The Other Side of the Hedge: Why Is Yule like The Force?

The Other Side of the Hedge: Why Is Yule like The Force? December 20, 2015

Yuletide. Christmas. Midwinter. New Year’s. What do these celebrations have in common? They all have their origins in month-long feasting found, at various times, from Scandinavia to Rome. These midwinter festivals all tie us together in the spirit of community.

Yule is the returning of the Sun. In it is an acknowledgement of the power of the dark, but the returning of hope and life in the coming light of the New Year. While we all might acknowledge the power of the dark, as people and especially as Westerners, we root for the light.

The midwinter holidays are a glue that binds us together – not just the Christian community or the Pagan community, but the larger community of America. From the feasting of Thanksgiving to the ritually hungover “watching of the football” on New Year’s Day, Yuletide is a time like no other.

Star Wars and Christmas

Some of my earliest memories involve Star Wars and Christmas. When Star Wars: A New Hope came out, I was (just) old enough to see it in the theater, and young enough to embrace it with a fervor that probably wasn’t entirely healthy.

The Star Wars Christmas album? Check.
The Star Wars Holiday Special? Check.
The Millennium Falcon under the Christmas tree? Check.

Millennium Falcon — © Polly Peterson (2013) Star Wars exhibit at The Tech Museum of Innovation, San Jose, CA
Millennium Falcon — Photo © Polly Peterson (2013) Star Wars exhibit at The Tech Museum of Innovation, San Jose, CA

Model trains? Batman lunchboxes? Superman underoos? A Jedi craves not these things. For about four years solid, it was all Star Wars, all the time. (Looking back, I feel nothing but compassion for my parents.)

I don’t think I ever said, “I want to be a Jedi when I grow up.” But then again, maybe I did.

While Christianity didn’t speak to me (and I kind of wanted it to), George Lucas’s fantasy religion did. Though it was only a pale, commercialized reflection of deep and meaningful spiritual beliefs that actually exist, it made sense to my young mind. Star Wars was accessible, acceptable, and reflected a certain deeper reality in ways that my traditional religion failed to.

Star Wars also reflected the values of the world in which I lived. Both it and the holiday season are reflections of America. They embody America’s greatest aspirations, but also its dark side.

It Has a Light Side…

The spiritual message of this American feasting season is twofold. While American culture is openly and often unnecessarily competitive, the Yuletide season’s message is clear: that which binds us together is stronger than that which pulls us apart.

While we spend eleven months each year acting as if we can never have enough, for this month of feasting we are bound to act as if there is more than enough for everyone. It is a time to show our generosity.

Jedi Master Yoda — © Polly Peterson (2013) Star Wars exhibit at The Tech Museum of Innovation, San Jose, CA
Jedi Master Yoda — Photo © Polly Peterson (2013) Star Wars exhibit at The Tech Museum of Innovation, San Jose, CA

The light side of Yuletide isn’t too hard to find. It’s a time of community, of sharing. It’s a time when our differences (for better or worse) are glossed over in a giant white-and-red, gift-wrapped extravaganza.

At night, you can drive through the streets of just about any American town or city and see the lights and decorations. The ways that we decorate are a gentle expression of who we are. See the house with all blue lights and a menorah? How about the house with the cross? And this one just has idyllic reindeer and doesn’t commit too much one way or another, or a mostly agnostic Santa in his sleigh.

If there’s any spiritual lesson in Star Wars, it’s that we’re all connected, and that our power comes from that. “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

If there’s any spirit of Yuletide in America, it’s the spirit of brotherly love. In a country as diverse as this one, everyone getting along isn’t assumed. With the diversity of this country of immigrants, living together is only possible when we hold the whole dearer than ourselves.

America, like any relationship, only works when we work at it. America, as a community, is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s the sum of its parts, all glued together by common experiences and myths.

At this time of year, the Yuletide specials and sit-coms, the sappy myths of our culture, take a turn toward the especially saccharine. Our modern myth-makers are bent on reminding us that our greatest power comes in getting along. But it wasn’t their idea. It’s the highest value America holds. At its best, this country is about getting along and working together.

…And a Dark Side…

Come to the Dark Side — Photo © Polly Peterson (2013) Star Wars exhibit at The Tech Museum of Innovation, San Jose, CA
Come to the Dark Side — Photo © Polly Peterson (2013) Star Wars exhibit at The Tech Museum of Innovation, San Jose, CA

The dark side of the holidays starts in the bowels of the festival month’s second day: the aptly named “Black Friday.” While the day wasn’t named for the evil it encourages in people’s souls, it might as well have been. Just as much as this is the season of giving, it can also be the season of competitive, materialistic acquiring.

There’s a line we cross. We start trying to get the best gift for someone. But it can get dark, turning into a horrific, middle-class game of one-upsmanship. And once you choose the dark side, it will forever dominate your destiny.

And let’s not forget some of the other dark realities. While for some this is a time of family, for many industries it is also a time of working double shifts, required overtime, false cheer, and the miasma of eternally repeated carols, which burdens the spirit and scars the mind.

…And It Binds the Universe Together

The spiritual importance of Star Wars, at least for me, is that it showed us a world in which everything was interrelated. It’s a world where we draw our strength from that connectedness. It was something that could only have been written with a straight face in the 1970s.

The first movie came out in 1977. Star Wars lacks much of the soaring tone imperialism that would have been found in earlier work, or the edgy, gritty “reality” of later decades. For an ultimate battle of good and evil, Star Wars is spiritually very “nice” – perhaps naively so. But honestly, that’s part of its charm.

Like Yule, Star Wars is about a coming together of the “Light” to stand against the encroaching “Dark.” Central to the Star Wars cosmology is The Force. It has a Light Side and a Dark Side. It binds the universe together.

Like The Force, the Yuletide season penetrates “everything” – perhaps not in some universal, animistic way. But in terms of our culture, from Black Friday through Christmas Eve, America is either obsessed, or obsessed with not being obsessed.

In America, Christmas has historically been an ostensibly a Christian holiday. It’s also just plain part of the American mythos. Christmas as we know it was born in the years after the Civil War, when America needed some celebration to bring us together. It became a federal holiday in 1870.

With its shining tree and its gift-giving elf, it’s no wonder the Christians feel we need a reminder of the “Reason for the Season.” Wait, that’s Mithras, right? Saturnalia? Sun-return? Oh, right. Christianity has its own version. And that’s fine. But we all have a place at the table: that’s an American value.

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