On December 20th, Prospect will be doing a benefit concert of EVERGREEN.  This is a show that Cara and I created last year as a result of several overlapping impulses:  we wanted to do a holiday show... because holiday shows sell well.  We wanted to do a show with a lot of kids in the cast... because those sell well too.  

Okay, we did have at least one additional motivation that wasn't crassly financial.  We had read a fascinating book called When Santa Was A Shaman, all about the pagan origins of our Christmas traditions.  We wanted to see if we could create a "new" winter holiday story-- a myth, in the Joseph Campbell sense-- that used these ancient, pagan sources as its basis.  We described the project as a secular holiday musical, but maybe it would be more accurate to say that it was based on older religion.

Winter holidays, it seems, are deeply embedded in our collective unconscious and are about two things:  the winter solstice, and man's mastery of fire.  This first idea I had heard before:  that winter holidays arose out of a desire to lift the spirits during the short dark days, and to anticipate the return of springtime.  In pre-historic, sun-worshipping cultures, solstice was the time when the sun literally began its return, as days began to get longer. Thus, the religious significance of the holiday was connected to this idea of renewal and the return of life.

The other half of the equation, the discovery of fire, was new to me, and I found this fascinating.  There is this idea of the "tree of fire" (or burning bush, if you will) that is a near universal symbol across all cultures.  Our Christmas tree with lights on it is the modern descendant, but they all trace back to that momentous time in history when cavemen first brought burning branches into their homes... thus allowing them to better survive the winter, and do a whole lot of other things subsequently.  The first fire was probably "stolen" from a tree that had been struck by lightning... i.e., stolen from the heavens.  That is where the mythology of Prometheus and even the Garden of Eden story comes from! (Yes.  Apples = fire.  Serpent = lightning.)  

So we continue to pay tribute to these ancient parts of mankind.  Each December we bring a tree into our home and put lights on it.  The evergreen tree is a symbol of the perseverance of life through the dead of winter -- the promise of spring's renewal.  And that is a third big idea that is tied up in all this winter holiday mythology:  fertility. Ancient solstice celebrations were a time of feasting, partying and getting it on.  And Santa was a shaman, a priest who presided over these rowdy bacchanals.  Dionysus himself is an ancestor in this tradition!  And there's a whole lot of fascinating stuff to learn about how Christianity tried to co-opt the various pagan winter holiday traditions that were already in place... but ultimately how much of it remains essentially pre-Christian.  

So, getting back to our show... we took some of these elements...  the theme of renewal, the symbolism of evergreen treees, the figure of the shaman... we gave them a bit of a modern environmental spin, and we applied them to a Campbellian hero's journey:  in a world where [yes, that's the movie trailer formula] snow is never seen and trees have disappeared, a young girl goes on a quest to find the last living evergreen trees.  Want to know more?  Come to the benefit concert!

Musings Past