A Fun Family Holiday Frolic!: Snow, Christmas Movies & Divine Agents of Destruction
Twenty years ago today Bill Watterson retired the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip (and with it his entire cartooning career). I was deeply invested by then, having read/re-read every panel of the series and when the final strip (pictured above) was published at the very horizon of the mid-nineties, it delivered nothing short of a sentimental hydrogen bomb to my 12-year-old heart. My young life was punctuated by moving artistic experiences such as these, and for some reason a lot of them seemed to involve snow. As a Canadian I could certainly attempt laying claim to snow as some sort of egoic building block, but I believe its representations have a certain universal effect.
So many Christmas movies are about discovering the “true spirit of Christmas”, which often involves a character being falsely-identified with the holiday’s cultural expectations, and getting hung up on certain elements being in place like gifts and perfectly-prepared comfort food. Those elements then evade the characters’ grasp, revealing the season’s true essence (which usually has to do with human virtue) through the frustration of the superficial. However, throughout the Western canon of Christmas films and TV episodes, I have found very few that consider snow a disposable element (the snowless films are usually biopics of that Israel-born yogi, which I guess need to take place in the Mesopotamian desert for historical accuracy). Snow is essential for sentimental potency. One one level, its presence triggers both a sense of loss and an excitement for the coming renewal. On another level, snow, as little white blood cells of the cold, promises deep serenity. Yogis seek the highest, coldest Himalayan peaks as the ultimate venue to cultivate inner peace, especially those devoted to Shiva, whose spiritual path involves stripping oneself of comfort to contact the truth of one’s being.
Interestingly, Christmas movies/episodes are propelled by just such frustration of desire. In no genre will you encounter more culinary blunders, faulty transportation, difficulty attaining merchandise, separation from loved ones, destruction of property, and general thwarting of plans. Characters get severed from their material expectations, forcing them into discovering the essence of the holidays and, consequently, themselves. They lose the buffers of superficial symbols and are left with nothing but authentic lived experience, turning to things like appreciating loved ones, expressions of pure human generosity, accepting life as beautiful in all of its thorny imperfection, etc.
Like that final Calvin & Hobbes strip, the cold (via the snow) vanquishes the familiar, which is the primary operation of Shiva. Although given a human form in Indian mythology to make him user-friendly, Shiva is really just a law of nature: the tendency of life’s intelligence to lance off what is no longer relevant to the present moment. Shiva is falsely understood to be malicious, when in fact he is loving, oriented exclusively to our individual/collective growth. When we get comfortable and dependent on things being a certain way, we may allow these patterns to remain in our lives past their expiry date. The more we allow this inertia to suspend our growth, the more nature’s Shiva force begins to press on our stagnating lives, igniting greater bursts of disruption the more we resist change.
So according to Hollywood cinema, Christmas is the season of Shiva (now that’s a good name for a revenge/action film: “The Season of Shiva”). In this cinematic world, everything is a candidate for stripping down…except the snow. The snow is necessary, the very embodiment of the stripping down. Snow not only symbolizes these things, but is these things on the level of its deeper natural qualities (which is what makes it a suitable symbol of course!). According to Vedic sciences like Ayurveda, less heat means less activity, which means less ambient aggression, which means less individual aggression since we naturally respirate our environment, aligning with it in every way. As our agitation stills, we re-integrate with our tranquil wise interior, the Shiva within. Shiva is therefore also the god of inner silence (AKA: the potential unmanifest potential energy of the universe that is within us), his presence believed to be most concentrated on the peak of Mount Kailash, where the frigid, thin character of the air is most conducive to cultivating that conscious level. Some might call pilgrimmages to this summit a very “dude” thing to do — perhaps that’s because Shiva is the essential masculine force of the universe.
Snowy cold represents purification and yet it also functions in nature as a cleansing agent, refining the air, and blanketing over the vestiges of the previous season. It removes the irrelevant gunk in carpet-bomb fashion, spreading a discordant, hard-edged world with serenity. It’s blanketing nature unifies a space, making a world of separation into a contiguous whole. As a result, it unifies people: we huddle together to keep warm, help each other out of snowbound inconveniences, play together on a snow day. Snow provides a necessary contrast: the idea of achieving warmth within the cold offers a “cozier” feeling than pervading environmental warmth. And such is the seemingly strange poetry of the Shivite path: through isolating oneself from the familiar and comfortable, one experiences unity with everything. Which suggests that our comforting dependencies can create more isolation than we realize.
The snowy cold is just one example of how something’s symbolic representation aligns with its literal operations. That’s the reason why they have such a reliable perceptual effect. Vedic sciences understand and delineate these operations, providing just such a bridge between the material and the non-material. The truly holistic nature of Ayurvedic practice proposes a life of no separation between the abstract and the material. This is what makes something a spiritual practice, as it involves moving away from a strictly symbolic or strictly material understanding of life and into understanding a full integrated reality; the polarities unify and we no longer need to choose between the abstract and the material. Our meditation practice is also moving us along this path of integrating our lived experience.
Which brings me to another powerful adolescent experience of sentiment and artistic ecstasy: Edward Scissorhands. I was entranced by the elegant storytelling and powerful aesthetic contrasts. They are too many to mention, so I will skip to the most classic Tim Burton “movie magic scene” where Edward reaches his Michaelangelo-esque artistic stride of carving ice statues. In doing this, he provides an even greater Christmas offering: snowfall. In tooling the ice with tattoo-needle speed and precision, he creates plumes of snow that flutter down onto the fixed lower-hemisphere American heat that hangs over the winter months. This consistent heat in the Edward Scissorhands universe creates a certain dreariness, not representing the florid, joyful solar playground one might imagine, but a climatic dial tone. Here, constant heat means the absence of climate altogether, and therefore any contrast or character at all. The sky is an unbreaking saturated blue, as though its characters live in a luminescent dome. Edward creates snow that immediately represents the miraculous, feathering the suburban desert with a sense of possibility that is figuratively and literally refreshing.
If you are Winona Ryder’s character of Kim, the only thing that makes sense to do under such uncanny snowfall is the spinny dance of cinematic joy, which interestingly seems to channel the whirling ecstasy-inducing dance of Sufi Dervishes. Taken farther, we can look at how this cold Shiva energy beckons its complimentary form: the feminine. In Yogic language, the operation of the mother goddess in the human body is called Kundalini energy, which originates/concentrates at the base of the spine. It ascends in just such a spiralling fashion, up the vertebrae to the top of the head to meet the point where the serene, unmanifest energy of Shiva is concentrated. So here Kim spinning as an effusive, playful, feminine force under the cold snowy masculine essence of Shiva is animating the dance of the divine masculine and feminine within, which is believed to be how the process of enlightenment churns along on an energetic level.
The Mother goddess in the Hindu traditions take endless forms (the feminine is infinitely adaptable, after all). Shiva has somewhat of a counterpart in Hindu mythology: although differing in overall occupation, the goddess Kali is basically the feminine version of the ego-annihilator. I can speak a lot about Kali and her tendency to be even more misunderstood than Shiva, so I will begin with her gruesome looking appearance, festooned with severed human body parts. These all have meaning: severed heads, for example, represent our limited sense of ego, the mind that thinks it is only this one individual form that must fight and scrap with others for resources. Her nature is to sever such a limited self-image with her sword, one of the many imposing tools and weapons she wields. As hands are the instruments of human action, her belt of severed human arms represent action and its ramifications, AKA: “Karma”, which is by definition the cosmic feedback mechanism that materially-dependent action generates. The Christmas movie is once again a great way to observe Karma in its concentrated form: things go wrong in a cascading fashion, fueled and exacerbated by the character’s own attachment-forged resentment, with no relief from the discordance until they finally stop battling what’s happening (AKA: resisting the lessons that life is trying to teach them).
Hand’s are the ego’s extension into manifestation. And, as with any Hindu icon, what the deities are holding represents their action protocol. Kali’s depiction is therefore not meant to suggest her malevolent nature (she is also infinitely loving, but her nurturing happens on a different level than our cultural paradigm of mommyness), but to evoke the violence that is sometimes involved in freeing ourselves from the carousel of material dependency (among other things…righteous dudes like Dr. Svoboda get into this with depth and insight).
Tim Burton’s film style is mostly informed by German Expressionism, an artistic tradition that has seemed to place an importance on hands in kind with Hindu mythology. Notice that Edward has in the place of human hands an arsenal of large razor-sharp scissors, the implement found in the hands of some Kali depictions to represent attachment severance. Also notice how Edward’s presence has just such a disruptive effect on sterilized, insulated 1950’s life, which had hitherto been stewing in boredom, gossip, paranoia, and many other symptoms of such stagnation. What is also interesting is Edward’s innocent child-like nature, which is the just the state a Kali devotee is striving for — freedom from things like cunning, malice, and self-obsession, reborn innocently “into the arms of the mother” (AKA: at the service of life as a divinely intelligent entity).
(My favourite thing about this article is that you really don’t know what you’re getting yourself into based on its representative picture. My how the symbolic captures such a tiny filament of the thing’s living operation. *Evil laugh peppered with holiday joliness.)
As the holidays are a sweet reminder of what is truly important, the profound impact snow has on our psyches serves to remind us that we are not just our minds. We think that it is our minds that create meaning independent of what is actually happening, but the organic qualities of what we experience inform the minds that create these symbolic representations. These allegedly formless psychic traits are infinitely woven into the fabric of nature. So much so that the Kali force within will find herself obligated to remind us that we are more than just this localized material stuff — we are also an expression of one infinite conscious tapestry. Our meditation practice reconnects us with this reality of wholeness, preventing more attention-getting measures employed by nature’s destruction operators that are much higher on the trauma index.
I don’t want you to leave thinking I have a bias for cold weather. But I thought it was worth highlighting some very real reasons why filmmakers depend on it aesthetically. In actual life, there is clear evidence that spiritual experience is just as available in seething heat (i.e. India). And it’s worth considering that a film set in consistently frigid conditions would have the same aesthetic scent as one with consistent heat: stagnation. Life gets its colour from contrast. Too much of anything is likely to stop serving us, even if it’s a spiritual practice. Eventually, the Shivite needs to come down from the mountain and apply his/her deep discoveries to life. It is that very contrast of the silent expanse of our pure conscious awareness and the wild, vibrant material nature of reality that yields a life of brilliance and depth. Having as deep a connection to both will bring balance to our experience of ourselves. And whether one resonates with Kali or Shiva (or many other equally worthy paths…or none at all), either spiritual aspiration reconnects us with our innate child-like wonder at the perceived world, which nourishes maturity rather than stifle it. No matter how far we are in age from enthusiastic young Calvin, freshly fallen snow seems to ignite this innocence in any of us, which is no doubt the Shiva presence (within and all around) giving our authentic selves a wink-wink-nudge-nudge.
1. Aside from that, Shivism is equally relevant to both men and women, just like the various devotional paths to the multiform Mother goddess is also inclusive of all genders.
2. A common criticism of virtuous holiday behaviour is often to the tune of “why can’t that just be you ’round?” The answer to that reveals the dark side of our need for contrast: “It doesn’t feel special unless it’s posed against my miserable rest-of-the-year behaviour.” Which speaks to a modern fear of normalization, as though being an agent of happiness could ever become mundane. Be assured that being a kind, generous, compassionate human being is one thing that doesn’t lose colour with habituation.
3. This would also suggest that I have a bias for weather with distinct seasons, which is also not true. Weather is not a spiritual prison and in fact may actually propel us to transcend our surroundings. If you look at the level of consciousness in places like Los Angeles (where the weather is not always the same, but certainly not prone to as much flux as most American cities), where people have cultivated rich, dynamic, and spiritual lives. In Don Delillo’s White Noise, one of the characters declares that outsiders tend to resent L.A.-residents because they founded “the lifestyle” (out of envy no doubt).
Originally published at forwardharmony.com on December 31, 2015.