The very oldest stories about Solstice holidays are always to do with blood. Something, or somebody, will leave his blood on the snow in propitiation to the sun god. Something, or somebody, has got to die so that life will return to the dead and frozen earth.
We’ve become more civilized and sophisticated. In place of slaughtering a bull or strangling some unfortunate and unloved member of the tribe, we use red and green colors to symbolize death and rebirth. We make up elaborate stories for children about a magical man from the North Pole who rewards good children with presents. (At least the children of more well-off families. Santa seems to conflate poverty with naughtiness.)
And we tell the story of the birth of a child in a manger 2000 years ago, visited by shepherds and magi from the mystic orient, heralded by angels and a magical star.
The important thing about Jesus isn’t that he was born, or the irregular nature of his conception. The important thing for Christians is that roughly three decades after that birth, he was tortured to death to propitiate a bloodthirsty deity. Just like the stories that went before.
The very oldest stories are, sooner or later, about blood.
Pratchett didn’t believe in gods, but he did believe in people, especially in their endless search for meaning. He puts his most profound words into the mouth of Death, who always speaks in capital letters. This conversation is between Death and his granddaughter, the skeptical and rational Susan.
“All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need... fantasies to make life bearable."
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—"
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
"So we can believe the big ones?"
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
"They're not the same at all!"
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME...SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
"Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point—"
MY POINT EXACTLY.”
Children can’t really distinguish between magic and reality until age 6 or 7 - about the time they figure out the truth about Santa Claus. But the holiday time is still fun and the stories are still meaningful even when you no longer believe they are literally true. You don’t have to be a child to enjoy Christmas.
There may never be peace over all the earth, but there’s peace where we live, and it’s pleasant to simply enjoy it. I’ve no idea if a babe was born in a manger two millennia ago, but there was a babe born in the night who may well save the world. It doesn’t take a grisly sacrifice to appreciate love, contentment, and the knowledge that all winters melt eventually into spring.
Happy holidays to all. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Yule, and Happy Hogswatch!