Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The definitive history of Christmas and winter holidays

I was curious to know where our celebration of Christmas came from, particularly its ancient roots. I don't have a book on the subject, so I looked it up on the web, and here's the answer.

About 4000 years ago, centuries before the arrival of the man called Jesus, the ancient Mesopotamians celebrated the New Year, presumably around the same time of year which we still do today. As part of this, they believed their chief god, Marduk, needed their king to die and fight with him in the world beyond death, fighting the monsters of chaos. How cool is that! This was Zagmuk, the New Year's festival that lasted for 12 days.

To spare their king, the Mesopotamians used the idea of a "mock" king. A criminal was chosen and dressed in royal clothes. He was given all the respect and privileges of a real king. At the end of the celebration the "mock" king was stripped of the royal clothes and slain, sparing the life of the real king, but totally ending the life of the criminal. The tradition was abandoned when Marduk got wise to this scheme and started killing the real king himself.

The Persians and the Babylonians celebrated a similar festival called the Sacaea. Part of that celebration included the exchanging of places; the slaves would become the masters and the masters were to obey. Perhaps this was to out-chaos the "monsters of chaos" and make them go away.

In ancient Europe, as in all the northern hemisphere, as the Winter Solstice approached (December 21) with its long cold nights and short days, many people feared the sun would not return. As we all know, this is silly, and the sun would of course return. Nonetheless, special rituals and celebrations were held to welcome back the sun, parties being the only justification for patently absurd notions. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.

In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated the Yuletide from the 21st of December through January. In recognition of the aforementioned "return of the sun" or whatever, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire. Everyong loves the Yule log! The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days, which as you may have noticed, is a magic number (12 days of Christmas and all that).

Great bonfires would also be lit to celebrate the return of the sun. I hope to celebrate its return with a huge bonfire in Texas in a week or so. In some areas (of the ancient far north, not modern Texas) people would tie apples to branches of trees to remind themselves that spring and summer would return. Hence, Christmas ornaments!

In Rome, where winters were not as harsh as those in the far north, Saturnalia--a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture and plastic cars--was celebrated. Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters, as in ancient Mesopotamia. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun. Hence, winter break!

With cries of "Jo Saturnalia!" the celebration would include masquerades in the streets, big festive meals, visiting friends, and the exchange of good-luck gifts called Strenae (lucky fruits). The Romans decked their halls with garlands of laurel and green trees lit with candles which, as we all know, is very dangerous. And hence Rome burned!

Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children and juvenile delinquents of Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25th. For some Romans, Mithra's birthday was the most sacred day of the year. To celebrate, they would eat spaghetti with a special cheese called 'mi(zi)thra'.

Sometime around the year 1, Jesus was born, who some later called Christ, or the Messiah in Hebrew. The early Jesus Movement, a radical form of first-century Judaism, led to what became known as Christianity, based on the term Christian or 'little Christ', used by skeptics to mock the early pseudo-cannibals who claimed 'Christ lived in them' as they 'drank his blood' and 'ate his flesh'. In the words of King Missile, 'That's so cool.'

Ironically, the exact day of Jesus's birth has never been pinpointed. Apparently Peter and Jesus's other buddies never felt compelled to take him out to dinner at Carrow's on his birthday and have a bunch of waiters and waitresses sluggishly sing to him as he blows out the candle on his fudge brownie.

But later people did feel the urge. Traditions say that Jesus's birth has been celebrated since the year AD 98, when the first Carrow's opened. In AD 137 the Bishop of Rome ordered the birthday of Jesus celebrated as a solemn feast. In AD 354 another Bishop of Rome, Julius I, choose December 25th as the observance of Christmas, replacing an earlier date of January 6th. (The first mention of December 25th as the 'birthday' of Jesus occurred in AD 336 in an early Roman calendar. As they didn't know, it's as good a day as any! But would shepherds really be watching their flocks by night in the winter?) The word Christmas comes from Cristes maesse, an early English phrase that means 'Mass of Christ', which was probably about 75 kilograms.

The celebration of this day as Jesus's birthday was probably influenced by the existing festivals held at that time which were aleady practiced by many in the Middle East and Europe. As part of all these celebrations, the people prepared special foods like fudge brownies, decorated their homes with greenery, and joined in singing and white elephant gift giving. These customs gradually became part of the Christmas celebration, despite the groans of Church baddies who don't want anyone to have any fun.

By the 1100's, Christmas had become the most important religious festival in Europe, and Saint Nicholas was a symbol of gift giving in many European countries.

The name 'Saint Nicholas' explains his other name 'Santa Claus' which comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas. Nicholas was a Christian leader from Myra (in modern-day Turkey) in the 4th century AD. He was very shy, and wanted to give money to poor people without them knowing about it. It is said that one day, he climbed the roof of a house and dropped a purse of money down the chimney. It landed in a stocking which a girl had put to dry by the fire! This may explain the belief that Santa Claus comes down the chimney and places gifts in children's stockings. But if you're bad, you get coal and the embers of burnt money.

The popularity of Christmas grew until the Reformation, the religious movement of the 1500's that gave birth to Protestantism, since they're always protesting something. During the Reformation, many Christians began to consider Christmas a forbidden celebration because it included nonreligious customs. To be consistent, they stopped doing everything that was not explicitly religious, like breathing. So most of them died.

Some hung on though. So during the 1600's, because of this mood, Christmas was outlawed in England and in parts of the English colonies in America. Protestants also told little children that Disneyland burned down, just to watch them cry.

The old customs of feasting and decorating, however, die hard and soon reappeared and blended with the more ostensibly Christian aspects of the celebration during the Re: Re: formation.

In the 1800's, two more Christmas customs became popular--decorating Christmas trees and sending Christmas cards to relatives and friends. Many well-known Christmas carols, including "Silent Night" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," were composed during this period. In the United States and other countries, Santa Claus replaced Saint Nicholas as the symbol of gift giving and unbridled jolly weight gain. Thus, after rapid and sometimes vapid gift giving on Christmas, most people decide to eat and drink too much while watching television.

During the 1900's, the celebration of Christmas became increasingly important to many kinds of businesses. Today, companies manufacture Christmas ornaments, lights, and other decorations throughout the year, while children bring home unrecognizable handmade ornaments that are so priceless, no store will sell them. Many stores and other businesses hire extra workers during the Christmas season to handle the increase in sales. A visitor from another world would think that Christmas was a festival to the gods of money and shopping who have imposing names like Wal-Marduk and RobinsonsBaal.

Anywho, Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

By whose authority...?


There are in the life of a human being many more truths which are simply believed than truths which are acquired by way of personal verification. Who, for instance, could assess critically the countless scientific findings upon which modern life is based?

- John Paul II, 1998

Who indeed? Everyone, including scientists, relies on others for the overwhelming majority of information they accept about the way nature works.

What John Paul II was trying to get at, I believe, in the part of his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio from which this quote comes, is that in the process by which we search for truth--all truth--we entrust ourselves to knowledge acquired by other people. This is inescapable, as we were born into a family and a society; we are not alone. From birth, we are immersed in traditions and truths which are believed almost instinctively. As we grow, or if we want to grow, we critically evaluate what we've been taught and any other truth claims which may come our way. Nevertheless, there simply are too many truths to personally verify. We depend on someone (in fact many someones) for a starting point from which to inquire. We do not, for better or for worse, start from scratch. Should we give up critically evaluating? Certainly not. Then where do we start? I suppose with the most important questions one has.

The undeniable triumphs of scientific research and technology are testaments to the scientific system of acquiring knowledge and are one reason I am devoted to the system. Bottom line: it works! One of the best things about it is that "heretics" will be rewarded if they can prove their case. In other words, as far as the system is concerned, there are no cherished orthodoxies--there is no dogma which cannot be overturned if the evidence points elsewhere.

Scientific truth is always open to revision, and this is its strength.

Is the scientific method the only way by which we seek truth? I do not think the Pope was equating scientific and religious truth. One could consider that there are different modes of truth. There are those, perhaps the majority, that depend upon immediate evidence or are confirmed by experimentation. This is the mode of truth proper to everyday life and to scientific research. All is good and well. But this is not all truth--and don't think I'm getting spooky. There are also philosophical truths, attained by powers of the human intellect, which shape a comprehensive vision of the world and may provide an answer to life's meaning. Closely related, we might say, are religious truths, which are to some degree grounded in philosophy, and in which the different religious traditions offer answers to ultimate questions.

Are questions in this last category obtained by the scientific system of knowing? Or are they decided by other considerations, e.g., philosophical ideas which, for one reason or another, we find "ring true"?