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Happy Winter Festival

source: http://xa.yimg.com/kq/groups/19073554/244613221/name/A+Brief+History+of+Christmas+-+WSJ.com.pdf

EXCERPTS:

“History does not tell us exactly when in the year Christ was born, but according to the Gospel of St. Luke,’shepherds were abiding in the field and keeping watch over their flocks by night.’ This would imply a date in the spring or summer when the flocks were up in the hills and needed to be guarded. In winter they were kept safely in corrals.

So Dec. 25 must have been chosen for other reasons. It is hard to escape the idea that by making Christmas fall immediately after the Saturnalia, the Pope invited converts to still enjoy the fun and games of the ancient holiday and just call it Christmas. Also, Dec. 25 was the day of the sun god, Sol Invictus, associated with the emperor. By using that date, the church tied itself to the imperial system.

By the high Middle Ages, Christmas was a rowdy, bawdy time, often inside the church as well as outside it. In France, many parishes celebrated the Feast of the Ass, supposedly honoring the donkey that had brought Mary to Bethlehem. Donkeys were brought into the church and the mass ended with priests and parishioners alike making donkey noises. In the so-called Feast of Fools, the lower clergy would elect a ‘bishop of fools’ to temporarily run the diocese and make fun of church ceremonial and discipline. With this sort of thing going on inside the church to celebrate the Nativity, one can easily imagine the drunken and sexual revelries going on outside it to celebrate what was in all but name the Saturnalia.

With the Reformation, Protestants tried to rid the church of practices unknown in its earliest days and get back to Christian roots. Most Protestant sects abolished priestly celibacy (and often the priesthood itself), the cult ofthe Virgin Mary, relics, confession and . . . Christmas.

In the English-speaking world, Christmas was abolished in Scotland in 1563 and in England after the Puritans took power in the 1640s. It returned with the Restoration in 1660, but the celebrations never regained their medieval and Elizabethan abandon.

There was still no Christmas in Puritan New England, where Dec. 25 was just another working day. In the South, where the Church of England predominated, Christmas was celebrated as in England. In the middle colonies, matters were mixed. In polyglot New York, the Dutch Reformed Church did not celebrate Christmas. The Anglicans and Catholics did.

It was New York and its early 19th century literary establishment that created the modern American form of the old Saturnalia. It was a much more family — and especially child — centered holiday than the community-wide celebrations of earlier times.”

source: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/20/opinion/20cohen.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1

EXCERPTS:

“Many of the wintertime customs in Western Europe descend from the ancient Romans, who believed that their god of the harvest, Saturn, had ruled the land during an earlier age of abundance, and so celebrated the winter solstice with the Saturnalia, a feast of gift-giving, role-reversals (slaves berating their masters) and general public holiday from Dec. 17 to 24.

The transition from Roman paganism to Christianity, with its similar rites, took several centuries. With the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, customs were quickly appropriated and refashioned, as the sun and God’s son became inextricably entwined. Thus, although the New Testament gives no indication of Christ’s actual birthday (early writers preferring a spring date), in 354 Pope Liberius declared it to have befallen on Dec. 25.

The advantages of Christmas Day being celebrated then were obvious. As the Christian commentator Syrus wrote: ‘It was a custom of the pagans to celebrate on the same Dec. 25 the birthday of the sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity …. Accordingly, when the church authorities perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day.’

In Christendom, the Nativity gradually absorbed all other winter solstice rites, and the co-opting of solar imagery was part of the same process. Thus the solar discs that had once been depicted behind the heads of Asian rulers became the halos of Christian luminaries. Despite the new religion’s apparent supremacy, many of the old customs survived — so much so that church elders worried that the veneration of Christ was being lost. In the fifth century, St. Augustine of Hippo and Pope Leo the Great felt compelled to remind their flocks that Christ, not the sun, was their proper object of their worship.

While Roman Christianity was the dominant culture in Western Europe, it was by no means the only one. By millennium’s end, the Danes controlled most of England, bringing with them ‘Yule,’ their name for winter solstice celebrations, probably derived from an earlier term for ‘wheel.’ For centuries, the most sacred Norse symbol had been the wheel of the heavens, represented by a six- or eight-spoked wheel or by a cross within a wheel signifying solar rays.

The Norse peoples, many of whom settled in what is now Yorkshire, would construct huge solar wheels and place them next to hilltop bonfires, while in the Middle Ages processions bore wheels upon chariots or boats. In other parts of Europe, where the Vikings were feared and hated, a taboo on using spinning wheels during solstices lasted well into the 20th century. The spinning-wheel on which Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger may exemplify this sense of menace.

Throughout much of Europe, at least up until the 16th century, starvation was common from January to April, a period known as ‘the famine months.’ Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed over the winter, making the solstice almost the only time of year that fresh meat was readily available. The boar’s head at Christmas feasts represents the dying sun of the old year, while the suckling pig — with the apple of immortality in its mouth — the new.

The turning of the sun was perhaps even more important in the New World than the Old. The Aztecs, who believed that the heart harbored elements of the sun’s power, ensured its continual well-being by tearing out this vital organ from hunchbacks, dwarves or prisoners of war, so releasing the ‘divine sun fragments’ entrapped by the body and its desires.

The Incas would celebrate the solar festival of Inti Raymi by having their priests attempt to tie down the celestial body. At Machu Picchu, high in the Peruvian Andes, there is a large stone column called the Intihuatana, (‘hitching post of the sun,’) to which the star would be symbolically harnessed. It is unclear how the Incas measured the success of this endeavor, but at least the sun returned the following day.”

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