Monday, December 24, 2007

Tis The Season

The celebration of the Winter Solstice dates back over 4000 years. December 21, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, occurred just before the new year, a time for rebirth and renewal. The ancient Mesopotamians believed in many gods. The alpha god, Marduk, would battle monsters of chaos each winter. To assist Marduk in his struggle the Mesopotamians held a festival for the New Year. This was Zagmuk, the New Year's festival that lasted for 12 days.

By tradition, the Mesopotamian king was to die at the end of the year and to return with Marduk to battle at his side. Killing the king every year had issues, so the Mesopotamians selected a criminal as "mock" king, dressed him like royalty and treated him with respect for the celebration. Then they stripped and killed him, allowing the real king to remain in power.

In a similar festival called the Sacaea, Persians and Babylonians had masters and slaves trade places for a period of time, where slaves could order their masters about, naturally understanding that the festivities would end. Early Europeans believed in evil spirits, witches, ghosts and trolls. As the Winter Solstice approached, with its long cold nights and short days, many people feared the sun would not return. Special rituals and celebrations were held to welcome back the sun.

Far enough North, the sun disappears for weeks or months during the winter. In Scandinavia after thirty-five days scouts entered the mountains to look for the return of the sun. When it appeared the scouts would return and a festival called the Yuletide was held where a special feast was served around a fire burning with the Yule log. Great bonfires would also be lit to celebrate the return of the sun. In some areas people would tie apples to branches of trees to remind themselves that spring and summer would return.

The Greeks had their version with festivals to assist their god Kronos who would battle the god Zeus and his Titans, and the Romans celebrated their god Saturn with a festival called Saturnalia which began the middle of December and ended January 1st. 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. Again the masters and slaves would exchange places.

Early Christians didn’t like the merriment or celebration of the pagan Saturnalia. They tried to ban the customs without success, so it was decided that the celebration would be made into one for the birth of Jesus Christ. The 25th was not only sacred to the Romans but also the Persians whose religion Mithraism was one of Christianity's main rivals at that time. The Church eventually was successful in taking the merriment, lights, and gifts from the Saturanilia festival and bringing them to the celebration of Christmas.

In 350 AD Julius I, a Bishop of Rome, chose December 25th as the observance of Christmas. Fast forwarding a millennia to the Reformation, the protestants disapproved of the whole idea as Catholic nonsense, but the roots were buried too deep, and the festivities persisted, with the giving of gifts, special meals, and decorations. The Puritans in the newly discovered America banned the celebration in Boston from 1659 to 1681. To the south in Maryland and Virginia they observed the holiday freely.

As society progressed, the practice actually started to drift towards oblivion and might have vanished. For reasons unknown, Britain chose to revive it. Whether the holiday would have disappeared without this effort will remain conjecture, but Charles Dickens 1843 A Christmas Carol featuring "Ba Hum Bug" miser Ebenezer Scrooge and the melting of his heart via visits from ghosts of past, present, and future tapped into powerful spiritual sentiments of good will, giving, family, and the well being of others.

The story ripped through the network like wild fire and caught on in America. Although written decades earlier, Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, quickly known by its first line, Twas the Night Before Christmas, became popular, and the rest, shall we say, is history.

In 1870, the United States formally declared Christmas a federal holiday, signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant. The first two national holidays, Thanksgiving and Independence Day, were proclaimed a century earlier.

Where do we get our visual image of Santa? A famous author? An influential painting? The Coca-Cola company? Nope.

Happy Holidays, all.

4 Comments:

Blogger Liza said...

Happy holidays to you too, X4mr.

12/24/2007 12:39 PM  
Anonymous The Navigator said...

Yes, Happy Holidays to x4mr and Liza and Dustin and Sirocco and the rest.

Your angle on the world remains an interesting read. I consistently leave this place knowing a little more than when I arrived.

I confess I am guilty of thinking Coca-Cola gave us our fat red uniformed Santa.

12/24/2007 11:07 PM  
Blogger Sirocco said...

I hope the holidays finds you all in good health and good cheer.

12/25/2007 6:33 AM  
Blogger Dustin said...

t'was a busy baby's first christmas. Happy holidays to all!

12/26/2007 7:38 AM  

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