One of the benefits of having to buy Christmas gifts for young children is that it provides an excuse to browse in the kiddies' books section of my local 'Books R Us'. We're Maurice Sendak fans in my family, so last week I went off in search of his newest book, Brundibar.
With text by playwright Tony Kushner and drawings by Sendak, Brundibar is based on a children's opera of the same name that was written in 1938 by Hans Krása and Adolf Hoffmeister for a Jewish orphanage in Prague. It tells the story of a brother and sister who set out to buy some milk for their ailing mother. They encounter trouble in the form of a bullying organ-grinder named Brundibar but, aided by three talking animals and three hundred school children, they succeed in their quest. Mean old Brundibar is properly humbled, and the opera finishes with a moving folk song about the love between mother and child which survives even when they are separated.
In recent years, Brundibar has become increasingly popular as a means of introducing children to opera, but it's a miracle the work survived at all. It was first performed by the children of Terezin concentration camp while they awaited transportation to Auschwitz, Belsen and Treblinka. Most of the performers and Krása himself died at Auschwitz, along with many other gifted artists and musicians. Written to give children hope in the face of an uncertain future, the opera is joyous and optimistic; as in the best fairy tales, good wins out over evil. One can see in the work's survival a testament to the life-affirming genius of art and the spirit of the human heart.
One can also see parallels between the victory of good over evil and the triumph of the light over darkness, something much on the minds of our ancestors at the winter solstice. Winters were desperate times for those living in the northern latitudes. Food was scarce and the climate brutal. As the solstice approached, the sun sank lower in the southern sky and the nights grew longer and colder. People feared that the sun would disappear altogether, leaving them at the mercy of the evil spirits that howled in the cold darkness. Small wonder they celebrated as the sun once more began its northward journey.
Because non-Christians already viewed this time as the rebirth of the sun, the Church chose it to also commemorate the nativity of Jesus. The actual date of his birth is unknown, and the early Church had celebrated it at various times during the year. In 274 AD the Roman Emperor Aurelian moved Christmas to late December to coincide with existing solstice festivals. Many of today's Christmas customs had their origins in our pagan ancestors' celebrations. For example, during the Roman midwinter holiday, Saturnalia, houses and temples were decorated with evergreens and lamps were kept burning to ward off the spirits of darkness. Friends visited one another and exchanged gifts of food, jewellery, candles and incense, and people blackened their faces and donned fantastic hats to dance through the streets.
Germanic peoples believed that malign spirits were abroad during the twelve days of Christmas and developed a number of customs to keep them at bay. During this time they burned incense on the altars of the churches and in homes and stables. In Bavaria, no-one washed clothes and hung them out to dry. In other places, baking or spinning were forbidden. Some areas held 'smoke nights' where boys dressed in masks and grotesque fur costumes went from house to house making loud noises. Others wore costumes of straw and roamed the dark nights to frighten away the evil spirits. To this day in some Alpine villages, men take guns into the surrounding mountains on Christmas Eve and, as the sun sets, shoot the guns to create a protective 'ring of fire' around their homes.
To our modern scientific minds, these customs may seem quaint. The mystery of the sun's comings and goings has given way to missions to the edges of our solar system. Even so, the human impulse to light up the darkness to drive away evil remains strong. We may have conquered the cold and the dark with central heating and electric lighting, but we're still at the mercy of the mean-spirited and the wicked. So, during these sunless days we muster up a few brave words, sing a few hopeful notes, and light a candle or two in the empty corners of our homes and souls.
'The wicked never win! We have our victory yet!
Tyrants come along, but just you wait and see!
They topple one-two-three!
Our friends make us strong! And thus we end our song.'