Christmas traditions and Hayek’s wisdom
One of my favourite moments in Terry Pratchett’s great Discworld fantasy series comes from his holiday novel, Hogfather. The novel is about the kidnapping of the Hogfather—the Discworld’s combined analogue for Santa and various solstice gods. (He rides around on a sleigh pulled by wild boars, delivering presents, and ensuring the return of the sun.) After the Hogfather has been rescued, his rescuer Susan, asks Death, (yes, that Death) what would have happened had the Hogfather not been saved. Death responds in his customary all-caps deadpan:
WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF YOU HADN'T SAVED HIM?
"…The sun would have risen just the same, yes?"
"Oh, come on. You can't expect me to believe that. It's an astronomical fact."
THE SUN WOULD NOT HAVE RISEN.
"Really? Then what would have happened, pray?"
A MERE BALL OF FLAMING GAS WOULD HAVE ILLUMINATED THE WORLD.
I’ve always liked this exchange because, for me, it emphasizes the way traditions imbue the world with meaning long after the original reasons for them have withered away. We know, when we hang lights on our houses and trees, that it’s not going to make the sun come back if we do it. And it’s not going to make the sun disappear if we don’t.
But it’s winter. And it’s dark and it’s cold. And a little light is always a good thing.
Traditions matter. Even if we no longer believe that our fairy lights and our anthropomorphic representations of the return of warmth and light actually accomplish anything magical, the tradition matters, somehow, for how we understand our place in the world. Tradition matters for expressing our hopes of what the world could be like.
Recently I read a great piece by Alexandra (Sasha) Grigorieva over at The Walrus about winter in Finland. Amid her musings about the challenges of dressing children for Finnish winters, the writer notes that:
Winter solstice is taken very seriously in Finland, from the day of official lighting of city Christmas decorations in late November to Finnish Independence Day on December 6, when people light pairs of candles in every window. Finns also honour their departed family members on Christmas Eve, leaving lighted lanterns at their graves. Recently a festival of light has been instituted for early January, so there’s no lack in light warfare against winter darkness.
I love that image of tiny lights illuminating a country’s metaphorical war against the dark, whether we hang up the lights for that reason, or just because it’s pretty and the kids complain if we don’t.
Holidays are laden with these kinds of traditions—traditions that we follow for reasons we cannot begin to explain. Why aren’t chocolate-chip cookies “Christmas Cookies?” I don’t know. They just aren’t. Why is pumpkin for Thanksgiving and peppermint for Christmas? I don’t know. They just are. Happily, we don’t have to know. Hayek reminds us that “the appropriateness of our conduct is not necessarily dependent on our knowing why it is so.”
Hayek continues, a little later in the same piece, by noting that his respect for following traditions even when we don’t understand them is intended to serve as something of a precaution against the modern tendency to think we do understand, and can control, everything.
What we must learn to understand is that human civilization has a life of its own, that all our efforts to improve things must operate within a working whole which we cannot control entirely, and with regard to which we can hope merely to facilitate and assist the operation of its forces so far as we understand them.
So light something up this winter. Maybe it will bring the sun back. Maybe it will just cheer up your neighbours. Certainly, it’s tradition that can’t hurt.