Monday, December 22, 2008

Bah! Humbug!

Bah! Humbug! When the early Christians decided to celebrate the birth of Christ sometime in the fourth century, why did they choose December 25? Some say it was simply nine months after the Annunciation, March 25. Others suggest they wanted to co-opt pagan midwinter ceremonies, such as those of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. Of course, they were living in the Mediterranean, where the weather is relatively mild in December. They had no idea that the celebration of Christmas would become the commercial frenzy it is today. And they certainly didn’t expect that people in northern climes would insist on traveling long distances in abominable weather in order to be together at Christmas.

After dealing with trains delayed by broken rails, switch failures, and engine breakdowns, driving past slide-offs on Interstate 74, and finally being diverted off the same highway due to a fatal accident, I concluded that we’re insane to be traveling at this time of year. I’m insane, as I had been planning to drive back to Indiana in below-zero weather to be home with my family. Kathleen talked me out of it. With another winter storm rolling across the Midwest tomorrow, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially since I‘ve got to be back to Galesburg to work on Wednesday. (I’ll be working the evening shift Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.)

I’ve often muttered, “The Puritans were right.” Oliver Cromwell banned the celebration of Christmas when he became Lord Protector, though Charles II brought it back when the crown was restored. The Puritans of Massachusetts banned the public celebration of Christmas. Puritans saw the trappings of Christmas--the Yule Log and wassailing--as pagan. And of course they were. There’s some indication that wealthy Puritans were more bothered by wassailers demanding food and drink.

What became Christmas--the tree, the presents, Santa Claus, et cetera--was a Victorian invention. In fact, by marrying Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Queen Victoria had a lot to do with it. Albert brought the Christmas Tree, a German tradition, to England, where it migrated to America, and to the rest of the world. Charles Dickens, “the man who invented Christmas,” gave us The Christmas Carol, which is still a major influence on our perception of Christmas. (I admit to enjoying the book, and even more, the movie with Alistair Sim as Scrooge.)

Over here in the States, Clement Clarke Moore, or someone (there‘s a controversy about the authorship), wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” usually known by its first line, “Twas the night before Christmas.” The poem confounded the Dutch traditions of St. Nicholas’ Day with Christmas. There are many legends about Nicholas of Myra, a fourth-century Greek bishop who lived in what is now Turkey, but the most famous is of the three bags of gold. A poor man had three daughters, but not money enough to provide dowries for them. Without dowries, the young women would almost certainly have had to become prostitutes just to support themselves. The man was too proud to accept charity, so Nicholas, under the cover of darkness, tossed three bags of gold, one for each daughter, through the man’s window. Thus began the tradition of gift-giving on St. Nicholas’ Day, December 6. In Holland and Germany, children set their shoes outside their door or by the chimney on the night of December 5, and “Saint Nicholas,” (Sinterklaas in Dutch) fills them with candy or small toys. (Kathleen brought this tradition to our household. This year was the first where there were no children at home to put shoes outside their door.) Moore (or whoever wrote the poem) took these Dutch St. Nicholas Day traditions and transferred them to Christmas. Sinterklass became Santa Claus, lost his bishop’s miter, and began saying little but “Ho, Ho, Ho.”

And while I’m down on Christmas right now, especially the way we celebrate it here in the United States, I expect to be enchanted by a beautiful Episcopal mass Wednesday night or Thursday morning. Once the buying spree is over, and we get to the babe in the manger (or in the house, if you use Matthew’s gospel), then Christmas is an entirely different holiday. In fact, the celebration of Christmas goes on, culminating on January 6, with the arrival of the magicians from the East. My Bah! Humbug!, will, I hope, turn to “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”


Charles Gramlich said...

I guess the summer months were taken up. Interesting question, though. I never really thought about it. Why chose the 25th? I guess I always thought it was because of the pagan solstice.

Lisa said...

I hate to say that this time of year has come to represent more of an inconvenience than anything else to me over the last few years, but it's closer to the truth than not, and it's for many of the same reasons you've cited. I try not to let my cynicism about the commercialism and the materialism show. I do think it's nice that people seem to find some sentiment and some happiness in simply spending time together and many of the sounds and smells of the season make me nostalgic for days gone by. There is usually a moment or two that comes late on Christmas Eve where I feel the magic again. I'm sure you'll find that Wednesday night.

steve said...

Apparently sone Christians celebrated Jesus' birth in May. But that doesn't work well, coming right after Easter. I think it was because of the pagan solstice celebrations, and the Annunciation was set at March 25 after the Christmas date was established.

Lisa--I hope you're right.

Elizabeth said...

Have a wonderful Christmas, Mr. Humbug.

steve said...

Elizabeth--Thank you. And all the best to you and yours

Usman said...

Merry Christmas, Steve.

Olivia said...

Thank you for dropping by my blog and hope to see you again. I have read a few of your entries here and I find your outlook on the world very interesting.

Yes, when you take a pagan holiday away from your converted flock, you have to give them a replacement festival, or else they'll get restless.

I am here thinking of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which the Catholic church was faced with, um, effacing. It took place in mid-December and there was a lot of gift exchanges going on, even between masters and servants.

Peter said...

We read the first chapter of A Christmas Carol last night, the first time I've read it since childhood. It's better than I remembered it.

And listening to the New Cambridge singers on public radio yesterday -- wow.

You've given me an education. I knew nothing of Nicolas of Myra. I just read a wonderful post yesterday on the origin and development of Hanukkah, so I'm up on everything!

Anonymous said...

Since I'm not of a religious bent, I worry myself not at all about the ecclesiastical underpinnings of celebrations around the time of the winter solstice. I like thinking of early man, and the discovery of the specific day the darkness will begin to recede.

Of course, that doesn't diminish how interesting your historical post about the celebration(s) got going.

All the best.

steve said...

Just got back from four days of insanity--worked Christmas Eve until 400am Christmas morning. It's been a long nightmare for me and most of the passengers I try to serve. I'm looking toward the New Year, the wonderful holiday of Epiphany, and a new American president.

Usman--Thank you.

Olivia. Thank you for visiting. You're right, of course. At least one emperor made Sol Invictus the chief god of the Roman Empire. That was on top of Saturnalia and the various other solstice ceremonies.

Peter--Another detail about Nicholas--his bones were stolen from Myra by some Italians, who relocated them to Bari. And I believe the new shrine at Bari was actually built by Muslims who surreptitiously included "There is no God but God and Muhammad is his Prophet in one of the designs.

Thanks for the Hannukah reference. I'll check it out soon.

Gerry--Thanks. All the best to you and yours.

Lilith des les Caves said...

I've made a study of the choice of December 25th and have come to the conclusion that it was because in pagan terms, it was the rebirth of the God.

The Goddess is the Goddess always for eternity. God, however, is born, becomes a man at Beltane, dies but for His presence in the womb of the Goddess during Samhain and is reborn at Yule or whatever they called the celebration of the Winter Solstice.

Personally, I like the celebrations shortly after the renewal of the Sun. It prepares me better when I have a joyous time of feasting before the grrrrr of January. That's why I got married on Dec. 31st as well. LOL

I believe this is why Valentines Day was placed in February.... to remind us to find the warmth of our lovers arms even in the darkest of days.

From the Pagans of my cyber-acquaintance,I have added the celebration of Candlemas/Groundhog Day/Imbolc to my Winter anti-depressant behavior. I get a bag of cow manure and create designs on the snow over my garden in celebration of the spring to come.

Yes, I believe the day was well chosen, at least for me.