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writing for godot

So This Is Christmas

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Written by Ivars Vilums   
Friday, 18 December 2015 08:59
No single person or group owns this time of year. People have celebrated the winter solstice (as well as the summer solstice and the two equinox) for thousands of years, probably since the first inklings of human awareness of earthly cycles of time. They are our primal holidays and holy days. In the northern hemisphere it is the time when the length of the night reaches its peak and the days begin to get longer again. It has always been celebrated as the time of birth and new life and light and hope for the future. It is a celebration of our awareness of the cycles of time essential for our survival. What we celebrate today is an amalgamation of many traditions spanning all of our diverse cultures and times dating back to antiquity, but the mix varies depending on who and where and when you live.

The name Christmas - literally meaning "Christ's Mass" or "Christian Mass" - first shows up around 1,000 AD. The Catholic Church started celebrating the birth of Jesus during the time of Emperor Constantine in the mid 300's, although the date has varied (and still does) from mid December to mid January. Following the Protestant Reformation, many of the new denominations, including the Anglican Church and Lutheran Church, continued to celebrate Christmas. Interestingly, the Puritans (who fled England for America) as well as Dutch Calvinists strongly condemned, abolished, and then banned any observance of Christmas. Pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities and for weeks rioters decorated doorways with holly as a protest.

Many scholars believe that Jesus was actually born in the springtime around 3 or 4 AD. The Jewish calendar date of 14 Nisan was believed to be that of creation as well as of the Exodus (and so of Passover). It was a traditional Jewish belief that great men lived a whole number of years, without fractions, so that Jesus was considered to have been conceived on 25th of March, and died on the 25th of March which was calculated to have coincided with 14 Nisan. Early Christians held that the new creation, both the death of Jesus and the beginning of his human life, occurred on the same date - on the 25th of March. In his work "Adversus Haereses," Irenaeus (c. 130–202) identified the conception of Jesus as March 25 and linked it to the crucifixion at the time of the equinox, with the birth of Jesus nine months after on 25 December at the time of the solstice.

Sometime between 270 and 275 the Roman emperor Aurelian fixed the "Dies Natalis Solis Invicti," meaning "the birthday of the Unconquered Sun" to be celebrated on December 25th, a festival to celebrate the sun god. Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival in honor of the deity Saturn, was celebrated from the 17th of December through to the 23rd of December. It was derived from the earlier Greek Kronia which was celebrated in similar fashion at harvest in honor of Kronos, father of Zeus, and survives today in the practice on Christmas Eve of walking house to house, singing carols, and greeting people. The birth of the Zoroastrian angelic Divinity Mithra was also celebrated at this time. Much of today's festive atmosphere - gift giving, public banquets and parties, the lighting of candles, sending poems on cards to friends and acquaintances, the suspension of social norms, the wearing of colorful clothes considered in poor taste any other time of the year - derives from these celebrations. Slaves were served by their masters and everyone was equal, at least for a short time. The phrase "Io Saturnalia" (pronounced "Yo Saturnalia!") was often shouted out after the banquet on December 17th. The poet Catullus called it "the best of days." Pliny had a place he could retreat to and get away from the hustle and bustle.

Scandinavia celebrated a winter festival called "Yule" and Germanic peoples observed the 12 days they called Yuletide ("Yule time") as a celebration of the Norse god Odin (“Father Yule”). The events of Yule centered on feasting, drinking, gift giving, and sacrifice and we honor that tradition today with (among other things) the Yule log and the Christmas ham. The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for birds for wintertime. Germanic people were cutting and bringing in and decorating evergreen fir trees by the 15th century. At first they were decorated with fruits and nuts and other treats but later candles were added also. Today we use safer electric lights on trees that are now often manufactured and have never been alive.

Santa Claus is generally thought to have been derived from the historical Saint Nicholas, a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Empire, now in Turkey. He is most famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes. In much of Europe he is usually portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes. His feast day of December 6th (not the 25th) is celebrated with gift giving in some places and has been the focus of consternation among some fundamentalist religions because of their opposition to the veneration of saints. Martin Luther unsuccessfully tried to replace him with the "Christkind." His mythos and tradition, however, go back much further. In the Germanic and English Yuletide celebrations, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded god Odin (also called "Long Beard" and "Giftbringer of the North") rode across the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir on the "Wild Hunt" visiting his people with gifts.

Books could be written about this time of year (and many have been with much more information than I have here!) but the one thing common to all of the celebrations is that it is a time of peace and hope and getting along. It would be well worth our time regardless of beliefs or customs to find ways to honor that common tradition and celebrate our common heritage and take at least one small step in respecting, honoring, and celebrating everyone we encounter regardless of who or what they are or how they like to celebrate or what they choose to believe. It is the time of rebirth for us all and ultimately our only path to survival as humans. Our ability to blend this diversity is our greatest strength and the only reason we are still here. It is a good cause to celebrate. Io! (or "Yo" in today's vernacular.)
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