional song)

– there was an international jury that voted on Best Christmas Carol
(do you get paid for that kind of jury, or is it still your civic duty to serve?)

-in 1875, L. Frank Baum began his career as a Christmas-window designer, making miniature cities of mechanical marvels (what fun!)

The Massey Lectures are still available as podcasts via CBC, and they are also available to purchase through iTunes. You can also buy the CD here. And, best of all, you can buy the Book via House of Anansi.

First Window on Winter: Romantic (my thoughts here)
Second Window on Winter: Radical (my thoughts here)