There were icy droplets of rain falling. It was a mild yet bone-chilling December night. I’d tried and failed to purchase a fire pit, this season’s hip accessory. A couple of folks canceled at the last minute, and my makeshift outdoor xmas tree, fashioned from a tomato cage and some dollar store lights, around which we would gather, lacked a certain dignity, let alone warmth.
But soon enough there were seven people in my front garden, bearing lanterns and headlamps, ready to sing out the longest night of the year.
Saturnalia, Yule, Hanukah, Koliada…different cultures have different names for a primal celebration of light in a time of darkness. In pre-Christian times in Ukraine, the solstice was called Koruchun. It was a time to venerate nature, bread, and the sun (later cleverly converted to “son” as in son of god, by Christianity), and to commune with the ancestors. The boundary between light and dark, between life and death, was considered the be permeable. You would go to the graveyard and invite the ancestors to come to your home for a brief time. Perhaps you’d set a bowl of kutya – wheat, poppyseed and honey – at their graves, as an offering.
So, this solstice night, we drank Mexican hot chocolate spiked with orange brandy, and settled ourselves around the crazy blinking tomato cage. I handed out song sheets. “I really appreciate these pagan lyrics” said The Yoga Teacher. I think she’d been bracing herself for Round Yon Virgin and Christ-Our-Saviour. But I found some great pagan and protest versions of Christmas carols online, with a dollop of Hanukah music from The Ukulele Player. There was a guitar and a banjo and a bongo drum. There were musicians for whom singing or playing publicly gives meaning to their work. We sang the night away.
I’ve written in several places about being queer at Christmas. How institutions- the bank, the corporation, government – become fully aligned, and speak in a single homogenous voice. How the definition of family narrows. How family celebrations get planned and funny how, even in a pandemic queer family members get left out. How so many queers are penniless at this time of year, or depressed or alone.
But there is something queer-ish about Christmas this year – in its makeshift nature, its locality, its slowness. The malls are more-or-less closed; capitalism is constrained. To be sure, the privilege of living in a neighbourhood affluent enough to avoid contagion, and being able to work at home, allows me to see a silver lining. Still, I’m finding it easier to get through the season. With my best friend sheltering with me, with my lovely pod sisters and a 5-year-old who’s had a lesbian fairy godmother his entire life, it’s actually been meaningful to bake cookies and light the Hanukah candles. Hell, I even sent out a few tacky Christmas cards.
But the best parts of the season are what happens on the edges, the Solstice singing, the Hanukah prayer, the exchange of small homemade gifts. Spending time with people who care about you, rather than spreading yourself thin amid the ambivalence of workplace or family.
To those who founder at this time of year (including me): may I suggest finding one thing you can enjoy and remember. It might be a distanced walk on Christmas Day with an old friend. It might be curling up alone with a good book. It might be bio-family or it might be chosen family. It might be a Zoom cocktail with someone on the other side of the country.
Or it might be singing pagan carols around a crooked metal xmas tree.
What are you doing to get through or even celebrate the season, this strange pandemic year?