Saturday, December 3, 2011

'Tis The Season...

In a little over three weeks, it will be Christmas Day, 2011.  Doesn't seem possible.  The year certainly has flown....and Christmas time certainly has changed.  The meaning behind the day has evolved into one of commercialism.  Changing times, and the ridiculous need to make many things "politically correct", have somehow diluted the magic of the day.  "Happy Holidays", or "Season's Greetings" have become the only acceptable greetings for this time of year.  What's wrong with the local shops putting up "Merry Christmas" signs in their front windows?  It has gotten to the point where I see "Happy Hanukkah" and "Happy Kwanzaa" more than "Merry Christmas".  I don't see what the big deal is.  The Earth is covered with people of different races, and beliefs.  Why can't we acknowledge holidays individually?  Each holiday has it's uniquenesss, but in some ways they do relate.  They are about family, and friends.  They are about gathering together, or connecting over long distances.  They are about breaking bread and being thankful.  They are about giving.  I am being reminded of a company I worked for.  For 14 years I worked for an entertainment company in Los Angeles.  For several of those years it was part of my job to decorate the office lobby for the holidays.  Tree, wreaths, poinsettias, and Menorah.  We had employees who celebrated Christmas and who celebrated Hanukkah.  I grew up celebrating Christmas, but I have always enjoyed experiencing other celebrations.  True, a Menorah on the reception desk wasn't necessarily a traditional setting for the candle lighting, but one of our Jewish employees would light the candle and say the appropriate prayer in Hebrew.  I enjoyed being a part of the moment. The world is full of different cultures and beliefs.  We are all different...yet we are all the same.  "Happy Hanukkah".  "Merry Christmas".  We feel what we do at this time of year, and we observe things the way we observe them.  A sign isn't going to change that.

Historically, Christmas sprang from Pagan roots.  Celebrations that spawned Christmas tradition were around long before the date of the birth of Christ. Many historians say that Christ wasn't even born in December, but was most likely born in September about six months after Passover.  

A bit of the back story on Christmas's Pagan roots.  In ancient Babylon, December 25th was a day of celebration.  A feast was held honoring Horus, the son of the Goddess Isis.

(Left: Saturn; Right: Mummers)
Saturnalia was the winter celebration in Ancient Rome, celebrated at the Winter Solstice.  It honored Saturn (Cronos), who was father to Greek and Roman Gods.  Saturn is also the youngest of the Titans, and the God of Agriculture.  Saturnalia was started around 217 BC as a morale booster for Romes citizens after Rome was defeated by the Carthaginians.  Also called the 'Birthday of the Unconquered Sun' (Dies Natalis Invicti Solis), the week long celebration ran from December 17th to the 23rd.  Although Saturnalia's dates are not exact to the date selected for the Christmas celebration, Saturnalia is said to have had great influence on the selection of the December date.  Saturnalia also influenced the days celebratory traditions.  Gift giving was part of the Saturnalia festivities, common gifts being candles and earthenware figurines.  The tradition of Christmas caroling was born out of Saturnalia, as ancient Romans started the tradition of the "Mummers". Participants would don costumes, and then travel from house to house, singing and dancing to entertain their neighbors.

(Right: Mithras)
Other Christmas traditions born from earlier times came from northern Europe.  Another celebration held at the Winter Solstice was Yule.  The celebration honors the birth of Mithras, the Pagan Sun God.  Yule is celebrated on the shortest day of the year.  As the days proceed, Mithras matures as the days get longer and warmer.  A symbolic tradition of lighting a candle was to encourage the reappearance of the Sun and Mithras the following year. Originally celebrated by historic Germanic people as a Pagan religious festival, Yule was celebrated from late December to early January as determined by the Germanic calendar.  It was moved to December 25th when the Christian (Julian) calendar was adopted.  Since Yule is not etymologically Christian, in the Nordic countries it is also celebrated by non-Christians, and the non-religious.

(Pagan Year Wheel)
The Pagan symbol for the year is a wheel, and Yule means 'wheel'.  A Yule tradition is the Pagan burning of the Yule log to honor the Sun God.  Originally, the Yule log was an entire tree.  With great ceremony, the tree would be dragged into the home, the stump end being put into the hearth fire while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room.  It eventually evolved into the burning of the largest log possible.  (For some more background on the Yule log and how to make one of your own, click this link.)  The Yule log is also made in an edible form...a log shaped cake most often decorated with mushroom shaped confections.

(Left: Yule Log for burning; Right: Yule Log cake)
(Left: Mistletoe; Right: Holly King / Spirit of Yule)
Mistletoe is considered sacred at Yule time, and the custom of kissing beneath it started as a fertility ritual.  Mistletoe is 'hemi-parasitic', meaning it grows on the limbs of various trees.  There are a number of trees around the condos here that have Mistletoe growing in their top most branches.  I don't know about other places, but here in the southern US, people shoot Mistletoe out of trees with shotguns.  Don't think my neighbors would appreciate that.  (*grin*) Holly was also presented to honor the Sun God.  The berries were thought to be the food of the Gods.

(My fake tree)
The Tradition of a tree was also begun in celebration of the Winter Solstice.  I haven't put a tree up for several years, but I got the urge this year to have a decorated tree.  I am a big fan of trees, and I know that Christmas trees are grown for the specific purpose of being cut down, sold, and decorated, but...well, not only are cut Christmas trees expensive, I couldn't bring myself to think of buying a 'dead' tree.  That's how I see them.  They are on a weak form of life support in the guise of sugar water, as they slowly dry and turn brown.  I have developed too much respect for trees to buy a cut one.  I ended up doing something I said I would never do.  I got a fake one.  A six foot tall, $20, pine tree.  Yes, it's a bit skinny and too uniform (real trees do have more character), but it's adding festive vibes to this years' holiday season.  That's enough for me.  We have a tree, and I don't have to feel bad for a 'dead' tree.
(Left: Tree Farm)

As part of Winter Solstice celebrations, live evergreen trees were brought into homes.  They were decorated with candles instead of lights.  A star or Angel was placed at the top to represent the Star of Bethlehem, or the host of Angels.

The declaration of December 25th as the day for the celebration of Christ's birthday is said to have been given by Pope Julius I.  It is said that he picked that day to make the presence of a new religion more palatable to the Romans who celebrated Saturnalia during that time.  Having Christmas and Saturnalia celebrations in tandem made the new religion go down a bit easier since they would still have their feasts.

As to where Christmas as it is known today originated, many historians agree that it started in Germany because early records describe an evergreen tree being decorated ( "Weihnachtsbaum") as a part of a Christian celebration in the Alsace region of Germany in the 16th Century.  It can also be traced earlier to 15th Century Livonia (Latvia and Estonia in the present-day).

What traditions am I going to honor this year?  Well, it will just be two of us here on the marsh (no complaints there).  There will be some present opening, and some phone calls to relatives in other states.  I would love to observe the tradition of burning the Yule log, but we might get a fine out of it.  I expect I'll just play things by ear, and see where the spirit takes me.

No comments:

Post a Comment