Thursday, May 6

The gods at Christmas

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I’m in the wilderness with a group of outstanding thinkers, readers, some of them writers, an authority on animal behaviour and all of them conservationists. We are discussing the gods -ancient and new and their influence on our culture. There is much discussion on why, or more precisely when, the old gods were replaced with those who have forged our laws today.
Discoveries into the history of rituals, fire here and there between the vultures circling and landing, the hyenas sniffing the ground for scraps and the overly fed Cheetah who managed to gorge on his prey and walk away, belly protruding. We watch the Ostriches’ mating dance, the lion and lioness snuggled in the grass and a new born elephant calf trotting alongside his mother to the shelter of the distant trees before the midday sun.
Christmas isn’t cold or snowy everywhere. Snowflakes, mistletoe & winter wonderlands have evolved over the centuries from the influence of the cultures that embraced Christmas. People have marked astronomical events like solstices and equinoxes, which gave them a sense of time like the seasons, to help them plan migrations and when to plant or harvest crops. The winter solstice has the shortest amount of daylight and the longest night. In the deepest part of the winter, everyone turns to each other wanting to hug them and say well done; we’re half way through the darkness, from now the days are going to get longer and the nights shorter. This mid point is the winter solstice or Christmas.
Independent of each other, people would have celebrated this time with a holiday and a feast. In ancient Rome, that holiday was called Saturnalia, named after the god Saturn. Saturnalia was celebrated with food, drink, swapping gifts, and a brief but generous sense of equality by the masters – role reversing and tending to their servants.
When Jesus was born, Jews didn’t celebrate birthdays. On December 25th, 274 AD, the Emperor Aurelian created a holiday called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti or the birthday of the Sun. It wasn’t until 350 AD, when Pope Julius I officially declared December 25th, the day to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Luke’s gospel says: And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Shepherds watch their flock by night during lambing season, which is in the spring. In the winter, livestock would be corralled.
In 4th century Rome there were three big holidays celebrated on December 25th – Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, and the Dies Natalis of Jesus. As Roman gods faded away to be replaced by early Christianity, the gift giving of Saturnalia survived. As the Christians spread to Northern Europe, they absorbed the local winter solstice’s customs there too. Vikings celebrated the Festival of Yule to honour the winter solstice – family member went into the winter woods in search of the most robust log. The Christmas tree probably originated in 16th century Germany, when Protestant reformer Martin Luther lit candles on an evergreen tree.
Santa Claus can be traced back to a monk named St. Nicholas who lived around 280 A.D. in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. It is said that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. One time, he saved three poor sisters from being sold into slavery and prostitution by their father by providing them with a dowry so that they could be married. Over the course of many years, Nicholas’s popularity spread and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6. This was traditionally considered a lucky day. By the Renaissance, St. Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe. Even after the Protestant Reformation, which discouraged the veneration of saints, St. Nicholas maintained a positive reputation, especially in Holland.
For centuries, Christ Mass was celebrated as a whole season beginning with Christmas Eve. On the eve because Moses said ‘an evening and a morning were the first day’. Hence for early Jews, a day began at six in the evening and ran until six the following evening. This ancient method of timekeeping is also used in Swahili.
What is well known by historians is that neither Christ nor his apostles celebrated their birthdays. The idea of birthdays, candles and cakes is rooted in magic. The Greeks and Romans believed that guardian spirits attended the birth of a person and watched over them for life. The custom of lighted candles also came from the Greeks who offered lit up cakes in the shape of the moon and stars to Artemis who would grant them their wishes.
Predating Christmas, is Chanukka. Sometimes written Hanukka. The Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle, so Hanukkah can fall anywhere from November 28th to December 26th.
Chanukkah is celebrated for eight days and nights, beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev.
After Alexander the Great, Babylonia, Anatolia, Persia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, what is now Kuwait, Afghanistan, parts of Pakisatan & Turkmenistan were under the Seleucid Empire. After the emperor, Antiochus forbade Jewish religious practice, a rural Jewish priest, Mattathias the Hasmoen, sparked a revolt by refusing to worship the Greek gods.
Mattathias killed a Hellensistic Jew who stepped forward to offer a sacrifice to an idol in Mattathias’s place. He then fled with his five sons into the wilderness of Judah. In 166 BCE, a year after Mattathias’s death, his son Judas Macabee led an army of dissidents into guerrilla warfare against hellenistic Jews – they destroyed pagan altars in villages, circumcised boys & became outlaws.
Macabee means hammer in Hebrew. The Macabees then ritually cleansed the temple, reestablishing traditional Jewish worship. The Selucid army returned to Syria after Antiochus’s death and religious freedom was restored.
It is said, at the rededication of the second temple in Jerusalem, a small sealed and therefore pure jug of oil was found that had only enough oil for a day. But, that the wicks of the menorah burned for eight days, by which time more oil could be procured.
Recent studies by Dr Secunda, professor of Judaism claim that lighting of the holy candles is heavily influenced by Zoroastrianism. It is written, that an unnamed Achaemid king of the Zoroastrian Persian Empire of the time, impressed by the miracle of the oil, enclosed and made the place sacred.
Since the Jews already considered the space sacred and central to the Zoroastrian religion is the veneration of fire as a symbol of purity, the light of god and the illumination of the mind, it was the Zoroastrian tradition that elevated the restoration of the fire on the altar. Josephus, towards the end of the first century CE, writes that Jews refer to Chanukah as ‘the Festival of Lights’. Indeed in the classical Rabbinic sources, there is no reference to the kindling of Chanukka candles. In these sources, Chanukka, the official start of the winter season, is a festival on which fasting and mourning are prohibited.
So what of New Years? They all fall at different times too. The Chinese, Islamic, Sikh & Hindu New years do not fall on January first. Yet, it doesn’t matter. The Vikings, Victorians, modern consumers and profiteers have all left their mark on the season to be merry. But that is the nature of integration and acceptance.
What I’ve gleaned from all this talk about the gods amidst the wilderness, is that there are many ways to celebrate the Christmas holidays and that they are all man made and correct. Feast with your fellows and do something magical together. Like being compassionate to the planet, it’s plants and all its creatures.
We’ve been reading ‘mythos’ by Stephen Fry, a dazzling, entertaining and herculean task of retelling the story of the ancient Greek gods.


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