Monday, December 26, 2011

How and Why We Celebrate Christmas in America

Long, long before Christianity and Rome decided what date Jesus was born (we will get to that in a minute) there were festivals and rituals on or around December 25th to celebrate the end of darkness and the beginning of light - The Winter Solstice - December 21st.

I do not think I would count Germany as 'celebrating' this time of year as they were terrified of their god Oden; however he did the same flight through the air as 'Santa' deciding who was naughty and nice however it wasn't coal and toys which were the outcome.

The term Yule is from Scandinavia's tradition of burning a Yule log and celebrating the Winter Solstice believing each spark was representative of the new livestock which would be born the following (calendar) year.

The gods Osiris, Anubis, and Horus, from a tomb painting
Egyptians celebrated in honor of Horus believing in the rebirth of Horus, the child god born to Isis and Osiris after Osiris died but was brought back to life by Isis, hence Horus became a symbol of new beginnings and the destroyer of the evil Set, Osiris' brother who killed him.

Babylonians celebrated Zagmak and believed that Marduk created the world in peace, beauty, and order.  Marduk, the creator was also their sun god and was celebrated at the Winter Solstice.

Saturnalia, Ernesto Biondi, 1909, Buenos Aires Botanical Gardens
Rome celebrated Saturnalia in honor of the agriculture god Saturn the week prior to Winter Solstice and for the full month after.  For this month roles were reversed and unruly behaviors ensued with people reversing the order of thing in homes and office.  During Juvenalia a feast for the children was celebrated for the birth of the infant god of the unconquerable sun, Mirtha on December 25th.  Mirtha was believed to be born of a rock and the birth was highly regarded and sacred.

The Birth of Jesus Our Savior, Kim Chii, Tumblr
 Christmas was not part of the Christian dogma until the 4th century.  The church and Rome, the Catholic Church (this is the part about deciding the date Jesus was born), decided what date would be Jesus' 'birthday' and by Catholic Church I mean primarily Pope Julius I and by Rome I mean Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus or Roman Emperor Constantine I, the first Christian Roman Emperor.  (Whether Constantine I was Christian by convictions of faith or military strategy are absolutely debated to this day; however his decision to change Rome toward Christian dogma advanced the Christian religion~I digress.)  The bible makes no direct mention of a date Jesus was born, at least none of the books included in the accepted bible (nor any books I have heard of).  It was the belief that to make the transition of the pagan rituals toward the Christian rituals more seamless and easier to transfer it would be wiser to adopt a day a Pagan ritual was already occurring - Winter Solstice celebrations, Saturnalia, and Mithra's birth, December 21-25th with the primary focus on the birth, the 25th.    Catholicism named this holiday the 'Nativity'.  It is speculated that Christmas is named Christmas from the old English 'Cristes Maesse' for Christ Mass which was over time changed to Christmas.  The brilliance of holding the holiday the same time of the Pagan festivals does not end with seamless transition into a church holiday, the church eventually could control how the holiday would be celebrated.... Or so they thought...

The Lord of Misrule, Ralston, William
People do love to run amuck and after going to church they would run amuck and have festivities as their crops were in and their livestock dwindling till spring and every year after the Nativity they would celebrate in the same role reversal style and demand rich to pay the poor, drink and celebrate till they would fall out in a competition to be 'lord of misrule'.  When the separatists arrived in America around 1620 Christmas was not a holiday for the Puritans and in some places such as Boston  Christmas was outlawed. In some places the Puritans views actually resulted in Christmas being banned in England by Oliver Cromwell in 1645... well until Charles II gave in and reinstated it.  The debate of Christmas among the English and the newly arrived 'Americans' was probably not a priority and was subsequently not declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.

So what changed? Why would the position change so that now a holiday so on polar ends of the spectrum become a federal holiday.  After New York had to institute a police force to stop rioting in the city during Christmas the upperclass began celebrating the holiday in their own way.   America in a bitter class conflict early in the 19th century wanted to portray Christmas as something more than a drunken frat or sorority (ok those are my words, but it is my blog) party to take the attention away from the issues of class at least for a bit and turn attention toward the strength of family. I personally think it was a case of great marketing, advertising and the mentality of 'if you can't beat them, join them'.  Americans and English reinvented the notion of Christmas through show and tell.  They were experts at this as the Catholic Church and about half the Protestant Churches over the centuries had been using these types of tactics for centuries to sway the crowd to their favor or point of view.  (Their congregations were primarily illiterate and visual communication was needed.  Now visual communication is used because we are so busy people won't always stop to read so information must be conveyed quickly and instantly with visuals). They of course are no different than any other advertising, marketing, or company today.

So enter The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon by Washington Irving (best-selling 1819) a series of Christmas stories in an English Manner, completely fiction portrayed as fact with how the holiday SHOULD be celebrated as a civil, family holiday and the rich inviting in the poor not the poor breaking down the doors. 

 Also Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the story of charity and hope was a swing and a hit in America (injecting reference to what will be coined America's favorite past time here for good measure.....).  What was key in both stories and illustrations was the inclusion of what was up to that point traditional being integrated with what was desired to become reality for traditions
 (Sound familiar Pope Julius I?). 

Yes there were many other traditions and reasons that Christmas finally took hold in America however being I have a love of art and literature, I focus on that aspect.  I also am the daughter of marketing/ad guru and IT guru parents so I see the impact these facets of our life can have on us.  Who in America doesn't know the Coca-Cola Polar Bear??  Americans were 'sold' Christmas.  Is it wrong? Well yes and no... but I am not debating that, just putting up the parts that I enjoy with the art, history, literature, art history, and some extra marketing/ad because I like it and then you can decide....

Egg nog - American
Poinsettias - Mexican
Rudolph - Marketing/Advertising strategy to get shoppers to Montgomery Ward's 1939

Modern Day Rockefeller, Jeniffer Sams 
Today the celebrations have turned to the Holiday Season as Americans are a much more diverse mosaic of cultures, religions, non-religious, and unique individuals residing within the county.  Families are no longer the 'nuclear' family and we are back in a recession - again.  So what are our traditions now during the holidays.... The last decade many have celebrated by sending care packages to the middle east to loved ones in the military, electronics are on most gift lists (or were), communication with family is done via video, we have had to have family dinners with one or two members joining via skype, parties with people joining via skype from other countries, and e-cards rather than hand written cards.

A few things that havent' changed... Love, Joy, Light, Hope, and Happiness..... So practice tolerance because it is likely there are many people being tolerant of you, love yourself so much that you are able to love all others, know that with the Winter Solstice new light comes with each day so hope always abounds, and be happy in every part of your life, this isn't a dress rehearsal.
Georgianna Lane Photography, Valparaiso, Chile

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