Power-cuts like those we’ve recently seen in the north-west of England can be unpleasant experiences, but they can also be useful reminders of how precarious modern life is. Without electricity, people in 2015 are in a worse position than their ancestors would have been two hundred years ago or more. In those days, life didn’t depend on electricity and people were much more self-sufficient. When the sun went down, they were ready with candles and oil-lamps every night of the year, because there was no alternative.
This also meant that they were more aware of the power of Mother Nature. Disasters like floods and blizzards didn’t shock them as much or disrupt their lives as badly. Looking back on those days, we can see how lucky we are today. We can also see the true deep meaning of much of our own culture. Look at Christmas, for example. It’s a time of celebration and fellowship, but how much does it truly mean today, when we have plenty of food all year round and most of us have little or nothing to do with farming?
When you look back, you can see that Christmas isn’t simply about life and pleasure: it’s also about death and suffering. In pagan days, this time of the year was called Yule and the pagans began the tradition of feasting and bright lights. It’s a dark and cold season, because this is when we go through the winter solstice, six months on from the summer solstice. In summer, we have the longest day; in winter, the longest night.
So at the winter solstice the powers of darkness reach their peak. It’s now, in the ancient pagan understanding, that the dead can appear again on earth, seeking to draw the living into their own cold and gloomy world. That’s why the living built big fires and lit many candles: to hold the darkness back and not simply recall the light and warmth of summer, but also affirm their belief that summer would return. And with bright light went hearty eating, drinking, and singing. When we say that Christmas is the season to be jolly, we repeat an idea that goes back countless centuries, back before Christianity and the use of writing in the British Isles.
In summer, we don’t need to tell ourselves to make merry and to eat well, because summer is naturally a time of light, warmth and abundance. In the modern world, winter doesn’t mean hunger and cold for most people, so Christmas – or Yuletide, as it’s sometimes known – doesn’t retain the meaning it had for our ancestors. Winter was a fearful time for them. For us, the cold, snow and rain are more an inconvenience, and unlike them we can escape to sunnier skies and warmer climes. When a power-cut arrives, the heart of the modern world stops beating, because electricity is the life-blood of the modern world. That’s when we can glimpse what it was like for so many centuries and begin to understand that Christmas celebrates life and light in the face of death and darkness.