It’s not regular Christmas yet, on December 21, but tonight is the night that in some traditions is called “Blue Christmas”. Blue Christmas is the longest night of the year, also known as the Winter Solstice. Some Christian congregations traditionally hold special services on this day to support people who have lost loved ones or are otherwise grieving.
The Winter Solstice is also known as the hibernal solstice, and the one at this time of year applies to the Northern Hemisphere (there’s another one in June for the Southern Hemisphere). The term is usually applied to the day, but the actual solstice itself lasts only for a moment. It’s the point at which the a pole — the North Pole in this case — reaches the maximum tilt away from the sun. The event has been significant in many, many cultures over the millennia, even reaching back into the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. There have been innumerable rituals, rites, and festivals to mark it.
One of the traditions, this one from Northern Europe, is Yule. In modern usage “Yule” is often used to refer to the Christmas season, but that’s just because it happens at about the same time; Yule is older than Christianity. Whenever you hear about a Yule log, Yule singing, or even a Yule feast (that in the old tradition would feature roast boar or goat), you’re hearing about something that harkens back thousands of years to the midwinter season. Even the name “Yule” is ancient; it comes from the Old Norse names for Odin, the king of the gods in Valhalla.
In more recent times, December 21 was the day in 1620 that the Puritan Separatists sailing to establish a colony in North America made landfall in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. It wasn’t the first landing by the passengers of the Mayflower; they had initially arrived in Provincetown Harbor about a month earlier. But they didn’t have permission to establish a colony there, so they kept looking. After checking at least three possible sites, they finally arrived at what they decided to call “New Plymouth”, since their voyage had begun in Plymouth, England.
One of the lasting legacies of the separatists on the Mayflower is the Mayflower Compact. It’s a contract, of a sort, that laid out the rules for how the colony would be governed once it was established. They wrote it in Provincetown harbor, before they founded New Plymouth. It didn’t really break new ground in governance, but it did set out “just and equal laws” that they all promised to abide by. A couple of centuries later, on December 21, 1844, another group of people from England wrote another set of rules. They called themselves “Pioneers,” although that was more of a metaphorical title, since they — the “Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers” — weren’t planning to go anywhere at all. They were tradespeople banding together to work together. They wrote the “Rochdale Principles,” which formed the basis of the co-operative movement in England, and still today are the foundational governing ideas of co-operatives — or co-ops — around the world.
It takes a lot of cooperation to create a piece of collaborative art like a movie. Hollywood makes a lot of them, and had already been at it for several decades on December 21, 1937, when another film made its debut. But this one was different. Instead of some camera operators filming actors plying their trade, this was a full-length animated movie — the very first one. It was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, by the Walt Disney studio. It was a trend-setter in a number of areas; it was the highest-grossing sound film at the time, and thanks to numerous re-releases in theaters and on video, it’s still the highest-grossing animated film of all time. For that matter, it’s one of the top-ten grossing films of any kind in North America.
In reality, it cost far more than that.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs took about three years to make, and Walt Disney himself was nearly talked out of the production. At the time, Disney Productions was making short films like the Mickey Mouse series, and Snow White was projected to cost ten times as much. In reality, it cost far more than that, and Disney had to mortgage his house and take out an additional $250,000 loan to finish it. His friends and family, including his wife and his brother, tried to talk him out of it.
When the film was finally finished, it wasn’t close to Disney’s original idea, which was comedy propelled by “gags” — like one of his “Silly Symphony” shorts extended to feature length. The Queen was at first going to be fat, bumbling, and comical, and the Handsome Prince didn’t start out handsome at al; he was a clown. But Disney’s ideas for the film gradually evolved. The story became more serious, and the artists gradually adopted the European illustration style that Disney himself had come to prefer.
The studio set up classes with fine art instructors from a nearby art institute to teach them more realistic illustration techniques. Most of the Disney artists had never received formal art lessons; many of them had started out as newspaper cartoonists. But they had three years to improve, and improve they did. At the same time, the studio guilt a new multiplane camera that added a quasi-3D effect to some scenes. In the end, Snow White, the Queen, and the Prince ended up being depicted more realistically than the Disney studio had attempted before, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves managed to forge success out of a combination of animated comedy, more realistic drama, and, of course, music.
On December 21, 1879, though, the combination leading to dramatic success was far simpler. That was the date of the premier of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House. As you probably know, it’s the story of Nora Helmer and her attempts to build an independent life, no longer relying on her husband Torvald. Ibsen himself explained that “a woman cannot be herself in modern society, since it is an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint!”
Many people before and since have noted that societies are often not just exclusively male, but exclusively privileging just one racial or ethnic group, with everyone else subject to discrimination. This was officially recognized on December 21, 1965, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the “International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.” The Convention has since been nearly universally accepted around the world, and its implementation is monitored by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It’s an ongoing struggle to expand human rights to generally include protection from discrimination of this, or, I suppose, any sort — but it continues to be a serious effort undertaken by serious people.
But nobody can stay serious all the time, whether they’re monitoring human rights, writing dramatic plays, establishing new communities and organizations, or slowly evolving a collaborative project over several years. That is, everybody needs to have some fun once in a while. And on December 21, 1913, a man named Arthur Wynne provided a new form of fun: he introduced the world’s first crossword puzzle. It was published in the Sunday edition of the New York World newspaper. It was an immediate hit, and the paper started printing more of Wynne’s puzzles. At first he called it a “Word-Cross”, but the typesetters made a mistake at one point and printed “Cross-Word” instead — and that name stuck. The most appropriate part? Wynne’s first puzzle started you off with one word filled in. The word was “FUN.”