Monday, December 3, 2012

Beginnings of Christmas

Several people have emailed and reminded me that I promised an "origin of Christmas" blog....I did allude to it a week or so ago, and they wanted to hear it. Readers who have been reading the blog for years or who are students of history, all religions, or are Pagans, will already be familiar with the origins of Christmas.

When the "Church" was first founded in the Roman empire, it needed members. This meant that they had to go out and convince the locals to join the church. This was a hard sell, especially in Rome. There were many temples, gods and goddesses. There were fun and interesting celebrations. Things were going very well, people weren't looking for an answer for the most part. The church realized that the best way to get people in the doors, was to make it familiar, and comfortable, so they borrowed the Pagan celebrations and holidays.

Oestre became Easter. It is a fertility celebration, about birthing new animals and growing abundant crops, it fits in with the whole Christian Easter story of rebirth (the world reawakening in spring), and fertility, life, and growth.

Christmas is all about Christ's birth, right? Christ's name IS in "Christmas".  Well, yes, but that is because the Church made it that way. Jesus of Nazareth was born, most likely, in the spring. Scholars argue that point, and another group says September. Either way they agree it was no where near December 25. Jesus was born a Jewish boy who went to Temple, born in Nazareth, most likely in the spring time. He isn't a Capricorn, he is most likely a Taurus or Virgo. The Church already borrowed Oestre and made it Easter, so we can't crowd that all together. We have a huge Roman celebration that we need to fit into the scheme of things, Saturnalia. What to do?

This all wasn't a big secret really, but it wasn't broadcast either. The Catholic Encyclopedia in 1911 stated that "Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church…the first evidence of the feast is from Egypt.” Further, “Pagan customs centering around the January calendars gravitated to Christmas.” Under “Natal Day,” Origen, an early Catholic writer, admitted, “…In the Scriptures, no one is recorded to have kept a feast or held a great banquet on his birthday. It is only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod) who make great rejoicings over the day in which they were born into this world”.  The way the ancients marked a great man, was by honoring him on the day he died, not on the day he was born. That is a "modern" take on things.

The celebration of Saturnalia was of course to honor the god Saturn. It was a celebration that lasted December 17 through the 23rd. There was feasting, gift giving, parties and sacrifices. The best twist of the celebration was that the masters served the slaves. Everyone was involved in the carnival atmosphere that went on for days and even included gambling. There was singing and dancing in the streets, and human shaped biscuits were made and consumed. No one would want to end this fun festival for a new holiday in the Church! The Roman Catholic Church knew it had to include the celebration to get the people into the church. It took about 200 years. That's right, Christmas wasn't celebrated in the Church for about 200 years after Jesus was born.

Saturnalia was a "festival of light", so, by the way , is the Jewish celebration Hanukkah, celebrated around the same time. Hanukkah is to celebrate a battle. But they all celebrate, in essence, the winter solstice and bringing light to the darkness. The days are now again beginning to get longer the day after the winter solstice (usually December 21 in the northern hemisphere). The pagans will tell you that the Holly King is off of the throne and the Oak King has returned to bring back the light.

Saturnalia was always about gifts, family, parties, light, and fun, it just didn't have Christ thrown into the mix until 200 years after his birth. Saturnalia even continued to run hand in hand with Christmas for a while.We added to the celebration as the years went by including bringing in greenery to give us hope that spring would return. This was popular in Eastern Europe, but originated in the North. The Christmas tree has absolutely nothing to do with Christ or Saturnalia, it is a new twist. Some groups will have stories to add the reason for things like the tree, that make it "authentic", but trees had nothing to do with Christmas until modern times.

During the Middle Ages the Church banned gift giving at Christmas saying it was a pagan tradition as it harkened back to Saturnalia. Today gift giving is again included in Christmas, and many "non religious" people celebrate the holiday, some even in its' original form, as a celebration of light!

Today Christmas is a popular holiday , it is both secular and non secular. It is celebrated all over the world in different ways. At the same time, or close enough to it, the Jewish people are celebrating their festival of lights, Hanukkah, and the Pagans are celebrating the winter solstice as a celebration of light coming back into the world.

When the winter is long and the days are cold it is a little ray of hope to recognize that each day is light a little bit longer. Each day creeps closer and closer to spring.Light and warmth return, and the winter solstice is the beginning of that.

All the celebrations of the Church can be traced back to pagan roots, the fun part is to be open minded enough to find them. It will be interesting when some day a scholar is able to pinpoint Jesus birthday, will we change the date of Christmas or start a new celebration? We already have a day to mark Jesus death, as was the way in the olden days, but we seem to be a few months off on his birthday.

No matter how you choose to celebrate, be happy that you live in the most wonderful place in the world where you can choose your religion, rites, rituals, and celebrations. Not everyone is so lucky!

Peshaui Wequashimese

(C)2012 Dr R M Wolf. May not be used, copied or reproduced without prior written permission.

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