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Monday, December 12, 2005


Deck the halls

We put up our Christmas decorations tonight, we have a Pine tree growing in a pot which we drag inside each Christmas (and marvel that we haven't managed to kill it). It is decorated with a mixture of commercial Christmas lights and decorations lovingly made by the kids over the years. The Christmas tree at the Bettdesckererschnappender weisle's ancestral home is decorated with two generations of handmade trimmings, so there is a nice feeling of history and family continuity to it. As well, it is a nice antidote to the comercialization of Christmas to have this heartfelt family connection.

Our windows now twinkle with automated lights in our contribution to global warming, one or two neighbor's in our street will put up a string of flashing lights to get into the spirit of things. Next week we will wander down the streets that put in a serious effort. While they aren't as amazing as this house in the US (see the video here, it works best with the sound on) they will entrance the kids. Heck, we adults will be impressed too (and they don't make much addition to astronomical light pollution).

It's a bit strange celebrating Christmas in summer. All over Australia people are spraying fake snow over every available surface in temperatures that will cook eggs, and putting up pine trees and other European symbols of rebirth ready for sunreturn and when Wotan and Selipnir St. Nicholas and Rudolf ride out to deliver gifts to good boys and girls (and Knecht Rubrecht to fill the naughty ones' stockings with coal).

In the Antipodes Christmas falls just after the Summer solstice, when we begin our descent into winter. So it doesn't make much sense to perform the rituals associated with the shortest day of the year and the passing of winter in southern climes. It's rather ironic considering that Saint Nick, who is our Christmas icon, hailed from the Mediterranean Roman city of Myra (now in Turkey), an area not renowned for either snow, pine trees or fur trimmed red robes (sadly, the locals have put up a statue of Santa Claus, in full red trimmings). There have been desultory attempts to shift Christmas to the Southern hemisphere winter solstice, but the conjunction of the long, hot Summer holidays and Christmas is ingrained in the Australian psyche (after a family game of beach cricket what else would one eat on a 40 deg C day but roast pork and steamed plum pudding) and the fact that Christmas day is firmly associated with the birth of Mithra Yeshua ben Yusef.

In the end, it is all about Calendrics (you thought I was going to say peace and good will, didn't you). The marking of the transition of winter to spring, summer to autumn, has a powerful hold on the European psyche as these events were literally matters of life and death. Astronomy was a serious business, and there wasn't much of a role for amateur astronomers in those days. Here in Australia, where these transitions aren't as marked (or even identifiable, in the North, the seasons come as "wet" or "dry") the solstice were less important, and the seasonal transitions were often marked by non-astronomical means such as flowering of certain plants. In most of Australia, unlike Europe, where the winter/spring transition arrives like a hammer blow (one day snow, the next day tulips, was my experience in Berlin), you will always find something flowering, and it is more a matter of what and how much that subtlely shades the seasons (the flowering of the wattles on the Yarra meant that the end of winter was in sight, the flowering of the Jackarandas meant summer was on the way).

So, as you celebrate your sunreturn festival of choice, reflect that Astronomy played an integral part in determining when these festivals were held, and that our modern amateur past time with our telescopes and web cams has its roots in people anxiously waiting for the sun to rise over special notched rocks.

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