Friday, December 21, 2012

Overeating and tradition

It's the time of year when many Christians, former Christians, as well as those who want to jump on the bandwagon, so to speak, celebrate the end of the calendar year with at least one feast day, Christmas. It's no coincidence that the day to honor Christ's birth falls around the winter solstice. It is the gloomiest part of the northern hemisphere year, the start of winter, and a time for embracing any excuse for indulging in light, heat, and ample food (and drink). The Roman (pagan) feast of Saturnalia falls around this time, and we all know that the Romans were party animals.
Today is one of the two ironic days of the solar year. It marks the beginning of winter - yet tomorrow the days start growing longer until we reach the summer solstice (around June 21). That day is the first day of summer, of course, but it also heralds the shortening of the daylight hours all the way up to Dec. 21 or 22.
If you look at a calendar from 100-200 years ago - say, 1800 - you will see how many saints' days there were. People were expected to fast on certain days, feast on others. I suppose this was a system that had been worked out (not necessarily "planned" by an elder or a committee, though who knows what kind of control went on, way back when?) to help with food distrubution amongst the populace. It was normal to go without all food for a day or two, or without certain foods - usually scarcities like land animals and their products - for a longer period, e.g., Lent. Later, there was a feast of some kind. The entire year was broken up into this on/off pattern, not just at major holidays like Easter.
When people now laugh about overeating at Christmas, they are simply honoring tradition, if you really think about it. The trouble is, they do not honor tradition all the time! They never fast. They never go without certain foods as a way of 1) respecting scarcity; 2) valuing the foods they consume by going without them from time to time (absence makes the heart grow fonder). That lopsided "traditional" behavior contributes, no doubt, to the epidemic of obesity in Western countries, the plague of food waste, the proliferation of intense farming operations, and the attendant environmental pollution and animal cruelty. More appreciative consumers would better honor the living beings who feed them.
Maybe it's time to bring back some of the old ways - while we still have the freedom to choose to abstain. Any future scarcities - leading to local or widespread famine - will force us to go without luxuries and maybe without minimal daily nutrients. How about starting a fashion for pre-holiday fasts? They wouldn't involve starvation, just selective abstinence and calorie reduction. How much better roasted bird and high-calorie desserts would taste after a week of bean soup and dry crackers!