Severe storms in the Pacific Northwest knocked out power for a time last winter. Having been out of town when this occurred, I returned to the area some days later to find the main roads cleared but the power still down and recovery very much underway and incomplete. I fired up a backup generator, heated the house, and set about the cleanup tasks, discarding spoiled food, cutting up downed trees, filing insurance claims, etc.
During a break in the weather, I took a walk around the neighborhood, inspecting the damage and contemplating the situation. It was then that I began to think about the gathering and giving spirit of this time of year. It probably has its origins far earlier than the various contemporary religious traditions to which it is commonly attributed, and probably played a crucial role in the survival of the human species to the present era.
At this time of year, when the weather often can be harsh, it was almost certainly a cooperative effort just to survive the season. People were together during these trying times much more closely and must have traded supplies as well as physical warmth, huddling together, bundling up in whatever skin blankets, tents, huts, and shelters were available. No doubt this sharing of body heat resulted in significant numbers of pregnancies.
Relief from having survived the harsh season of winter (and no longer having to huddle in such close quarters with others who by that time were no doubt starting to get on each others’ nerves) and the increasing visibility of the resulting pregnancies almost certainly is the foundation for the exuberant fertility festivals of the spring season.
A bountiful harvest, whether by hunter-gatherers, herders, or farmers, was a major factor in whether or not there would be sufficient food to survive the coming winter; hence the harvest celebrations of the autumn season. Plentiful food meant feasts during which, not unlike our kin species in the wild, people indulged, thus packing on fat reserves for the coming harsh season. What wasn’t consumed was preserved as best they knew how, to provide rations through the winter. And so the cycle continued.
Gift giving probably evolved from necessary trade between people pooling their resources during the huddle. Good will in the form of proffered foodstuffs, skin blankets, etc., was reciprocated in kind. Concern also developed on the part of those with more, to assist those who may have been unable to store adequate supplies for their own survival, an early form of a community safety net, helping some in one year and others in the next.
Coming together for survival was also an opportunity for reunion between family and friends who may have traveled separately during the rest of the year. The cheer of the time no doubt stemmed from the joy of these reunions and the comfort and security of being with the group. At night, around the fire, stories would be told, sharing the experiences of the past year, fears, triumphs; no doubt exaggerated with each telling. Many cultures devised proto-religious spiritual embellishments to help explain their experiences.
Tens of thousands of years after those ancient times of continuous survival pressure, many forms of festive seasonal traditions persist in nearly every human culture, having evolved through many twists and turns along with the religious concepts and contexts that came to surround them, to the holidays we know today. Evolution is ceaseless; certainly these traditions continue to change and adjust in light of changing reality and our ever-expanding understanding of the world around us. We are long overdue to shake off the primitive religious baggage we have carried forward to the present. Reality offers more than enough reason to celebrate without the need for a fantastical veneer of spiritual nonsense to dampen our exuberance.