In the month of December many religions celebrate important holidays. Interestingly, they share similarities because most are embedded in astronomical and historical traditions. An author writing a novel has to decide which religion her characters believe in, if they do indeed believe in something. The religious aspect may be an important part of the book or simply a way of deepening a character’s verisimilitude. Religious holidays can also serve as essential aspects of the plot or the setting of the novel. At present, I am writing two novels where religion is a defining aspect of the main character. Superficially they appear to be different religions, however, my research is leading me to find many parallels.
Astronomical Foundations of Religion
Some religions follow the sun cycles with holidays based on the winter and spring solstices. Others follow the cycles of the moon. Subsequently, many incorporate traditions related to darkness and light. In the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day of the year falls near the 21st of December when the sun appears to hesitate—creating the longest night of the year. The next day, the days begin lengthening until the summer solstice occurs in June creating the longest day of the year. Such long periods of darkness and light caught people’s attention in the millennia BCE, just as they do today. In the past the long dark evenings that begin around four or five in the afternoon in November and December stimulated European’s interests in bonfires. Now they definitely encourage the placement of outdoor lighting in our modern cities. Even though we tend to blame the world of merchandise for the early arrival of Christmas decorations in November, I think the reason we want more light is primeval. If we can’t have the real sun shining down upon us, we create our own terrestrial twinkles.
Newgrange and European Cathedrals
Several years ago, I visited Newgrange, a beautifully reconstructed passage tomb in Ireland. Because its external surface is covered with white quartz, its appearance on the top of the slope is impressive as one approaches the entry. The day we visited, we were in a group of 12 who were allowed to go inside. The entrance passage was narrow, rising slightly from the doorway as we proceeded. The darkness was complete. We had to bend down at points prior to entering the internal chamber. Once the group was smushed together in the circle, the guides illuminated the space so we could see the altar openings on the north, west, and east. The arrangement reminded me of the medieval European cathedrals which are built on the concept of sacred geometry, lying north to south, with the altar in the north opposite a large stained-glass window on the south so that the sun shines in on the altar. The guides soon extinguished the flashlights allowing us to stand silently in the dark for several minutes. Then, someone directed a beam of artificial light through the roof box above the entry. It traveled up the passageway to illumine the altar, mimicking the light from the rays of the sun on the morning of the winter solstice. Robert Henesy on page 3, in First Light: The Origins of Newgrange, states “…this otherworld religion, centred on emotionally intense events by individuals who spent time in passage tomb chambers, was at the very heart of the passage tomb tradition in Ireland.”
As a visitor, my experience was as mysterious as it was mystical. It made me wonder if any of my ancestors were druids. My experience also made me realize how the religion in which I was raised dates back to these ancient solstice edifices and the practices of the people who built them more than 5000 years before the birth of Christ. These advanced builders and worshipers were what some now call “pagans.” Ironically, when we sit in a European cathedral with the light from the sun illuminating the altar, we are said to be in a sacred Christian space.
It is also noteworthy that a day near the winter solstice was chosen to represent the birthday of the light of the Christian religion. Meanwhile, on the other side of the northern hemisphere, the full moon of the fourth month was chosen to represent the light of the Buddha. Called Vesak, it is a day where lanterns and sometimes fireworks reflect the people’s need for light and for enlightenment in parallel with our festive holiday lights.
Historical Aspects of Religion
When I was a child, I loved the celebrations that took place in December. My hometown was a particularly wonderful place to spend one’s childhood. The snow was deep. The stars were bright in the dark curve of the night’s sky. In December, each class level in the school built a beautiful snow sculpture on the grounds of the Courthouse which was at the center of town. A jolly Santa in a horse-drawn sleigh drove into town. (My mother told me much later that the Santa was a woman in a Santa’s costume.) As children waited in lines that wove through the magical frozen sculptures, Santa settled down on the Courthouse steps to welcome their requests for special holiday gifts.
At Christmas time the town also had a mobile, musical Christmas tree which covered entirely (and hid) the electrician’s van supporting it. The musical Christmas tree played carols as it rolled down the streets, stopping at every home. Santa jumped off, running on foot up to the houses to drop off bags of candy which contained a satisfyingly large popcorn ball. In my teens, my church group went caroling around the town. A local farmer drove his team of work horses pulling a huge feeding sleigh into town piled with fresh-smelling hay. Giggling gaggles of teenagers burrowed into the hay to keep warm as we caroled from house to house. If our songs were especially melodic, some folks invited us in for hot chocolate.
My childhood history echoes many eras before my own birth. Santa Claus has origins in stories from the third century AD of St. Nicolas giving gifts and food to the poor in what is now called Turkey. The sleigh was developed in northern Europe and throughout Russia due to the heavy winter snowfall. Sleighs became connected to stories of St. Nicolas as his legend moved from the East to the West. St. Nicolas is depicted in parts of Europe, Holland for example where he is called Sinterklaas, as riding a horse as he stops by houses to fill wooden clogs with goodies. Ice sculptures have their origins in the north of Europe and China as well. Caroling is a tradition that dates from the days when people clearly celebrated the winter solstice, being integrated into the Christian celebrations of Christmas much later. Only the mobile musical van and the popcorn balls of my childhood were uniquely twentieth-century traditions.
Writing Goals for 2019
This year my goals are to:
1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:
During the month of November, my time to edit slowed to a snail’s pace. I worked on three chapters, but my goal of having all 25 edited by the end of December is looking dim. Maybe I’ll make it by January 7, 2020.
2. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:
In November, I did edits on four chapters of my second novel.
I also received feedback from a friend on my short story, correcting some of my content errors. I truly appreciate an expert cowboy’s fact checking.
3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:
Today is December 7, 2019. My 12th blog of 2019 is the last of a two-year project, which gives me a warm sense of accomplishment. Two years ago, I didn’t even know if I was capable of writing a blog, now I find writing it to be a personally gratifying challenge that takes me in novel directions. Using my blog as a metacognitive device has helped me think about all the issues involved in writing a novel. I will continue my monthly blogs on the seventh day of each month in 2020.
4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:
On November 6, 2019, our BWA Book Club for Writers, led by Gary McBride, discussed American Spy by Lauren Wilkenson. I was particularly impressed with the author’s ability to write a fairly long novel in the first person. Gary created a timeline of Black history to match events in the book which was incredibly informative.
On November 20, 2019, Alice Levine, a member of Boulder Editors, gave a presentation on editing for BWA’s Write to Publish, Publish to Sell session. I learned about distinctions in the types of editing services available to writers.
In the middle of November, I attended a reading by a member of Boulder Writers Alliance at Inkberry Books in Niwot, a small town near Boulder. B.J. Smith talked about his detective novels (set in Des Moines), reading thrilling sections from Blood Solutions. Other BWA members came out to support B.J. We all had an enjoyable evening.
Beginning in 2020, I will be serving as vice president for the Boulder Writers Alliance. I am grateful to all the writers who participate in BWA, sharing their knowledge as workshop leaders, through online resources, or simply as participants. I look forward to working with the team.