Perth’s summer solstice in 2016 was spent in dry 42 degree heat with the half-promise of an afternoon thunderstorm. As is commonly the case in Perth summers, a strong easterly blew for most of the morning, bringing down swathes of bark (see those waiting to fall, below), an assortment of branches and mounds of leaves from the tall eucalypts at the back of the estate. There’s something quite alarming about hearing sudden crashing although it is generally louder, on my estate, than is warranted by the size of whatever spears into the ground.
I will be quite up-front here and say I would prefer to celebrate the summer solstice rather than Christmas if only I could find somebody of like mind to share it with.
I mean no disrespect to the social justice advocate and miracle worker in whose name the Western world stops on 25 December each year. But much lesser men huddled under his mantle to create the current spectacle of conspicuous over-consumption we are exhorted to support.
It isn’t a secret that the fathers of the early Christian church superimposed their holy calendar on existing spirituality born of millennia-long astrological observation and a keen appreciation of how the rhythms of the sky and the land’s seasons were linked. Timing the birth of their saviour with celebrations welcoming the return of the sun (not to mention his post-death resurrection to those welcoming the new Spring life following the March equinox) was a no-brainer.
So far, so good. Co-existing Christian and pagan traditions of feasting, giving thanks, asking for blessings and ritual appeasement of deities are OK by me. My beef is with what has happened to the Christian celebration over the past century or so.
I blame Dickens with his evocative word pictures of feasting, tree decorating, turkeys, gifts and families being “merry, one and all”. The sentimentality of Tiny Tim’s affliction, his father’s goodness, the educational glimpses afforded by the ghosts to Christmases past, current and future leading to the conversion of Scrooge from miserable miser to kindly benefactor retrieved Christmas from the wilds to which it had been consigned by the Puritans. Eventually, the popularity of this new tradition (and perhaps the rectitude of Scrooge’s conversion) earned a day’s holiday for the workers in England’s industrial sweatshops. In another of Dickens’ Christmas stories (perhaps The cricket on the hearth), a character muses that if ever two factory girls in the story married it would most likely be on New Year’s Eve because New Year’s Day was the only holiday in the year.
But more than Dickens, the finger has to be pointed squarely at Western capitalism that has turned the day into a shopping spree whose principal beneficiaries are the retail and hospitality sectors: the economy. There is something unseemly about a national spend, in 2016, of $48.1billion on celebrating the official birthday of the prince of poverty. As I remember it, Christ railed against moneylenders, driving them from the courtyard of the temple. He accused them of turning a place of worship into a house of trade and a den of thieves, not to mention victimising the poor. It has been suggested that his muscular remonstrance was the trigger for his arrest and death that Easter commemorates.
Plus ça change… Accepting that Christmas is analogous with the temple (or should be, given its seminal importance to the Christian narrative), we again bring trade, borrowing, and victimising the poor to our secular rituals of worship. We are exhorted to spend (a considerable chunk of which is debited to credit), in the guise of showing our love for family and friends, for the good of the economy. We are expected to feast on overpriced food then throw much of it away. The poor are reminded of their marginalised social position by being (i) unable to afford excess then (ii) targeted for charitable benevolence made visible in media coverage of, for example, the Prime Minister serving lunch to the homeless. His service was despite, as was savagely noted by some commentators, it being government policy that creates much of the homelessness. All of this is swathed in a holy glow of love and family made manifest in tableaux of the nativity. Yet newspaper columns are written about how to survive family gatherings and the damage done to household budgets. A few of these columns suggest alternatives to contemporary confected models of the perfect Christmas Day but none of them advocate ignoring it altogether.
So, what would my solstice celebrations look like? A high point would certainly be a feast shared as a gift to my family and friends whose presence contribute to my life. The feast would comprise seasonal foods to signify, and express gratitude for, the cycle of life. Solstice celebrations in the northern hemisphere incorporate fire to symbolise the sun. The suggested bonfires are not readily adaptable to Western Australia’s drought conditions and complete fire bans so candles would light the feast. Although, in an Australian summer, the sun rarely needs to be symbolised, it is brightly there in the sky, unremittingly, for months. Dancing under it might be an Antipodean adaptation of the traditional solstice sun rituals, the dancers liberally covered in 50+ sun screen, broad hats and long sleeved couturial (I may have just coined that word) splendour.
Earlier in the day (feast preparations permitting), I might prepare the estate for the coming
season although, in truth, my estate resembles the Nullabor in summer. Perhaps I could ceremoniously clear away the detritus of winter and spring growth (for example, the dried remains of spring flowers and the invasion of assorted persistent grasses) although the arboreal discarding of branch, leaf and bark all summer means tidiness is out of the question. Or I could instigate an annual, ritual bush walk although that doesn’t seem sensible if a feast has to be prepared. A spot of meditation on the year past and the year to come might bring contact with the sacred, as might direct communion via divination tools.
So, how did I spend the 2016 summer solstice? Well, I began this reflection. I thought to check my university account and found an email terminating my adjunct appointment. The three-year contract had ended and the confirmation signified welcome new directions. The temperature actually peaked at 42 degrees and the promised rain didn’t come so I stayed inside. Dinner, from memory, was leftovers.