Believe what? asked Shadow. What should I believe?
Everything, roared the buffalo man.
All the fairy tales are real and all the myths are true. Didn’t you know? The Year of the Crow (rephrased by author).
We are story tellers, we humans. Since the days when our only comforts were a blazing fire and each other, we told stories. We gossiped. “Did you know? Have you heard? Here’s what I think happened.” We told hunting stories. “The men spread out among the trees. I could hear the auroch bellowing. It was fearful, let me tell you. I had hidden behind a fallen log, getting my spear ready, when suddenly …” We related tales of our journeys. “You ask where I’ve been. Well, you know the place where the sky touches the earth on top of the Dark Hills. I wanted to touch the sky, so I walked and walked as far as far can be until I reached the Dark Hills, and then I began to climb …”
And when the world grew dark and the days grew short and the cold winds blew, when berries dried on the vine and dropped tasteless to the ground, and animals were rarely found, when snow transformed the world into a place filled with a terrible wonder, children grew frightened, convinced that the earth and all in it would soon die. That was when the grown men and women, who had seen it all before, remembered the terror they too had felt as children, remembered the stories their parents told them. Stories of where the sun went, of why the cold winds came, of how life itself was sleeping under the snow waiting to be released in the spring.
Those were the first Christmases. Winter claimed the land, the people told their stories, and soon the sun returned, bringing life and hope. The children will remember.
As the children grew and journeyed beyond the Dark Hills and peopled the earth, the stories grew, changing with new tellers in new places under new circumstances. The long, cold, dark night became Yalda Night . Yule. Dongzhi. Shalako. And yes, Christmas.
They are all ancient, and I think they all have their roots in something real. The real experience of the longest and darkest night. Stories told of real people and the seemingly magical events surrounding them. Stories of how a candle was placed here, a gift given there, a shaman’s dance followed by a piece of good luck, fires kept alight to ward off evil, food made from available materials keeping life and hope, body and soul, together. A child is born, and a story is told of prophecy.
I was born into the story that a child was born, and even though I have given up believing in that particular child in the way I was raised, I haven’t given up on the story. It’s all there. The candles, the gifts, firelight and food, and even a shaman or three. And every year, just as prophesied, the sun is reborn and light returns to the world.
Joy to the world and goodwill toward all peoples, love conquers all and peace will prevail may not be the visible realities of our world, anymore than the stories we tell to explain the long dark nights, the short dreary days may not be annotated histories.
But still. I am the atheist who sticks a five-dollar bill into a Salvation Army kettle. I decorate a tree, I buy and wrap gifts, I bake and cook enough that the leftovers will take me and mine into the New Year. I love the long dark, because without it, why would we celebrate the light? Where would we be without our stories?
I believe it’s time for pie for breakfast.
I believe in Christmas.