A Darker Christmas
Driving through a dark wintry Cumbrian landscape last week, I switched on the radio for a little festive cheer. There was a documentary on about how they do Christmas in Iceland. It is called Jól. Central to the mythology is Grýla, a giant cannibal. Her job is to make stew from the bad children in the area and eat it at Christmas (a smidge more severe than coal in your stocking, eh?). Iceland, it would seem is a bit more “Bleak mid-winter” and a little less “Jingle Bells” with its Christmas stories.
Recalling it now, my mind is full of images of 30 odd screaming children dangling from giant gnarled hands as Grýla lollops up to her mountain cave, slavering at the thought of munching on young bones. Dark. It didn’t end well either. She did make her stew and the local village was a bit light on players for the school nativity that year.
My dad would have enjoyed it. His bedtime stories were notorious among my cousins for their ability to induce fevered insomnia in the most exhausted child. I remember the fable about a little fairy who would secretly clean an old woman’s house because she was lame. Diligently the fairy would dash around the cottage, tidying up and, because she was kind, would crawl into the old woman’s slippers just before morning and sprinkle magic healing powder in them. One day, she was running a bit late and she was in a slipper just as the old woman woke up. The last thing the fairy saw was a black, “bunioned” old toe accelerating at her. The only thing the old woman ever knew about the fairy was a little spot of blood at the end of her toe nail. End of story, night night.
There was also one about an old woman who found an emaciated little bird in her garden and fed it some crumbs. The little bird came back the next day and she fed it again. She was delighted with her new friend and it certainly took the edge of her loneliness. He came back every day and each time he was a bit stronger and a little bigger. Eventually he was taller than the woman who was now feeding him whole loaves of bread. One day she heard him whoosh over the house, his wings casting huge shadows on the lawn and he landed with a ground-shaking thud. The old woman checked her pantry and saw that she was out of bread. She went out to explain to her friend that she had no food for him that day and he ate her. End of story. Sleep tight.
The fact that I have spent my life studying psychology is perhaps not the mystery I thought it was.
At the end of the radio show about Jól, they interviewed a sociologist about the darkness of the children’s stories. He was positive about them and believed that they were a vital component of the Icelandic childhood psyche. In Iceland, the last thing you want is a youngster wandering into the forest or up a mountain, especially in midwinter. A healthy terror of what lies in the darkness is no bad thing for curbing the more adventurous and boundary pushing members of the family.
As I reflect on the horrible stories my dad told and his mischievous chortles as he left us pleading for a better ending, I wonder what was positive about them.
Increasingly, it feels like we live in a circumscribed world, defending ourselves against wild and overwhelming emotions. It seems that only celebration and encouragement are validated today; positive feedback, looking for the good and digging for the treasure. We tiptoe around each other, terrified of offending, hurting, frightening and grieving. This has its good points. I love that bullying is no longer legal in this country. Yet, why did I love my Dad’s stories more than anyone else’s and although he frightened and occasionally disgusted me with his tales, there has never been anyone else with his ability to make me laugh.
Maybe it’s time to validate the survival emotions again and mine them for treasure. In Iceland they know that fear is positively motivated by a desire for safety. Can we also notice that grief pushes us towards comfort, disgust defends our self-efficacy, anger urges us to intimacy and shame drives us to innocence and belonging. What if these emotions were signals rather than traumas? Could we become familiar with them, listen to their messages and employ them to be more awake and more whole? Isn’t the context of parental storytelling and the safety of our own beds exactly the place to learn how these emotions protect our communities?
In Albuquerque, I heard Richard Rohr bemoan the loss of ritual in society. He acknowledged that there was plenty of celebration: weddings, christenings, Bar Mitzvahs and Diwali. Ritual is different from these in that it contains shadow: the darker side of experience; a confrontation with the hidden parts of our psyche. Embracing our fears and shame and finding the gold in them creates transition, growth, new levels of awareness and maturation. In our society, we have largely jettisoned the methods and practices we had for these transitions in life as we have become more “sophisticated.” These rites are only really retained in ancient and indigenous cultures. The absence of rite in contemporary culture, Richard believes, is responsible for compromised leadership and weak character in many of our public figures.
Perhaps the Icelanders and my Dad were onto something. Maybe there is greater safety, comfort, purity, intimacy and belonging at Christmas if we don’t always keep the Christmas lights on. Maybe we should light a fire, tell our ghost stories with rotten endings and sit in our cosy fear so that we can see how safe we really are.
Perhaps our lights will shine brighter if we are less afraid of the shadows they cast.