Thursday, December 27, 2012

Left Side of the Aisle #88 - Part 5

And Another Thing: Why Christmas is on December 25

Last year around this time I told you about New Year's, about why it was on January 1. This year I'm going to give you a very brief history of Christmas, of why it comes on December 25.

Right at the top: You know those people who say that "Jesus is the reason for the season?" He isn't. And he never was.

In prehistoric times, people believed that things like the Sun acted willfully - and watching it get lower and lower in the sky each year as winter approached, there was a fear that one year, the Sun would keep sinking until it disappeared, leaving them in perpetual darkness and cold. So each year, when the Sun stopped sinking and began to rise higher in the sky each day, it was reason to celebrate.

This is the time of the winter solstice, which occurs in the Northern Hemisphere around December 21. "Solstice" is derived from two Latin words which together mean that the Sun stands still - which is what it appears to do at the solstice: to come to a top and then reverse.

All over the Northern Hemisphere, this was a time to celebrate: ancient Egypt had celebrations, as did ancient Greece - in fact, in the earliest days, theirs involved a human sacrifice. The Druids celebrated, it was celebrated in Iran, Native American peoples, include the Pueblo and the Hopi, had their celebrations.

In pagan Scandinavia the winter festival was the yule. Great yule logs were burned; people drank mead around bonfires listening to tales of great stories of the past. A boar was sacrificed to the chief god Odin, who donned a broad-brimmed hat and magic blue cloak and sped around the world at night on his great white horse. Mistletoe, which was a sacred plant because it grew on the most sacred tree, the oak, was cut and a spray given to each family to be hung in doorways as good luck.

It's a reminder that a lot of our holiday traditions are drawn from pagan ones - including decorating with garlands, wreaths, and the Christmas tree itself.

For the date of Christmas, though, the most important celebration was in Rome. The solstice celebration there was called Saturnalia: It was originally a feast day to the god Saturn, but it grew to a gigantic fair and a festival of the home. It began with sacrifice of a pig and involved riotous merry-making, feasting, and gambling. Houses were decorated with laurel and evergreens. Schools were closed; the army rested; no criminals were executed. Friends visited one another, bringing good-luck gifts of fruit, cakes, candles, dolls, jewelry, and incense. Temples were decorated with evergreens. Processions of people danced through the streets, with masked or blackened faces and wearing fantastic hats. Masters feasted with slaves, who could do and say what they liked - supposedly.

On particular day within Saturnalia, December 25, was called the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.

Before Christianity became the official religion of Rome in the 4th century, Christians wishing to celebrate the birth of the man they regarded as their savior had to hide it: being known as a Christian could get you killed. The thing is, no one knows what time of year Jesus was born but to the extent the Bible can be trusted as a source we know it was definitely not in the winter since shepherds did not watch their flocks by night at that time of year. In fact, it was most commonly done in the spring to protect the newborn lambs from wolves.

So since the time is purely symbolic and basically arbitrarily chosen, what better time to do it than during Saturnalia - when everyone else was celebrating and so no one would notice? And what better day to pick than December 25?

By about the year 350 CE, December 25 had been accepted in Rome as the date of the Feast of Christ, or Christ-Mass, Christmas. Gradually most of the Christian Church agreed, and the merry side of Saturnalia was adopted to the observance of Christmas. By 1100 Christmas was the peak celebration of year for all of Europe.

Around here, in Plymouth, Christmas got off to rocky start due to the opposition of the religious fundamentalists. The first time Christmas was mentioned in Plymouth’s oldest newspaper was in 1825. But once it got rolling, it developed quickly: By 1860 the paper was filled with ads of Christmas presents and by the end of the century Christmas was as much a part of Plymouth as it was the rest of the country.

"The Christmas Connection," lecture at Plymouth Antiquarian Society, November 15, 1979

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