Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Last one out, please turn off the lights...

Athenae sent me to the Adam Gopnik story on NPR from earlier this week, and while it was a good comment, the summary of it on the website flipped my switch:

Commentator Adam Gopnik loves everything about Christmas, gaudiness included, because to him it represents an idea — that oppression can produce new beginnings, and that a light can go on in the middle of darkness.

Can I just say I'm full bore sick of the "light in the middle of darkness" stuff?

You look up the "history of Christmas," you get this kind of stuff:

The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of the man called Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.
Well, yeah, maybe. But why then, do we, in a world so industrialized that seasons mean little more to most of us than whether or not we need a coat when we go outside, still put up lights at the end of the year? Because we're afraid of the dark? Or because it's aesthetically pleasing?

I have a book about one young Irish girl's memories of a rural Irish Christmas in the mid-20th century. For an agricultural society, the coming of winter meant rest and living off what was provided from the summer. Meat was prepared and animals slaughtered to provide food for the winter, and where there was little food storage capacity or preservation possible, most of that food had to be eaten soon. By the time spring came around larders were usually empty. Not quite so grim a story is told in that book, of course, but she makes it clear the season was an agricultural necessity, not a social or anthropological one. The solstice mattered less than the weather, and the fact livestock had to be wintered over, and crops couldn't be tended. It was also a time to celebrate after a long period of hard work; a time to rest and recover and get ready for all the demands of spring. So, when I put up Christmas lights, am I afraid of the dark and wishing the sun would come back? Or do I just think they're pretty?

And what makes me any different from people in Scandinavian country 3000 years ago? They were superstitious fools, and I'm not? Feh.

Then, of course, there's the simplistic stuff like this:

Although some evidence suggests that his birth may have occurred in the spring (why would shepherds be herding in the middle of winter?), Pope Julius I chose December 25. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival.
And this, mind you, is on The History Channel's website, and is the "REAL" story of Christmas. Bah, humbug. You want a real history, you look at something like this:

Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts; Origen, glancing perhaps at the discreditable imperial Natalitia, asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday; Arnobius (VII, 32 in P.L., V, 1264) can still ridicule the "birthdays" of the gods.

The first evidence of the feast is from Egypt. About A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria (Strom., I, xxi in P.G., VIII, 888) says that certain Egyptian theologians "over curiously" assign, not the year alone, but the day of Christ's birth, placing it on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus. [Ideler (Chron., II, 397, n.) thought they did this believing that the ninth month, in which Christ was born, was the ninth of their own calendar.]
If you wade through that (as you should, if you want to know something verifiable about history), you reach this conclusion:

The present writer in inclined to think that, be the origin of the feast in East or West, and though the abundance of analogous midwinter festivals may indefinitely have helped the choice of the December date, the same instinct which set Natalis Invicti at the winter solstice will have sufficed, apart from deliberate adaptation or curious calculation, to set the Christian feast there too.
In other words, as that Irish family knew in the 20th century: on the farm, the time of year that falls in December is a good time for a feast!

Now, as to this information, first note that this is a Catholic encyclopedia, and yet there is no mention here of Pope Julius I setting the date. In fact, the whole question of the date is clearly far more complex than that. Looking back from 1700 years later, we tend to flatten out "the church" and forget that, for centuries, there were "churches" in, as this entry recognizes: Rome, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Constantinople, Antioch, as well as Cyprus, Mesopotamia, Armenia, and Asia Minor. Church historians, of course,know this; but who wants to listen to church historians when we can tell simple stories pagan holidays that became Christian holidays (oh, those silly Christians and their "holy days!").

This is not to neglect the great irony that most of these arguments against holidays (pagans started it!) were advanced by the Puritans in America. History abounds in such ironies.

So how did the date of 25 December get selected? Nobody seems to know, exactly, but the process was not a simple one:

At Rome, then, the Nativity was celebrated on 25 December before 354; in the East, at Constantinople, not before 379, unless with Erbes, and against Gregory, we recognize it there in 330. Hence, almost universally has it been concluded that the new date reached the East from Rome by way of the Bosphorus during the great anti-Arian revival, and by means of the orthodox champions. De Santi (L'Orig. delle Fest. Nat., in Civiltæ Cattolica, 1907), following Erbes, argues that Rome took over the Eastern Epiphany, now with a definite Nativity colouring, and, with as increasing number of Eastern Churches, placed it on 25 December; later, both East and West divided their feast, leaving Ephiphany on 6 January, and Nativity on 25 December, respectively, and placing Christmas on 25 December and Epiphany on 6 January. The earlier hypothesis still seems preferable.
I would note that the Roman celebration is the earliest mentioned here, and it comes a good 70 yearsa after the Natalis Invicti had reached its peak of popularity. So the idea that Christians took over a popular Roman holiday is a weak one, indeed. The time of year may have been remembered, but the pagan holiday had long passed its prime by the mid 4th century.

As for the Saturnalia connection; fuggedaboutit!

The origin of Christmas should not be sought in the Saturnalia (1-23 December) nor even in the midnight holy birth at Eleusis (see J.E. Harrison, Prolegom., p. 549) with its probable connection through Phrygia with the Naasene heretics, or even with the Alexandrian ceremony quoted above; nor yet in rites analogous to the midwinter cult at Delphi of the cradled Dionysus, with his revocation from the sea to a new birth (Harrison, op. cit., 402 sqq.).
So, is this the "real" story of Christmas? I'm sure it's closer than some Pope in some century appropriating a pagan holiday in order to convert everyone to Christianity. Those explanations always smack of apocryphal material for a "Lives of the Saints" story: they may sound good, but they have little to do with reality. Do people today put up lights to bring the sun back? Then its not likely they did so in "ancient days," either. The New Advent entry covers several seasonal topics, and notes, for instance, that the "yule log" didn't become a public ceremony in England until 1577, hardly pagan times in Merrye Olde England at all. How did the ceremony even get started?

...probably the Yule-log in its many forms was originally lit only in view of the cold season.
Huh! And probably we put up lights in December because it's festive, and because the longer nights mean they'll stay lit longer and cheer us up until spring comes back. And maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with Mithra...or Saturn...d'ya think?

ADDENDUM: Just a footnote, because this kind of stuff drives me crazy. Again, from The History Channel:

In Germany, people honored the pagan god Oden during the mid-winter holiday. Germans were terrified of Oden, as they believed he made nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people, and then decide who would prosper or perish. Because of his presence, many people chose to stay inside.
Silly, superstitious people! We don't fear mythical gods who fly by night! We fear a lone Muslim living in a cave in Pakistan, who robs us of our sleep and keeps us from shopping and triggers terror alerts. We fear brown people who will cross the Rio Grande and wreak untold havoc on us and will probably give us all leprosy! At least, that's what our pundits and politicians tell us, and why would they want us to be afraid needlessly? Much more reasonable to fear these things than to fear Odin!

Hmmmm...wanting to stay inside in Germany during the mid-winter. Can't imagine why anyone would want to do that, except for fear of a god flying by....

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