Christmas is one of the biggest festivals in the western world, but what does it mean to us living in an increasingly secular culture?
Christmas is an amalgam of stories. Its namesake of course is the story of the birth of Jesus, which most of us are familiar with.
There is also the story of St Nicholas, which later evolved into the more popular story of Santa Claus.
St Nicholas was originally the bishop of Myra in ancient Rome (now a part of Turkey) standing up for his christian beliefs in the 4th century at a time when christians were being persecuted. Due to his fierce defiance of the authorities, his reputation lived long after his death and he eventually became sainted. Primarily because he was a patron saint of many different groups, his story became more and more popular, and by around 1200 AD he was known as the patron saint of children and a magical gift bringer.
The story changed again after the protestant reformation where the original St Nicholas fell out of favour, and became influenced by German fairytale figures shapeshifting into Aschenklas (Ashy Nicholas), Ru-Klaus (Rough Nicholas) and Pelznickel (Furry Nicholas) who now expected good behaviour in exchange for presents or dealt out whippings or kidnappings to children who weren’t well behaved. It was only in the early decades of the 19th century that the cute cuddly Santa Claus that we celebrate today was created by American poets, artists and writers who wanted to make Christmas a family celebration and portrayed him as a pipe-smoking bearded man in red, flying over the rooftops delivering presents to good children.
Another influence in the current Christmas myth is an older Roman festivity called Saturnalia, celebrated in December in honour of the god Saturn for an entire month. It was a hedonistic affair with lavish food and drink in plenty, when all the rules were turned upside down and slaves became masters and peasants were in apparent command of the city!
There are some much older traditions that influence the festive time.
Before the story of Christ, December was host to a festival dedicated to the return of the sun (in the northern hemisphere) on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, marking a turning point when the days progressively get longer and warmer with the advent of spring.
For early people, European winters were cold and harsh and life would have at times been quite challenging and grim. Festivals of abundance are natural ways that we keep psychologically strong, and all of us are aware of the emotional benefits of good cheer and celebration. It makes sense that half way through the winter, early tribes would enjoy the lift in morale achieved through coming together and feasting. At that time of the year livestock were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a good supply of fresh meat. In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking.
The Yule tradition comes from the Norse people, who celebrated the winter solstice by burning very large logs of wood and feasting until they burned out (sometimes as long as 12 days). The practice dates back to the iron age, and the logs were decorated with holly, pine cones or ivy to symbolise the coming of spring. Later when it became impractical to burn large logs, the yule log was represented in the form of marzipan on the medieval table.
Of course we are all familiar with the tradition of the Christmas tree, which has its roots (excuse the pun) in antiquity. In ancient Egypt at the winter solstice, palm leaves were used as decorations to represent the triumph of life over death. In Roman culture, during Saturnalia, they used evergreen branches in their homes and temples, to symbolise the returning fertile time of spring and the promise of abundance in the fields. In northern Europe the Celts also used evergreen boughs at the winter solstice as a symbol of everlasting life, while the Vikings attributed evergreen branches to the god Baldur (notably a christ-like figure).
The actual use of a whole tree with added decorations is credited first to the Germans in the 16th century, and as the story goes it was Martin Luther who was inspired to add candles. Looking at our Christmas tree this year decorated with baubles, angels, stars, birds, snowmen and snowflakes it is easy to see a version of the tree of life, especially when the candles are lit.
In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. The date for Christmas was chosen by Pope Julius I (AD337 to 352) to coincide with the Roman cult of Mithra, whose infant god (a representation of the sun) was born on December 25th and already celebrated at that time.
In essence the living evolving myth* that we call Christmas is a complex collage of ideas, values and beliefs. I wanted to write something about the Christmas ritual largely because I have spent some years in the southern hemisphere actively taking more distance from it in order to gain a more objective view of something I grew up with. This has meant resisting the impulse to buy presents, choosing not to put up a Christmas tree, not playing Christmas carols, not writing cards, but instead cultivating a quiet spiritually receptive atmosphere oriented around peacefulness and appreciation.
* I use the term myth here to mean a deeply rooted story or meme that shapes human behaviour, as opposed to something treated as ‘untrue’. A good example of how Christmas memes affect behaviour is the impulse for some to travel to Lapland even though when they get there it can be -50˚C. A friend of my mother, decided to take her young grandchildren to Lapland in December, not realising how cold it would be, and how hard that would be for the young ones - it’s like we’re trying to connect to something through the stories that move us without being fully grounded in space-time reality.
This year I spent Christmas in Europe with family and it gave me an opportunity to catch up with the way most of us celebrate:
There is no doubt that Christmas for most people is now first and foremost about coming together as a family and renewing or strengthening bonds. In general there are more people now who are less engaged with the Christian religious dimension; the emphasis I see is more about feasting and socialising and less about the story of Jesus. This became obvious this year just watching the number of tv adverts (in the UK) on festive foods from competing supermarkets, not to mention the abundantly filled shopping trolleys many with significant amounts of booze.
We still love to buy presents this time of the year but as someone who has experienced Christmas without them, I have mixed feelings; there is something powerful and meaningful about the giving of gifts for both the giver and the receiver, but in an era where almost all of us are significantly better off than our recent ancestors, should we be more discerning and move away from obligatory gifting? It makes real sense in times of hardship to express love and respect with gifts, because they would in almost all cases be needed items. But today we all enjoy a great deal of material abundance such that it's common to receive presents from people that we don’t know what to do withº. I myself find it uncomfortable to be given something from someone that I don’t want or need - often in these situations (thankfully all well in the past) the person doing the giving has been so caught up in the Christmas story that they just grabbed something off the shelf so that they had something to give and wouldn’t stand out of the crowd; it may have been well intended but such a demonstration lacks fundamental meaning and sentiment.
º It is estimated that global online purchases over Christmas will be returned to the tune of $7 billion. Some Christmas gifts have already appeared for resale on eBay still gift wrapped!
On the one hand it's a lovely idea to agree as a community to give gifts at the same time, but it seems at times somewhat immature as if we as individuals cannot determine for ourselves when and how to give to the people we care about*. Oughtn’t we grow up a little and take more responsibility, for then surely gift giving would be more timely and more sincerely considered?
* I accept that for children Christmas gifts have more significance. After all, children have limited resources and cannot provide for themselves. They also have an inexhaustible curiosity and subsequent joy of new things.
Relative to the 1980s, the trend does seem to be moving toward a less materialistic approach; there were several members of my family this year who requested not to be given presents.
It may be surprising to know that Christmas has for a time been cancelled. In 1645 after the civil war in England, Oliver Cromwell in a bid to counter decadence cancelled Christmas (not surprisingly this didn’t go down well, and before too long King Charles was back on the throne along with Christmas). The Puritan settlers in north America did not support Christmas as a holiday either and it was actually outlawed in Boston in the early years.
It’s obvious today that the idea of Christmas is now, to a degree, socially engineered; a capitalist orientation has inevitably led to corporations manipulating how we relate to Christmas via advertising in order to increase sales; something, I suggest, we hardly notice .
The problem I see with Christmas is that its a hodge-podge of ideas and motivations that I think leave most of us inwardly confused. If we are actively following the Christian faith, then the holiday should be all about the birth of Jesus and his teachings. But for those of us who are not religious then what? Are we to be limited to the values of a materialistic culture, with rituals that drive us to consume unnecessary resources at a time when resources matter? Are we to be left filling our already comfortable bellies until they feel like bursting? In a world context where many of us are dying from overeating this hardly makes any sense!
Oddly enough the solstice is an actual physical event that is actually common to all of us, and despite that it's been with us as a holy festival since time immemorial, it's somewhat ironic that we don’t pay any attention to it. As an Evolutionary Astrologer I understand that there is something fundamentally significant about the cycle of the sun, and the solstice continues to happen every year, twice a year, with its simple yet lovely symbolism; the shortest day of the year marks a turning toward the end of a long cold winter (and hard times), while the longest day of the year is a time of abundant fullness when the energy is high. No matter what belief system we have, we are all moved by light, because we need it to be healthy in both body and mind, and sunlight is crucial to all food production.
The New Year
The story of the New Year is perhaps a less complex one. It is another Solar festival because the turning of the year we are talking about is a single orbit of the Earth around the sun. It’s the way we mark chronological time, and that is meaningful. Every new year we all start to think about getting a bit older, and about what we did or didn’t manage to do in the year just past, and we tend to make resolutions for the year ahead. Marking the turning of the years is of psychological benefit to us as individuals and as communities. We’ve actually been celebrating the new year since ancient times as far back as Babylon, but I puzzle over the confusion in the modern calendar. Why is the new year Jan 1st? Or more precisely why is it where it is in the cycle of the seasons?
I’ve always been troubled by the fact that different cultures celebrate the new year at different times. For example in India the new year can be celebrated on different days from province to province depending on whether they use a solar or lunar calendar. The Telugu people for example use a lunisolar calendar, which means the new year falls on a different day each year. The Chinese also celebrate a lunar new year and it is determined by the first new moon between Jan 21st and Feb 20th. In ancient Rome, for a time, the new year corresponded with the vernal equinox. This makes sense astrologically because it marks when the Sun moves into Aires, the first sign of the zodiac, and it also coincides with spring. The ancient Celts celebrated the new year on Samhain (All hallows eve) around Oct 31st, a time for honouring ancestors.
The Gregorian calendar we use today is another hodge-podge affair, for example September which literally means ‘the seventh month’ is currently the 9th month. Why is this?
Originally the Roman calendar had only 10 months: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December. Four of the months were named after deities - Mars for March, Aphrodite for April, Maius (goddess of the spring) for May, and Juno (goddess of marriage) for June, followed by the rest, which are simply attributed the numbers 5-10.
It was Julius Caesar (a dictator) who mucked up any semblance of sense by first adding January and February around 45BC; January after the god of gates and doorways called Janus, and February literally means ‘pertaining to purification’ connected to the festival of purification held on Feb 15th. Then to make things even more confusing, he renamed quintilis (the 5th month) July in honour of himself, and later Augustus Caesar followed suit and took the 6th month for himself and renamed it August.
So why does the new year happen when it does? Simply because January is named after Janus the god of doorways, depicted as having two faces, one looking forward and one looking back i.e. marking the threshold between the past and the future. Essentially the hubris of a Roman dictator turned the new year into a civil event, that could as easily have been placed on any day of the year.
My proposal? Wouldn’t we feel much better if our festivals were deeply rooted in meaning, and celebrated at times in the year that actually make sense? I posit that in a subtle way the current confusion in the way we mindlessly celebrate Christmas and New Year contributes to an emerging existential crisis on an epic scale. In general I observe an overall emptiness in our collective rituals; we keep on doing them, but don’t have a clear grasp of why anymore. Rituals are important to humanity; they help us come together in a peaceful and coherent manner, but our rituals have to serve community wellbeing and as such they need to be relevant to the human spirit and meaningful to all of us at an individual as well as collective level. At the moment one could argue that we are overly passive and have allowed our ritual practice to be co-opted by corporate powers. Isn't it time we reclaimed our sacred practices and reinvigourated them with relevance and purpose suited to the current times?