December 29, 2008

And What Was All The Fuss About?

It’s over! Christmas has come and gone and as John Lennon once asked, “And what have we done?” Really what?

The recession boogie man and fearful financial forecasts revealed a glaring deficiency in our Christmas celebrations. It is now so obvious that many people’s “reason for the season”, is as weak as the justification for the celebration itself.
Without money to spend or without the will to spend too much of it to create the usual showy display of Christmas magic, namely, perfectly painted homes, blinding lights, presents for every man jack, enough grog to open a bar and enough food to feed a small village, many householders were rather Scroogy this year. Those who tried to maintain the glitz are now gnashing their teeth in expectation of the credit card bill.

To add insult to injury, this year even Mother Nature seemed to revolt against the season with torrential rains during what is supposed to be our Petit Carem of clear blue skies with bright sunshine in the day and clear starlight nights with balmy breezes in the evening. Instead we had gloomy views, floods, landslides and a dank, humid and bothersome air all around us. The crime rate escalated during a season that celebrates the, “Prince of Peace”. The traffic had people feeling anything but, “Goodwill to all men,”, it was more of a, “Get outta meh blasted way!” vibe that not even a strong ponche a crème could have cured. Road fatalities reached natural disaster proportions.

Many were trying desperately to hold on to some kind of substantiation for the season. On the Gayelle Channel, there was a call-in segment with Conrad Paris on the true meaning of Christmas. He seemed rather depressed that for so many, the season had no spiritual significance. Then again, the spiritual foundation of the celebration has been hindered by the fact that almost everyone knows by now that Jesus Christ was not born on December 25th. Nowhere in the New Testament did Christ decree for his followers to observe his birthday, in fact the first Christians never celebrated Christmas. Everyone knows we are basically celebrating a “made-up” religious holiday.

Where did Christmas come from?

In the 4th century CE, Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire but it was still a struggling sect as far as popularity went, bombarded on all sides by pagans throughout the empire. Most preferred their polytheistic spirituality and worshiped the Sun God, especially his re-birth during the Winter Solstice from December 21st. In the eastern territories of Rome, they too observed the birth of their Gods through the Goddess from Osirius to Mithras.

Yule logs, evergreen trees and mistletoe are all pagan in origin.

To the north in Germany, Gaul and Britannia, pagans and Druids danced around the fire during Winter Solstices, burned Yule logs, decorated evergreen trees. Mistletoe was used by Druid priests 200 years before the birth of Christ in their winter celebrations. They revered the plant since it had no roots yet remained green during the cold months of winter. The ancient Celtics believed mistletoe to have magical healing powers. Enemies who met under mistletoe would lay down their weapons and embrace. Scandanavians associated the plant with Frigga, their Goddess of love, and it may be from this that we derive the custom of kissing under the mistletoe although the pagans did a lot more than kissing under it, if you know what I mean. In Rome, the people observed Saturnalia which celebrated the rebirth of the Invinsible Sun-God and the God of cultivation Saturn. It too occurred around the Winter Solstice, the time of the longest night from which point the sun waxed in strength and the days began to get longer. December 25th was the high point of the celebration.

So here it was that all around the Christians, these merry pagans had engaging, exciting festivities full of dance, song and revelry. What did the Christians have to compete with it? Nothing. Christianity was supposed to be a very staid, unadorned, decidedly somber religion with just Christ on a cross, rejection of all materialism and pleasure in favor of heavenly reward after death. If you read the letters of the Apostle Paul, you can derive that he would be the greatest party pooper in history. In addition Christianity was an off-shoot of the Jewish tradition and Jews never celebrated births, not even of important figures. How a person died was of more significance than the date they were born. Still, despite this precedent, the early Christian church in Rome had to do something to be more appealing to the masses. They needed to market Christianity to pagans as a religion that was also celebratory and ritualistic.

The early Roman Catholic Church had to find a way to compete with the merriment and festivals of the pagans. Christianity was a very unadorned and staid religion by comparison and the pagans loved their celebrations, like Saturnalia, the observation of the rebirth of the Invincsible Sun (seen here) celebrated from December 21st to 25th.

That was how it came to pass that the early Roman Catholic church, hoping to win more pagan converts to Christianity, promised the pagans that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians. Of course, there is nothing intrinsically Christian about Saturnalia. To remedy this, these Christian leaders named Saturnalia’s concluding day, December 25th, to be Jesus’ birthday. In 529 A.D, five centuries after Jesus Christ, that Emperor Justinian made Christmas a civic holiday. Throughout the empire, from Asia Minor to the British Isles and Scandinavia, the pagans, now young Christian converts, melded their old traditions with that of this strange new religion which they were now obligated to follow under pain of death.
It was centuries later when the authorized Bible became available to the common people in England by the decree of King James the II in 1611 that people began to discover the pagan roots of Christmas. It would surprise many to know that one of the reforming sects to come out of Protestant England, the Puritans, outlawed Christmas as heathen and witchcraft. Early America was not the Christmas frenzied place it is now when the Puritans came over to colonize the North Eastern States, like Massachusetts. In fact, Christmas was only resurrected later on thanks to the arrival of Roman Catholics from Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal, along with the other Lutheran originated sects that still chose to overlook the decidedly non-Christian roots of the festival. If the Puritans held more sway, America would be quite different when it came to Christmas today.

I know some Christians who love Christmas to the bone and the shock of this historical truth makes them take great insult. Many who already know the truth simply choose to overlook it and concentrate on the warm, fuzzy feelings of the season, which revolve mainly around family, feasting and fun. However, as we have seen, when these become unavailable, because of financial constraints, there is little of any significance to fill the deep void. For some, the feeling of betrayal they feel when they learn that Christmas is a ripped-off, hodge-podge of other ancient cultures and their symbols, dates and spirituality and has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus’ birth, is similar to that heart crushing day when they found out that their parents were lying to them about Santa Claus.
Perhaps it is for this reason, more than anything else, that so many cannot find it in their heart anymore to continue with what they see as a religious charade. Perhaps it is why it is so hard to fight the commercialization and secularisaton of the season. If it truly was based on something real, there would be no way to justify making it politically correct, no matter who it offended. But how can you honestly get angry when the PC police change “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays” when Christmas has nothing to do with Christ in the first place and the religious tradition was based on pagan plagiarism?

I am not Christian. I am an independent spiritual journey-maker. I had a wonderful, pleasurable Winter Solstice celebration on December 21st, full of spiritual ecstasy, deep reverential communing with my Divine Father, magical work, feasting and love-making. I can celebrate this season and do so with authenticity. While I admire and appreciate deeply what Jesus taught, what his work and sacrifice means to me and I agree with much of the Christian spiritual message, when it comes to observances, I’d rather follow what is true, original and organically meaningful. However, I respect everyone’s right to celebrate what they choose and rather than rib my Christian friends over this conundrum they face, I would like to help them recapture some kind of authentic value in what they are celebrating on December 25th, even if it is not the actual birthday of Jesus. After all, it should not be the job of anyone to try to convert anyone else away from their spiritual path but help them walk their path more truly in peace and happiness.

So what is the truth, the universal truth about the Divine being born? Why do so many religions have the dynamic of a male Divine Being being re-born through a female, every year? What is the significance of rebirth? Perhaps through understanding this truth and why it is so spiritually poignant can help struggling Christians appreciate their remake of the original.

It used to be that early Christians, before Roman influence, only concentrated on how Jesus lived, his message and the significance of his death. The later addition of his birth by the powerfully elected Roman Church created a wheel of life very similar to what pagans had. First, God is born through a female, whether a mortal woman or a Goddess or some combination of both. God reaches full power, creates, heals, inspires. God sacrifices his life for the good of mankind. God is reborn again. Repeat.

For the pagans, the Sun and the harvest was seen as a parallel of the God. The cutting down of the vine and the wheat coincided with the waning of the sun and represented the God being sacrificed for humankind’s sake. In our tropical climate here in Trinidad and Tobago, it may be hard to deeply feel the significance of the sun. We take it for granted. However, if you have ever experienced the bitter cold of winter, you know that it is vital to life. Its seeming cycle around the earth (actually it is the earth revolving around the sun) is like the cycle of life itself. For indigenous people’s who derive their spirituality from nature, the equation is very simple. Within this simplicity is a deeper truth. Like the sun, God brings us life. Change is the very essence of life and so a life-giving God must therefore undergo transformation. God’s death and rebirth every year or at least the celebration of it, is the recognition that God represents ultimate life and ultimate transformation. Through God’s transformation, we too can transform and grow and our transformation and growth is evidence that we too are alive in God.

For Christians, this transformation can be their decision to follow Christ and accept salvation through him. This is what is truly significant about his birth, whenever it happened. For those of us for whom salvation is not an issue, the Winter Solstice, is the celebration of our long year’s walk with God and the hope of a new dawn of yet another leg of our soul’s journey in the coming year. My growth as in infinite being, created by an even more Infinite God, is as assured as the sun that rises on that Winter Solstice dawn because I am bonded to a God that also grows, at light year speeds no less.

Winter Solstice celebration by modern day pagans and spiritual eclectics at Stonehenge.

So, okay, Christ was not born on December 25th but there can be no doubt that the messages of peace, joy, hope and generosity of heart and spirit are vital to our souls as individuals and as a community, Christian or not. If Scrooginess took hold because of low cash flow, criminal bombardment, empty materialism and over-sensitive secularism, remember this, at the heart of every tradition is a seed of truth somewhere. If you hold on to just that while the convoluted Christmas hurricane swirls around you, you will be safely rooted and ready to blossom after the chaos of the season settles.

All around the world, in almost every religious tradition, a Goddess or mortal woman gives birth to a God. There is a universal truth to be found in this.

Hope you had a Merry Christmas and/or blessed Yuletide! If you didn’t have one this year, may the one in 2009 be far more meaningful, for the right reasons.