In William Carlos Williams’s famous poem “Burning the Christmas Greens” he notes how at “the thick of the dark moment” in “winter’s midnight” we turn to the trees because “green is a solace” that we use to “fill our need.” Thus the “living green” along with “paper Christmas bells covered with tinfoil and fastened by red ribbons” seem “gentle and good to us.” But then when their time is past we feel the relief as we clear our rooms and assign the greens to the fireplace and “in the jagged flames green to red, instant and alive.” And we stand “breathless to be witnesses as if we stood ourselves refreshed among the shining fauna of that fire.”
This evocative poem is about many things—hope, ritual, creative destruction and regeneration—and it points to something more primal that lies under the superficial consumer frenzy of our contemporary “holiday.” Indeed the green of our Christmas trees and garlands harkens back to pagan associations of the evergreen with fertility and eternal light. And the timing of the Christmas season has less to do with any documentable connection to the birth of Christ than it does with the early Christians’ expropriation of pre-existing pagan festivities to help bolster their new faith.
While Christmas trees may be a legacy of ancient Germanic peoples’ worship of nature, the Roman holiday of Saturnalia corresponding to the winter solstice was a celebration of the renewal of light and a look back to the Golden Era of natural bounty and communal joy. This pagan festival was infused with the spirit of carnival with its open embrace of excess, sensual abandonment, and egalitarianism. It was a day when masters served slaves and revelry was king.
It was precisely this kind of “Christmas on Earth” that inspired Barbara Rubin’s obscure 1964 avant-garde film of a Warhol-esque orgy that borrowed its title from Arthur Rimbaud’s poem “Morning.” While some condemned the film as a work of an amateur, Allen Ginsberg said of her, “Her genius was sympathizing with everybody’s desire to get together in work with their fellow geniuses.”
More importantly, for Rimbaud, “Christmas on Earth” stood in for the possibility of the unrealized full life we yearn for, a world that beckons to us in the fallen present the way the Golden Era did for the Romans: “From the same desert, toward the same dark sky, my tired eyes forever open on the silver star, forever; but the three wise men never stir, the Kings of life, the heart, the soul, the mind. When will we go, over mountains and shores, to hail the birth of new labor, new wisdom, the flight of tyrants and demons, the end of superstition, – to be the first to adore! – Christmas on earth!
The song of the heavens, the marching of nations! We are slaves, let us not curse life!”
So, in the spirit of the pagans, leave the dead world of things behind, burn the Christmas greens, own the present moment, and live. Merry Christmas, dear reader!
Editor Note: This article originally appeared on December 24, 2012