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