Merry Christmas to everyone who celebrates this day. Also, Happy Hanukkah, the festival of lights, which culminated last night. Happy Kwanzaa to those who will begin celebrating it tomorrow. And Happy Festivus “for the rest of us.”
How long have humans been celebrating the return of the light after the darkest day of the year–the Winter Solstice fell on Dec. 21 in 2014–when the days gradually begin getting longer? No one knows for sure, but it has been many centuries. I’ve gathered some articles about some ancient holidays around the solstice that preceded Christmas.
The ancient Romans celebrated the Saturnalia in tribute to the god Saturn, and Roman soldiers marked Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, in honor of the god Mithras.
Here’s a detailed description of the Saturnalia from a University of Chicago website.
In the Roman calendar, the Saturnalia was designated a holy day, or holiday, on which religious rites were performed. Saturn, himself, was identified with Kronos, and sacrificed to according to Greek ritual, with the head uncovered. The Temple of Saturn, the oldest temple recorded by the pontiffs, had been dedicated on the Saturnalia, and the woolen bonds which fettered the feet of the ivory cult statue within were loosened on that day to symbolize the liberation of the god. It also was a festival day. After sacrifice at the temple, there was a public banquet, as well as a lectisternium (a banquet in which an image of the god is placed as if in attendance), which Livy says was introduced in 217 BC. “For a day and a night the cry of the Saturnalia resounded through the City, and the people were ordered to make that day a festival and observe it as such for ever” (History of Rome, XXII.1.19). Afterwards, according to Macrobius (I.10.18), the celebrants shouted Io, Saturnalia at a riotous feast in the temple.
The Saturnalia was the most popular holiday of the Roman year. Catullus describes it as “the best of days” (Poems, XIV), and Seneca complains that the “whole mob has let itself go in pleasures” (Epistles, XVIII.3). Pliny the Younger writes that he retired to his room while the rest of the household celebrated (Epistles, II.17.24). It was an occasion for celebration, visits to friends, and the presentation of gifts, particularly wax candles (cerei), perhaps to signify the returning light after the solstice, and sigillaria. Martial wrote Xeniaand Apophoreta for the Saturnalia. Both were published in December and intended to accompany the “guest gifts” which were given at that time of year. Aulus Gellius relates that he and his Roman compatriots would gather at the baths in Athens, where they were studying, and pose difficult questions to one another on the ancient poets, a crown of laurel being dedicated to Saturn if no-one could answer them (Attic Nights, XVIII.2).
During the holiday, restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were permitted to use dice and did not have to work. Instead of the toga, colorful dinner clothes (synthesis) were permitted in public, as was the pileus, a felt cap normally worn by the manumitted slave that symbolized the freedom of the season (Martial, Epigrams, XIV.1). Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was chosen, a role once occupied by a young Nero, who derisively commanded his younger step-brother Britannicus to sing (Tacitus, Annals, XIII.15).
Slaves were treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters’ clothing, and be waited on at meal time in remembrance of an earlier golden age thought to have been ushered in by the god. In the Saturnalia, Lucian has the god’s priest declare that “During My week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.” Statius recounts a “December tipsy with much wine, and laughing Mirth and wanton Wit,” remembering “the glad festival of our merry Caesar and the banquet’s drunken revel” (Silvae, I.6.1ff; also Suetonius, Domitian, IV.1; Dio, Roman History, LXVII.4.4). Figs, nuts, dates and other dainties were showered on the people, women and children, men and senators alike, and bread and wine served among the rows while guests were entertained by women fighting in the arena and cranes were hunted by dwarfs.
From About.com: Dies Natalis Solis Invicti and Mithras.
Saturnalia may have been responsible for the pageantry of our midwinter festival, but it’s Mithraism that seems to have inspired certain symbolic religious elements of Christmas. Mithraism arose in the Mediterranean world at the same time as Christianity, either imported from Iran, as Franz Cumont believed, or as a new religion which borrowed the name Mithras from the Persians, as the Congress of Mithraic Studies suggested in 1971.
Mithraism radiated from India where there is evidence of its practice from 1400 B.C. Mitra was part of the Hindu pantheon* and Mithra was, perhaps, a minor Zoroastrian deity**, the god of the airy light between heaven and earth. He was also said to have been a military general in Chinese mythology.
The soldiers’ god, even in Rome (although the faith was embraced by male emperors, farmers, bureaucrats, merchants, and slaves, as well as soldiers), demanded a high standard of behavior, “temperance, self-control, and compassion — even in victory”….
The comparison of Mithraists and Christians is not coincidental. December 25 was Mithras’ birthday (or festival before it was Jesus’. The Online Mithraic Faith Newsletter [no longer available] says:
“Since earliest history, the Sun has been celebrated with rituals by many cultures when it began it’s journey into dominance after it’s apparent weakness during winter. The origin of these rites, Mithrasists believe, is this proclamation at the dawn of human history by Mithras commanding His followers to observe such rites on that day to celebrate the birth of Mithras, the Invincible Sun.”
In Scandinavia the Norse god Thor was honored with the Feast of Juul.
The Feast of Juul was a pre-Christian festival observed in Scandinavia at the time of the December solstice. Fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun. A Yule or Juul log was brought in and burned on the hearth in honor of the Scandinavian god Thor.
A piece of the log was kept as both a token of good luck and as kindling for the following year’s log. In England, Germany, France and other European countries, the Yule log was burned until nothing but ash remained. The ashes were then collected and either strewn on the fields as fertilizer every night until Twelfth Night or kept as a charm and or as medicine.
French peasants believed that if the ashes were kept under the bed, they would protect the house against thunder and lightning. The present-day custom of lighting a Yule log at Christmas is believed to have originated in the bonfires associated with the feast of Juul.
Click on the link to read about other ancient holidays centered around the Winter Solstice.
Two more articles on this history of Christmas:
From Pacific Standard Magazine, A Brief History of the Christmas Controversy: Can Christmas’ pagan roots explain its increasing secularization today?
During Constantine’s reign the Church Fathers went so far as to associate the “Unconquered Sun” with Jesus, referencing the “sun of righteousness” mentioned in Malachi 4:2 as evidence of Jesus, the true sun. Through this crafty legerdemain early Christians more easily shifted December 25 from the birth of Sol Invictus to the birth of Christ. Eventually several other important religious dates would pivot on Christmas, including the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25, nine months before Christ’s ceremonial birth, the Epiphany, and the Adoration of the Magi. Once Christianity seized December 25, all the other historic moments and their accompanying mythologies fell into place. After emerging out of the husk of Saturnalia, Christmas gathered more and more momentum until it became a vital date inextricably bound to all the other sacred events and consecrated lore of the Christian tradition.
Roughly 1,600 years later, though, things are different. Christmas, at least as it’s celebrated in America, is no longer treated as an exclusively religious holiday. While millions of Americans still attend Christmas services, there are millions more who get swept up in an entirely different set of gratuitous lore: Santa Claus, Christmas trees, Dickensian tableaus, and the lustrous charms of Disneyfication. But look beneath all of the modern flourishes and you’ll see something that looks a lot like Saturnalia: the ceremonial feasts, the singing in the streets (what we now call caroling), the holiday parties. Heck, Saturnalia even had a special day on December 23 reserved for the exchanging of gifts among friends and family—Sigillaria, so named after the wax figurines often given as presents.
The truth is that Christmas has not so much evolved into a secular celebration as it has come full circle, returning to its original incarnation as a sprawling festival more focused on levity and merrymaking than the worship of Jesus Christ….
It’s no blasphemy to declare that the December holiday season has once again become a pagan celebration; it’s an atavistic return to the ritual’s roots. The problem now, as the more devout Christians rightly point out, are those people caught in the middle of this identity crisis—identifying as members of Christianity and claiming belief in its savior, but investing little devotion, solemnity or faith in the embattled date.
Finally, here is an interesting article at a Jewish website on the origins of Christmas. Some excerpts:
In the 4th century CE, Christianity imported the Saturnalia festival hoping to take the pagan masses in with it. Christian leaders succeeded in converting to Christianity large numbers of pagans by promising them that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians….
Christians had little success, however, refining the practices of Saturnalia. As Stephen Nissenbaum, professor history at the University of Massachussetts, Amherst, writes, “In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.” The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence, singing naked in the streets (a precursor of modern caroling), etc.
The Reverend Increase Mather of Boston observed in 1687 that “the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.” Because of its known pagan origin, Christmas was banned by the Puritans and its observance was illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681….
Some of the most depraved customs of the Saturnalia carnival were intentionally revived by the Catholic Church in 1466 when Pope Paul II, for the amusement of his Roman citizens, forced Jews to race naked through the streets of the city. An eyewitness account reports, “Before they were to run, the Jews were richly fed, so as to make the race more difficult for them and at the same time more amusing for spectators. They ran… amid Rome’s taunting shrieks and peals of laughter, while the Holy Father stood upon a richly ornamented balcony and laughed heartily.”
Just some food for thought . . .
A few nice news headlines:
The photo at the top of this post is from Michelle Obama’s Toys for Tots event, at which President Obama sorted toys for boys any girls and took the opportunity to fight gender stereotypes about girls supposedly not liking toys involving sports, science, and legos. Joan McCarter wrote about it at Daily Kos yesterday, President Obama: ‘Girls don’t like toys?’.
See also Amanda Hess at Slate, Watch President Obama Break Down Stereotypes About Toys for Girls and Boys. Watch the video:
More presidential efforts to reach out to women and girls:
Politico, That time Obama wore a tiara.
White House photographer Pete Souza shared a photo on Instagram on Wednesday of the president donning a tiara with a group of Girl Scouts from the White House Science Fair earlier this year in May. In the caption, Souza wrote the girls from Tulsa “convinced” Obama to join in on the fun.
More news headlines:
I was going to write a big post about the 75th anniversary of the film of Gone With The Wind, but I’ve been too tired from traveling. Here’s a good article from yesterday about the events surrounding the anniversary and about the racism in the book and movie.
Dave Wiegel at Bloomberg Politics, This Christmas, Be Grateful You Didn’t Put All Your Money in Oil and Gold.
NY Daily News, Putin Calls for Cheaper Vodka as Russian Economy Stumbles.
The Telegraph, Stonehenge discovery could rewrite British pre-history.
More on the discovery: 6,000-year-old encampment found in dig by University of Buckingham.
Have a wonderful holiday everyone, and please leave a comment and/or a link if you’re so inclined.
I haven’t really been paying much attention, but I guess President Obama’s trip to Europe didn’t go that well. I accidentally heard part of his Berlin speech, because I fell asleep with the radio on and woke up listening to a rebroadcast of it. I didn’t get much out of it, but it seemed as if Obama was lecturing Angela Merkel about her austerity obsession. The trouble is that Obama has pushed and/or allowed a milder version of austerity here, and he is doing much to lead us out of our own economic doldrums. Here are a couple of reports of the trip.
The National Journal’s Michael Hirsch: Obama’s Turbulent European Vacation
What was it, exactly, about Obama’s controversy-marred trip to Germany and the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland that fell so flat? Ummm, how about … everything?
There were the snarky words from Vladimir Putin, who expressed an almost Soviet-esque distance from Washington in his views about Syria. “Of course our opinions do not coincide,” the Russian leader said bluntly. There was the coded warning from Chancellor Angela Merkel about spying on friends, and her and Obama’s continuing frostiness over the issue of economic stimulus versus austerity. Above all, there was Obama’s vague attempt at the Brandenburg Gate to capture some wisp of his past glory by pledging vague plans to cut nuclear arms and an even vaguer concept of “peace with justice.”
The “peace with justice” line was a quote from John F. Kennedy, Obama’s attempt to steal just a little of JFK’s thunder from 50 years before. He didn’t come away with much, winning just a smattering of applause from a crowd that was one one-hundredth the size of JFK’s. A crowd that, at about 4,500, was also much, much smaller than Obama drew as a candidate in 2008.
Not only is the honeymoon long over, folks. The marriage is becoming deeply troubled and, increasingly, loveless.
The contrast with President John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” couldn’t have been more stark.
And from Jim Kuhnhenn of the AP: Obama prods, gets share of pushback
In Berlin on Wednesday, Obama warned that the European Union could “lose a generation” if it doesn’t adjust its economic policies to tackle high youth unemployment. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has argued for debt-ridden eurozone countries to first deal with their fiscal problems, insisted her government was committed to helping its European partners in the crisis-hit nations. “If we were conducting policies that would harm other countries,” she argued, “we would harm ourselves.”
Wow. Is she in denial or what? All her austerity policies have done his harm other European countries. In any case, she wasn’t thrilled with Obama’s critique.
She countered with her own words of caution over the Obama administration’s secret collection of phone records and surveillance of foreign Internet traffic. “People have concerns, precisely concerns that there may be some kind of blanket, across-the-board gathering of information,” she said. “There needs to be proportionality” between security and freedom, she added, and made clear that her private talks about it with Obama were not the end of the subject.
It was a polite punch-counterpunch between vital allies — an exchange that won’t damage a strong relationship. But it illustrated how in a 21st century world order, Western powers are not beholden to the United States as they once were and Obama’s ability to find agreement or build consensus is often limited and regularly tested.
And there was the talk of peace and reducing nuclear weapons.
The centerpiece of Obama’s visit to Berlin was a speech at the historic Brandenburg Gate, once a symbol of the Cold War, where he called for negotiations with the Russians to reduce U.S. nuclear weapons by one-third and called for cutting the number of tactical warheads in Europe. “Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons, no matter how distant that dream may be,” he said.
The words were barely out of his mouth when a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee, Ohio Rep. Michael Turner, accused him of appeasement, and Russian officials were playing down Obama’s proposal. A foreign policy aide to President Vladimir Putin said any further arms reduction would have to involve countries other than just Russia and the United States.
All in all, not a very successful trip.
To be honest, I get the feeling that Obama is already a lame duck. He doesn’t seem to be able to focus his attention on an issue long enough to get anything accomplished. I understand that Congress is really the biggest problem, but looking back to past Democratic presidents, Obama seems so passive in comparison. It’s very discouraging. I have to wonder why he worked so hard to get reelected. He seems to enjoy the ceremonial aspects of the job, but not the nuts and bolts.
Please someone, convince me I’m wrong. I do not want to end up with a Republican president and Republican majorities in Congress in 2016. I do not want the government led by troglodytes like Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey, who wants children to learn stereotypical gender roles “at a very early age.” From Think Progress:
Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) wants American youths to be taught gender stereotypes in grade school classes, so they understand the roles of mothers and fathers — and the importance of allowing only opposite-sex couples to marry.
In a speech Monday on the House floor, Gingrey stressed his continued support for the Defense of Marriage Act — which defines marriage as only union between a man and a woman — and suggested that children need to be carefully taught about the traditional roles of their genders:
GINGREY: You know, maybe part of the problem is we need to go back into the schools at a very early age, maybe at the grade school level, and have a class for the young girls and have a class for the young boys and say, you know, this is what’s important. This is what a father does that is maybe a little different, maybe a little bit better than the talents that a mom has in a certain area. And the same thing for the young girls, that, you know, this is what a mom does, and this is what is important from the standpoint of that union which we call marriage.”
Watch if you dare.
And then there’s the “Spanking for Jesus movement.” Yes, you read that right. From The Daily Beast:
You don’t have to be a Christian to practice domestic discipline, although many of its practitioners say they believe that domestic discipline goes hand in hand with their faith. Specifics of the practice vary by couple, though CDDers all seem to follow a few basic principles. Foremost, that the Bible commands a husband to be the head of the household, and the wife must submit to him, in every way, or face painful chastisement.
When a wife breaks her husband’s rules—rolling her eyes, maybe, or just feeling “meh,” as one blogger put it—that can equal punishments which are often corporal but can also be “corner time”; writing lines (think “I will not disobey my master” 1,000 times); losing a privilege like internet access; or being “humbled” by some sort of nude humiliation. Some practice “maintenance spanking,” wherein good girls are slapped on a schedule to remind them who’s boss; some don’t. Some couples keep the lifestyle from their children; others, like CDD blogger Stormy, don’t. “Not only does he spank me with no questions asked for disrespect or attitude in front of them, but I am also required to make an apology to each of them,” she writes.
Now that should teach those kids some useful gender stereotypes. There’s much more sickening detail at the The Daily Beast link and at Jezebel.
Oh well, here’s a story from the NY Daily News about something a little more cheerful: Joe Torre’s daughter Cristina saves falling baby with perfect catch.
Cristina Torre, 44, said she was sipping coffee outside Little Cupcake Bake Shop on Third Ave. in Bay Ridge when several bystanders spotted little Dillin Miller dangling from the awning of a frozen yogurt shop next door at about 10 a.m.
“He looked like he was balancing on one of the railings,” Torre told the Daily News. “I didn’t really know what was going to happen. . . . You just move into action — you don’t really think about it.”
Torre said she tried to tell the baby, dressed in a white onesie, not to move as another bystander called 911.
“I’m talking to him saying, ‘Don’t come down, stay there.’ . . . He helped himself with his arms. He was dangling. I knew he would be flipping very soon,” she said.
The baby dropped — and Torre made the life-saving grab.
“He literally landed in my arms,” she said. “It was a relief. I’m just glad he was safe.”
Sadly, the child’s parents were discovered asleep in their apartment while their 1-year-old Dillin and his three siblings ages 2, 3, and 5 were on their own. The children were removed from the home and the parents were charged with reckless endangerment. At least those kid are safe for the moment.
There hasn’t been much new on the aftermath of the Boston bombing lately. Every day I check to see if there is any news on the FBI shooting of Ibragim Todashev in Florida. The resignation of Richard DesLauriers, the director of the Boston office of the FBI was probably related to the series of f&ck-ups by the FBI in not informing local officials of the previous investigation of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and then the shooting of Todashev, but other than that, the FBI has been mum.
But on Tuesday, The New York Times published an article on the FBI’s “faultless” history–not a single misstep found in 150 FBI internal investigations over 20 years!
After contradictory stories emerged about an F.B.I. agent’s killing last month of a Chechen man in Orlando, Fla., who was being questioned over ties to the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, the bureau reassured the public that it would clear up the murky episode.
But if such internal investigations are time-tested, their outcomes are also predictable: from 1993 to early 2011, F.B.I. agents fatally shot about 70 “subjects” and wounded about 80 others — and every one of those episodes was deemed justified, according to interviews and internal F.B.I. records obtained by The New York Times through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
The last two years have followed the same pattern: an F.B.I. spokesman said that since 2011, there had been no findings of improper intentional shootings.
In most of the shootings, the F.B.I.’s internal investigation was the only official inquiry. In the Orlando case, for example, there have been conflicting accounts about basic facts like whether the Chechen man, Ibragim Todashev, attacked an agent with a knife, was unarmed or was brandishing a metal pole. But Orlando homicide detectives are not independently investigating what happened.
“We had nothing to do with it,” said Sgt. Jim Young, an Orlando police spokesman. “It’s a federal matter, and we’re deferring everything to the F.B.I.”
Why doesn’t the Justice Department’s civil rights division investigate? Here is something President Obama could lead on without Congress blocking him. He could easily tell Attorney General Holder to appoint an independent investigation. But he probably won’t.