This time of year I am always grateful to an author who offers a little hope and levity when the Christmas madness is too much. British author Terry Prachett was a satirist of the most delicate kind who wrote the holiday story, Hogfather. Because it brings our family so much light during what can be a stressful time, the Hogfather solstice tradition is celebrated every year at the McCullough household.
My husband would read Hogfather to our three children each holiday season. Then, quite delightfully, it was turned into a three episode mini-series starring Michelle Dougherty (of Downton Abbey fame).
What exactly is a Hogfather?
Pratchett works his magic commenting on the world and humanity’s foibles through the workings of his imaginary world, Discworld, which is where Hogfather takes place. Discworld is populated by wizards and guilds, a genteel despot, Lord Ventenari, and a host of unforgettable characters. What is delicious about the Discworld series is that it is an intelligent, adult commentary on the world we live in now. Enlightened by tongue-in-cheek humor and a gentleness of spirit, Prachett weaves stories that readers young and old can relate to and appreciate.
“Hogfather” refers to the Scottish celebration of light called “Hogamanny.” This version of Santa drives a sleigh of boars rather than reindeer, but otherwise very much resembles our Old St. Nick in that he holds the Christmas Spirit. The tale is about entities called the auditors who seek to “in-hume” (or eliminate) The Hog Father to cause the disruption of belief among the populace and gain power over the minds of the humans. Ultimately Death (yes, the Death, who is represented by a skeleton with the scythe on a white horse named Binky) attempts to save Christmas by impersonating the Hog Father. He enlists the reluctant aid of his half magical/half human granddaughter, Susan. Of course there are wizards and magic, villains and redemption, all served up with humor.
Prachett manages to interweave the ancient rites of solstice and the importance of its celebration into his tale of sacrifice and love, magic and time travel, and the all-too human need to believe in something greater than ourselves.
After a few adventures, which include saving the Tooth Fairy and the “god” of Christmas cheer, Susan saves the ancient embodiment of Hog Father, the Solstice Shaman. Riding a boar, he is being hunted down by the wolves and auditors in order to be sacrificed and prevent the sun from rising, thus destroying the Hog Father and the holiday once and for all. Once saved, the Solstice Shaman takes his place to greet the rising sun. Ultimately, it is the exchange between Death and his granddaughter, Susan, after they have saved the day, that sums up the power of the story and the meaning of the solstice.
Hogfather solstice tradition: An excerpt
“What would have happened if you never saved him?” Death asked (referring to the sacrificial solstice shaman/boar).
“The sun would have risen just the same, yes?” Susan said.
“No”, replies Death.
“Oh, come on. you can’t expect me to believe that. it’s an astronomical fact!”
“The sun would not have risen. A mere ball of flaming gas would have illuminated the world.”
“A trickery with words,” Susan responds.” I would have thought you’d have been more literal-minded than that.”
“I am nothing if not literal-minded. Trickery with words is where humans live.”
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need…fantasies to make life bearable.”
“No. Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.”
“Tooth fairies? Hogathers? little—-“
“Yes. As practice. You have to start out learning to believe the little lies.”
“So we can believe the big ones?”
“Yes. Justice. Mercy. Duty. That sort of thing.”
“They’re not the same at all!”
“You don’t think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet you act as if there is some real order in the world, as if there is some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.”
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—-“
“My point exactly. There is a place where two galaxies have been colliding for a million years. don’t tell me that’s right.”
“Yes, but people don’t think about that,” said Susan.
“Correct. Stars explode, worlds collide. There’s hardly anywhere in the universe where humans can live without being frozen or fried, and yet you believe that a bed is a normal thing. It is the most amazing talent.”
“Oh, yes. A very special kind of stupidity. You think the whole universe is inside your heads.”
“You make us sound mad,” said Susan.
“No. You need to believe in things that aren’t true. How else can they become?”
The magic of believing
Yes, indeed, Dear Ones, how else can we create peace, equality, change…how else can they become if we don’t believe?
Merry Solstice! Happy Yule! Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, Kwanza, Dwali, Los Posadas and however else you celebrate. believe it can all be different… then don’t forget to act on your belief to make it so.
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