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Clan of the Caves

January 11, 2013

Can you imagine spending a winter locked indoors with forty or fifty of your neighbors, close relations, and in-laws? Try to imagine it without television, video games, cell phones, electric lights, toilets, showers, or heat. Now swap your house for a cave. Add a diet of dried roots, salted meat, nuts and berries and melted snow, and what do you have?

A stinky situation. Unhappy children. Domestic turbulence. And possibly, multiple homicides.

You have the status quo from thousands of years ago, without any of the benefits of draft-stopping insulation or high-efficiency heat technology. You have a bunch of people hoping their summer’s labors were enough to keep them alive until it turned warm enough to go outside again.

There must have been times, in those confined quarters, when passions boiled over and friends or relatives fought and took each other’s lives. It may well have happened often. The kids must’ve fought, too; it was probably worse for them, without the full awareness of the cyclical nature of the year. They must’ve thought the winters would never end. They must’ve dreaded the beginning of the cold season, knowing they would soon be locked up interminably.

Someone – a shaman or tribal elder – must’ve observed the struggle of this cycle and brooded long and hard over a way to ease the tension. How can we make winter fun for the kids? And then someone – back before written history was developed – had an idea.

How about a celebration?

It probably sounded stupid the first time it was voiced. A celebration? In the depths of winter? What’s to celebrate? How to celebrate? There’s no food to spare. There’s nothing to do that’s different from any other day in winter. Won’t it just be seen for what it is – a half-assed excuse to take our minds off the drudgery?

Despite the arguments, the first winter celebration happened. And despite its counter-intuitive nature, it captured the children’s hearts. And was repeated. And shared among tribes. And given names. Somewhere along the line, a religious element was added.

Now, thousands of years later, the survival imperatives that gave birth to the modern holiday season have diminished into non-existence. We don’t live in caves and – as long as we stay employed – there’s enough food until the spring. We are surrounded by creature comforts and have tamed the hostile winter – we can choose to turn our backs on it or gear up and go play. Winter is no longer a time of death and stagnation; the kids actually look forward to it!

How many other traditions do we hold onto past their point of usefulness? How many other imperatives have become rituals, their origins obscured by time? How much of what we practice and believe about the way we live comes from a time so different as to be entirely alien?

Then again, maybe this tradition has endured so long because it works so well. We might not live in caves but it’s still dark and cold out. We’re better fed, but it’s a time of economic uncertainty – in many professions especially in the winter. And the kids still have to endure long boring hours inside. Maybe nothing’s changed.

Well, one thing has changed: we have our own caves. The in-laws don’t stay through the winter. And that may be a cause for celebration in itself.

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From → Rants

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