| Tuesday, December 19, 2006
| HOW OUR HOLIDAY CAME TO BE
|BEGINING AT THE DAWN OF CIVILIZATION, the peoples of the Northern Hemishphere celebrated at the time of the winter solstice. They had good reason to do so. Theirs were agrarian societies, and the annual return of the sun proviced the promise that planting would soon begin again.
These celebrations honored the pagan gods on whom these early soceities relied for their crops and general welfare. It was a time to let off steam; the work for the year was pretty much done. The harvest was in; livestock, which had fattened in the fields of summer, but coild not be fed through the winter, had benn slaughtered. Thw fresh meat had to be eaten quiclky before it spoiled (or cured for later, less palatable consumption).There was plenty of other food and newly brewed drink. Heigh-ho! Feast and drink away!.
The years passed, thousands of them. In the Roman world the midwinter festival fell in two parts. First came the Saturnalia, in honor of Saturn, the god of harvest, beginning on December 17 and lasting seven days. Several days later came the Kalends of January, celebrating the New Year.
The festivities were marked by civilized goodwill as well as by barbaric hedonism. Warfare was suspended, busineses were closed, homes and places of worship were decorated with greenery and light, and gifts were given, especially to the children.
Gambling with cards and dice was allowed for the holidays. Men dressed up in anumal skins or as women. Sex was rampant.Roles were reversed; salves were served by their masters. Both slaves and masters ate and drnk themselves insensible; they woild lurch to the vomitarium and stagger back for the next course. One way or another, everyone had a very good time. It was into this ancient world that Christian faith was born two thousand years ago.
The early Christian church struggled to become established. Its leaders understood the powerful hold the midwinter festival had on pagan worshippers. December 25 was celebrated in honor of Mithra, the sun-god. Mithraism, originally a Persin cult, had much in common with Christianity. Its beliefs included monotheism, baptism, a doctrine of an Intercessor and Redeemer, a future life, and judgement to come. However, it had one great competitive weakness. Mithra gave no place to women, whereas Christianity held that women have souls and are equal to men.
Despite this, Mithraism posed a real threat to Christianity; it is not surprising that, in the middle of the fourth century, the Church decreed that henceforth the 25th of December would be recognized as the Day of Christ's Nativity. The church hoped to draw the pagans from worhip of the sun-god to worship the Son of God.
This ploy worked - in one way. Within a century, the pagans had finally been won over; their cults had all but disappeared. But in another way, it backfired. The pagans were willing to become Christians, but they had no intention of giving up all the hijinks of their midwinter festival. So, wgat came to be known as Christmas developed a split personality; religious and secular, sacred and profane.
This dual nature of Christmas observance, pious and pagan, continued through the centuries.
No one knows the time of the year, much less the day, of Christ's birth. In fact, we don't even know the year Jesus was born. It must have been at least four or five years earlier than the date we customarily recognize.
In the Gospel According to Matthew, we gind: "now when Jesus was bortn in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jersualem ...." The Gospel According to Luke also places the birth in the time of Herod, and we know that Herod died in 4 B.C.
Another explanation of the dating discrepancy; Our modern calendar is a modification of the Roman calendar introduced by Julius Ceasar in 45 B.C. Caesar based his dating ab urbe condita(from the foundation of Rome). Well and good. In the sixth century a monk, Dionysius Exiguus, proposed that the Christian Era should date from the eyar of Christ's birth. Well and good again. However, the monk made a mistake in tallying up Roman history; he forgot the four-year reign of Emperor Octavian. Nobody's perfect.
One more bit of evidence; Tertullian, the great Christian lawyer of the early third century, reported that the birth of Jesus occurred seven or eight years before the supposed date. Censuses took place every fourteen years - A.D. 20, 34 and 48. Counting backward, provious censuses would have been in A.D. 6 and 8 B.C. So when Luke wrote: "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be counted," the census in which the Holy Family was included would have been in 8 B.C., agreeing with Tertullian's estimate.
From the Middle Ages until the Rewformation, the royal courts of Europe set the Christmas pace. Lomg church services, with ponderous, mind-numbing sermons were offset by the most elaborate festivities; plays and masques were perfomred. The cost of a single masque, with its extravagant costumes, could run to thousands of pounds all for one or two performances. The consumption of food and drinks was mind-bogling. The first course of a dinner might consists of sixteen to twenty dishes washed down with gallons of wine and ale. Lords of Misrule were elected to preside over the festivities (harking back tot he pagan custom of role reversal).
By the time fo the Reformation, the vulgar, pagan celebrations of Christmas had so overshadowed the religious that the reformers finally put their foot down. They argued that there was no biblical or historical reason to place the birth of Jesus on December 25, if God had wanted the anniversary of the Nativity to be observed, He would have at least given a clue as to when the event took place. They argued that the excessive festivities of the holiday not only had nothing to do with true Christian tradition, they actually violated it.
In 1647, under Oliver Cromwell, an act of Parliament forbade the observnace of Christmas. In 1659, under the Puritan government in Massachusettes, it became illegal to celebrate Christmas. The Puritans decided that since they could'nt Christanise Christmas, they would abolish it altogether. Christmas was actually stricken from the church calendar.
All of this ignited a warfare of pamphlets propounding, and attacking, the Puritan's position. For a few years, Christmas went underground.
It turned out that the festival spirit could not be killed in the seventeenth century any more than in the fourth. Charles II revived the holiday in England after the Reformation, and teh 1659 law in the cplonies was revoked in 1681. Even so, it took a while for Christmas to recover from the cold water poured upon it by the Puritans. In the eighteenth century, Christmas slowley recovered, although in different ways for different segment of society. For some, Christmas still had no significance whatsoever. Among the young there was strong reaction to earlier Puritan restrictions. Drinking and sex were all the rage. Pre-marital pregnancies ballooned; a bulge of births in September and October was the tip-off to hanky panky at Christmastime.
For may of the young lower classes, Christmas became a time of carnival, carnival gone bad. By the mid-1700s, music composed for Christmas become popular. Nothing insidious about that except for the use to which it was often put; roughhouse wassailing that could border on violence. Wassailers woild force their way into homes and demand rewards for their obboxious behavior.
For the more well-to-do, feasting with friends was resumed. Even the clergy began to change their mind. It was all right to celebrate the birth of the Savior after all. Churches began to open their doors on Christmas Day.
As lare as the end of the 18th century, there was precious little resembling the Christmas we know today - no family togetherness, no Christmas trees, no Christmas cards, no Christmas shopping, not much in the way Christmas presents (even for children), and of course, no Santa Claus. Allthat, however was soon to change.
At the turn of the 19th century, the social order of the United States of America was in upheaval. As cities grew, so did unemployment and racial strife, and the gap between rich and poor broadened. There were widespread violent demonstrations, especailly during the Christmas season, and many workers, if not laid off during the holidays, were forced to work on Christmas day.
The result was the most unruly Yuletide behaviour yet. Gangs of angrey, drunken hoodlums marauded the streets at Christmas and New Year's threatening the peace and the very lives of respectable folk. Something had to change; the stage was set for a new kind of Christmas. The leading men in beginning to bring about that change were Washington Irving, John Pintard and Clement Clarke Moore, New Yorkers all. They introduced St. Nicholas to America and invented his famous descendant, our Santa Claus.
St. Nicholas was a real man. He was born about A.D. 280 in the little city of Patara, in what is now Turkey. Nicolaos (as he was christened) was the son of relatively well-to-do Greek-speaking followers of Christ.
Nicolaos had a religious upbringin and, even before he became a priest, demonstrated the unusual caring for others that was to typify his life. A famous story has come down to us:A widowed nobleman had fallen on hard times. Penniless, he could not take care of his three teenage daughters. Desperate, he considered selling the eldest into prostitution. In the middle of the night, Nicolaos threw a bag of gold through the father's window; this provided a dowry for the girl, and she was saved.
Later again, under cover of darkness, Nicolaos did this twice more, for the other two girls. The third time, the father caught him in the act. Embarrassed, and to escape the resulting notoriety, Nicolaos left home to join a religous group.Those three bags of gold live on today as the three gold balls outside of pawn-shops, symbols of something of value redeemed.
Early in his priesthood, Nicolaos became famous for performing miracles. Three had to do with saving sailors and fishermen in storms at sea. Not surprisingly, he soon became a bishop (of Myra) and was listed, years later, as one of the bishops attendint the First Council of Nicaea, in AD 325.
Whatever one think of the stories and the miracles, it si obvious that Nocolaos was a remarkably good man and mich beloved.
When Nicolaos died, the people (but not the church) dubbed him Saint Nicholas. Through the centuries, the cult of St. Nicholas spread from country to country, and more and more miracles were attributed to the intecession of the good saint. In western Europe, he became the patron saint of childhood. Parents prayed to him when a child was sick or missing, with a high rate of success, addording to the chronicles of the time.
Nicholas became the most popular of all saints; for a while, more churches was dedicated in his name than in the names of any of the apostles. He came to be ranked third, behind only Jesus and Mary, as figure to be worshiped and adored.
Now to the American inventors of Santa Claus. In 1809, Washington Irving wrote Diedrich Knickerbocker's History of New York. This was a tongue-in-check satire of contemporary life, in which the figure of St. Nicholas played a prominent part as the patron saint of the city.
In a new edition of the History of New York (1812), Irving added some new inventions about St. Nicholas. He referred to his "riding over the tops of trees, in that self same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children .... the smoke from his pipe spread like a cloud overhead... when he had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his harband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave a very significant look; then mounting his waggon, he returned over the tree tops and disappeared" This was written one year before Clement Clarke Moore wrote,"Twas the night before Christmas",
(Source: Abstracted from the book: INVENTING CHRISTMAS How Our Holiday Came To Be by: Jock Elliott)
|posted by infraternam meam @ 12:13 AM