Archives for November 2013

What is a Merry Christmas?

Christmas candles

In midwinter long ago, when the air was cold, the earth covered with a blanket of snow and many crops had withered in the darkness, ancient peoples believed that the sun god had fallen ill and died. If they were to survive, they knew they must persuade him to be reborn and because evergreens had special powers enabling them to remain green all year long, they brought them into their dwellings, hoping that some of the magic would rub off on them.

By the advent of Christianity, such practices had become popular all over Europe and the near East. The ancient Egyptians filled their homes with green date palm leaves to celebrate the sun god Ra’s annual triumph over death. The early Romans exchanged gifts and traded places with their servants on 25th December to celebrate the survival of their sun god, Mithra. In Great Britain, the Druids used evergreens, holly and mistletoe as symbols of everlasting life, introduced the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe, and placed evergreen boughs over their doors and windows to ward off evil spirits. In Scandinavia, Yule was celebrated by bringing in large logs for the fire which would take twelve days to burn, and the Germans believed that their god, Oden, flew through the sky at night passing judgment on his people.

We still practice many of these traditions today but it wasn’t always like that. We think of Christmas as being the celebration of Jesus’ birth but the fact is that the actual date of that birth has never been established, and besides, early Christianity frowned on the celebration of birthdays.

Pagan traditions were too strong to be quashed and, in 336 AD, the first recorded celebration of a Christian Christmas was held, but it wasn’t like the Christmas we know nowadays. Instead, it was a raucous, drunken affair resembling a carnival when poor folk would go round the richer areas trick or treating, causing their wealthier neighbours misery if they didn’t get what they wanted.

Soon after, things began, very slowly, to change. In the 4th Century, St. Nicholas, who became Santa Claus, started giving money to children to protect them from poverty, and also to girls who were threatened with prostitution or slavery. In 13th century, carols were reluctantly introduced, ironically, taken from early pagan fertility rituals. The church made multiple attempts to ban them until St. Francis of Assisi managed to persuade the powers that be that both music and joy could be acceptable forms of a Christian celebration.

Then, one night in 16th century Germany, Martin Luther was walking through the woods, composing a sermon. Awestruck by the beauty of evergreens shimmering in the snow under the stars, he brought a small evergreen tree into his house and decorated it with candles to show his children what he had seen.

In the twenty-first century, we are still combining the pagan and religious, the ancient and the modern for our mid-winter festival. It is both a time for Christmas trees, presents and the twelve days of Christmas, and also a time for sacred reflection. Thankfully, we have the freedom to choose how we think and we can ponder the birth of a baby who changed the course of human history, or witness the power of light in the darkness, or marvel at the rising of the sun for a new year and the resultant return of warmth and growth.

So while we are merry making with our friends and family, let’s pause and take time to honour the values which Christmas now represents. Trust that spring will indeed return, smile at the love that a child can bring, be compassionate for our fellow beings and respect the extraordinary power of nature. Let’s enjoy the ancient traditions still coursing through our veins, and, at the same time, revere the miracle that we call life.

Wishing you a very merry, joyous and profound Christmas.

Love Laurelle x