Masks and so on

So, I mentioned some time ago that I went to the Comics Unmasked exhibit at the British Library, but I don’t know if I mentioned that there were mannequins in Guy Fawkes masks everywhere. That’s appropriate, because the modern use of the Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol of, er, anonymous resistance to authority is taken from V for Vendetta more than anything else.


It’s interesting to me, because of course in the Guy Fawkes celebration, Guy Fawkes is the, er, bad guy. The whole holiday is about burning him in effigy because we don’t approve of the whole idea of blowing up Parliament. The Gunpowder Plot was about replacing the head of state with a different head of state; insofar as there was going to be any change in the type of government, I don’t think we can imagine a Catholic monarchy being more representative.

So the symbol has mutated, first from the target of patriotic anti-Catholicism into a symbol of sort of, I dunno, fiery seasonal levity to a symbol of resistance to authority. The mask is the important thing, and the person whose face it represents has faded away almost completely.

Now, if I were a less self-critical type, I would just think (as indeed I used to) that this indicated that the people wearing the masks were historically ignorant, and I would either condemn them as dumbshits or shake my head about what they teach them in these schools these days. But this is just one of those things — Guy Fawkes’ day ceased to be about Guy Fawkes per se a long time ago.

This particular case interests me because there are quite a lot of holidays where people think that the holiday has drifted from its original meaning — this thing was originally a pagan fertility festival, for instance, or that thing has lost its true Christian purpose. In most cases, you can’t apply the “that’s just how things work” argument because the premise isn’t actually true. You can see that most obviously with commonly-repeated “facts” about Easter or Halloween. But in this case we do know what the holiday was originally all about, because it’s a comparatively recent one. So we can see how it and its meaning evolved over the centuries.

Or we could if we were modern historians. I don’t know anything about that stuff.

Masks and so on

The Living Dead

Economist Paul Krugman talks about “zombie ideas” — that is, notions that have long since been disproven either by economics or just experience but which nonetheless continue to be part of political discussions, possibly because they just sound right and possibly because they provide a political or social reward for their adherents.

I think about this at Halloween, not just because zombies are seasonally appropriate but because the story of Halloween itself is something of a zombie idea.


That is, anyone who knows anything about European history knows that the idea that “Halloween is an ancient pagan festival” is pretty much guff — it is on the same date as a pagan celebration, but there’s no evidence they have anything in common, and there’s no continuity between the two (note that the Ronald Hutton article I’ve linked has a headline that suggests some kind of deeper meaning to Halloween, but the text of the article doesn’t support it).

And yet, it’s an incredibly persistent idea, together with the broader idea of pagan survival in Christian Europe. Presumably, then, it fulfills some kind of other need. But what? I don’t know, other perhaps than that it’s just a better story that way. People do like a good story.

The Living Dead

O Tannenbullshit



The aged artificial tree went up on Sunday here at 1 Gonzo Mansions, and has already accumulated a fine crop of presents. The Amazon boxes are a bit un-festive-looking, but since we have no idea what’s in them we don’t dare open them for fear of spoilers. But amidst the general holiday cheer, there are some odd notes.

One of the things I always find fascinating is when you have a historical misconception that’s on both sides of an argument. This seems to be the case with this thing about the “pagan” origins of Christmas trees.

Here is what we know about Christmas trees: the practice probably comes from Germany in the 18th century and spread to parts of the world where Germans immigrated, like Britain and the US. Subsequently, the media power of the US in particular spread the custom around the world. But people get very excited about the link with “pagan” traditions.

I wish I could articulate how skeptical I am of all this. Take this quote from one Christian site:

Centuries ago in Great Britain, woods priests called Druids used evergreens during mysterious winter solstice rituals.

Mysteeeeeeerious. What do we know about these mysterious rituals, and where do we know it from?

Hmmm. Not much. I guess that’s why they’re mysterious?

Now, I have not studied this in depth, but as far as I can tell the reasoning is, like the Halloween thing, backward. I feel like I can see the fell hand of the 19th-century folklorist here, desperately trying to glide over the fact that Druids were supposedly into oaks and Christmas trees are conifers, looking at any practice that involves decorating the house with any kind of plant (Roman Christians are forbidden from decorating their houses with laurel wreaths. A laurel wreath’s kind of like a fir tree, right?) and seeing a Christmas tree, and generally stretching like billy-o. You start with a custom that’s German and involves a tree, and because you’re a muddle-headed 19th-century German Romantic aswim in volkisch dumbness, you start to have hazy visions of the Irminsul, and quick, you need to explain how this connects to pagan practices in some way. So you round up every greenery-related custom you can find, and instead of any kind of historical thread connecting these practices you fire off a barrage of descriptions of things that are a little bit like each other, but there’s so much of it … and before you know it everyone knows that Christmas trees are pagan, even if no one can point to an actual source.

Hell, I’d even be willing to believe that folky Romanticism was part of what got people so into Christmas trees, summoning up some nebulous image of wintry hospitality and warmth and little cabins with glowing windows in deep snowy woods. (The practice appears to have started in urban areas, actually, but hey.) The association with folky fuzzy concepts of paganism could very well have something to do with why people get into many of these greenery-related Christmas concepts. But that hardly means they’re “inspired by” or even anything at all to do with paganism.

And then there’s the usual seasonal arguments. People decorated their houses with evergreen plants in the winter, eh? No shit they did; they were hardly going to put spring flowers up.

What’s weird is that both sides in the Christmas tree debate seem to credit the same argument. Take this Christian site, which condemns the whole tree idea as non-Christian on the grounds that it comes from pagan customs, and compare to this site, which approves of the Christmas tree on the grounds that it comes from pagan customs. This guy debunks the common idea that Jeremiah 10:1-4 condemns the Christmas tree, mainly by going on to read Jeremiah 10:5 and the following verses.

It’s like this with all Christianity-and-paganism stuff, I sometimes think. One lot thinks Christianity copied paganism and that’s bad, one lot thinks Christianity copied paganism and that’s good, and those who think that maybe neither side has as clear an idea of what Christianity or paganism really are in their historical contexts as they probably could are in the decided minority.

Oh well.

I think what I’ll do is stick some stick-on bows on the Amazon packages so that they look sparkly and festive despite being brown cardboard.

O Tannenbullshit