Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Reason

It's that time of year again, isn't it.  The time when we come together as family and friends and express our love and appreciation toward each other.  Many of us celebrate family traditions of one type or another in a festive and happy atmosphere.  There are some, however, who are frothing at the mouth and angry over how others choose to spend these several weeks in the middle of winter.  They are the ones who rant about "the reason for the season" and how everyone is ruining the "true meaning of Christmas".

What these folks fail to realize is that most of what they believe constitutes the "true meaning" is actually an aggregation of many different traditions and rituals from multiple religions, pagan customs, and secular sources.

Deck the Halls
Take for instance, the iconic Christmas tree. The practice of cutting down a tree and bringing it indoors during the cold winter nights is derived from several solstice traditions. The Romans decked their halls with garlands of laurel and placed candles in live trees to decorate for the celebration of Saturnalia. In Scandinavia, apples were hung from evergreen trees at the winder solstice in remembrance that spring and summer will come again. The evergreen tree itself was the special plant of their sun god, Baldor. In fact, the Christian bible expressly forbids believers to practice this tradition or act like the pagans do.  As late as 1800, devout Christian sects like the Puritans forbade the celebration of Christmas because it was thought of as a pagan holiday.

Mistletoe, another iconic "Christmas" tradition, finds its roots as an ancient Druid custom during the winter solstice, complete with the concept of kissing underneath it. Mistletoe was considered a divine plant and it symbolized love and peace.

The Scandinavian solstice traditions had a lot of influences on our celebration besides the hanging of ornaments on evergreen trees. Their ancient festival of Yuletide celebrated the return of the sun, during which the Yule log (the center of the trunk of a tree) was dragged to a large fireplace where it was supposed to burn for twelve days.

Oh Holy Night
The "birth of the sun" was an integral part in ancient times, because the concept of year-around food was unattainable. The hope of an early spring and the return of long days of bright warm sunlight were things anyone eeking out a meager existence in freezing cold climates with no central heating would wish for.  The early Christian church was tired of trying to get the pagan believers to stop celebrating the birth of Mithras, the Persian sun god (a deity of light and truth). So in 320 C.E., Pope Julius formally selected December 25 as the official birthday of Christ, to circumvent Mithraism.  If Jesus was born at all, it would likely have been some time midsummer.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town
Even our traditions of Santa Claus have little, if nothing, to do with Christianity.  The 14th century St. Francis of Assisi is the likely model of Santa, a benevolent character who is popular for giving gifts to the poor and needy, mainly women and children. The name Santa Claus is derived from the Sinter Klass, which is the Dutch pronunciation for St. Nicholas, who is said to be the patron saint for many groups of people including children, orphans, thieves, sailors, students, pawnbrokers and countries like Russia and Greece. He did a lot of work to spread Christianity among the people of Rome.  This may be part of the reason why Santa Claus is similar in nature to the stories of Jesus, and the legends and myths that expound from such historical events can easily become pseudohistory for those who do not wish to investigate it.  Flying reindeer too likely come from Norse legends of Thor flying through the sky in a chariot pulled by magical goats called Gnasher and Cracker.

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
The Roman celebration of Saturnalia provides a large part of our modern traditions, including large feasts and gift-giving.  The pre-Christian holiday of merriment honored Saturus, the god of seed and sowing. The festival was marked by the exchange of good-luck charms and other gifts, and great feasting in which even the slaves would be allowed to participate.  God bless us, every one indeed.

The Reason
Many of our current traditions began more than 4000 years ago, and even their beginnings were more than likely the result of other superstition and traditional beliefs that came before them.  So the next time you hear about how Walmart or atheism is destroying the meaning of Christmas, remember this: the SEASON is the reason for the season, not a bronze-age myth that has been formed out of the debris of myths that preceded it. After all, you're not a Celtic who takes to animal sacrifice to ward off evil spirits, right? So why celebrate Halloween? And, you don't hunt colored eggs or eat chocolate bunnies to celebrate the fertility and advent of springtime in honor of the Saxon goddess Eostre or the Norse equivalent Ostara, do you? So why celebrate Easter?  And even if you don't want to celebrate the birth of America, having a reason for picnicking and shooting fireworks is enough to party on July 4, isn't it?

For whatever your holiday, for whatever your reason, at the bare minimum you should acknowledge it as a time to be close to the one's you love, because we're all only here for a little while.  Have a great solstice, everyone!  And may the New Year bring you joy, peace, and reason.