Thursday, December 13, 2007

'Tis The Season -Truthful Traditions

Papa Noel Just can't seem to get ahead.

Edward R. Murrow: Most truths are so naked that people feel sorry for them and cover them up.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the traditional music associated with the holiday season very much. The offering this week is not meant to reduce enthusiasm or dampen the spirit. We do have some historical facts to ponder and some unusual takes on the musical side of the holiday fare.
Canada has the Canadian Brass, the west coast claims Mannheim Steamroller. New York not only has the Rockettes at Radio City, and Madison Square Garden's production of A Christmas Carol but off-Broadway, check out the off-beat Calamity Carolers Of Doom.

And of course New York is also the home turf of easily the most spectacular live production ever to mount a road trip, (Do not miss this amazing show!)
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Can't Quite Get Enough TSO?

If you really want tradition though, you have to look to ancient Babylon. The feast of the Son of Isis (Goddess of Nature) was celebrated on December 25. Raucous partying, gluttonous eating and drinking, and gift-giving were traditions of this feast. Yes, the holiday existed before the advent of Christianity, since people were celebrating anyway the early Christians just adopted the holiday as their own. Borrowing much of the existing mythology and symbolism as well.

In Rome, the Winter Solstice was celebrated for many years before the advent of Christianity. The Romans called their winter holiday Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the God of Agriculture. And in January, they observed the Kalends of January, which represented the triumph of life over death. This whole season was called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.

The festival season was marked by much festivity making merry and imbibing. Philadelphia take note, it was in ancient Rome that the tradition of the Mummers was born. The Mummers were groups of costumed singers and dancers who traveled from house to house entertaining their neighbors. From this, the tradition of caroling was borrowed as well as that swell parade in Philadelphia on New Years day. "Oh Dem' Golden Slippers" indeed!

In northern Europe, the pagans celebrated the their own winter solstice, known as Yule. Yule was symbolic of the pagan Sun God, Mithras, being born, and was observed on the shortest day of the year. As the Sun God grew and matured, the days became longer and warmer. It was customary to light a candle to encourage Mithras, and the sun, to reappear next year. Giant Yule logs were burned in honor of the sun. The word Yule itself means “wheel,” the wheel being a pagan symbol for the sun. Mistletoe was considered a sacred plant, and the custom of kissing under the mistletoe began as a fertility rite. Hollyberries were thought to be a food of the gods. The evergreen tree is one symbol that unites almost all the northern European winter solstices. Live evergreen trees were brought into homes during the harsh winters to remind inhabitants that soon their crops would grow again. Evergreen boughs were sometimes carried as totems of good luck and were often present at weddings, representing fertility. The Druids used the tree as a religious symbol, holding sacred ceremonies while surrounding and worshiping huge trees.
Personally I am proud to acknowledge these and other traditions that connect us to the past.

I look at these traditions a bit like Joseph Campbell did. Seeing the inherent beauty in all cultural constructions and their reflections on the human condition as well as the perceived universe . I can not see any of these legends as literally true, as history makes the case otherwise. The value of mythology is great when perceived as parable, but becomes weak and contentious if taken as literally the truth. When people insist that their personal mythologies be adapted, be taken literally, or enacted into law it's a Gordian Knot. When people construe excuses for bigotry, elitist behavior, or empire from mythological text we have a plague of "biblical proportions"so to speak.

These celebrations continued until the year 350, when Pope Julius I declared that Christ’s birth would be celebrated on December 25. Since Constantine made Christianity the official state religion, there is little doubt that this date was chosen to get pagan Romans (who remained a majority at that time) to submit to the new state sanctioned official religion. The new religion went down a bit easier, knowing that their feasts would not be taken away from them. I'm not trying to put a damper on anyone's celebration, as peace on earth and good will towards everyone is a fantastic idea that we all should carry in our hearts year round. But there is no harm in truth. If truth threatens belief, then I suggest belief may need adjustment, not truth.

By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, supplanted pagan religion. On Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated raucously in drunken stupors, it was a carnival-like atmosphere similar to today's Mardi Gras. Each year, a beggar or student would be crowned the the "lord of misrule" and eager celebrants played the part of his subjects. The poor would go to houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If owners failed to comply, their visitors would annoy them with mischief. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes repaid their real or imagined "debt" to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens. A tradition still honored in England , Canada, New Zealand and Australia on Boxing Day.

The Christmas bacchanal was celebrated robustly until the early 17th century when a wave of religious reform changed Christmas celebrations in Europe. Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces overran England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and banned Christmas. By popular demand, in 1660 Charles II was restored to the throne and, with him, came the return of the popular holiday. One of the great mysteries of western civilization might be how the lecherous epicurean reveler, the figure of Father Christmas morphed empirically into Santa Clause, a friend and benefactor of children.

The pilgrims were English separatists that came to America in 1620,they were even more anal in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings.

By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and pleasantly passed without incident.

After the American Revolution, most English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas. In fact, Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America's new constitution.

Christmas wasn't declared a holiday in America until June 26, 1870.

The Winter Solstice is Celebrated Globally!

We are in fact, participating in an ancient celebration marked by the winter solstice that mankind has celebrated in it's many cultures at least since adapting agrarian lives over hunting and gathering. I welcome all greetings and expressions of good will. So have a cracking keen Christmas, a snappy happy Hanukkah, a cool Yule, a kickin' Kwanzaa, a bang-up Boxing Day,
a super Saturnalia, a smashing Solstice, A jolly Jodo-Ea, a kind Kalends, and a nifty Natalis Invicti Solis.

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