Once more we have come to the end of a year. The sun has reached its nadir on the horizon of the northern hemisphere, and we will once again begin the journey back to summer and fishing season. In earlier times people could contemplate their future and wonder how many fishing seasons they had left in their life, meaning of course how much longer they had to live. Today I wonder which will end first, my life or the return of the fish.
The season that we are celebrating now has deep roots in the history and culture of our species. One often hears the phrase "put Christ back into Christmas" as if Christmas is a creation of the Christian faith. Well, perhaps the name is, but the holiday goes back much farther than Christianity. The season that we celebrate is that of the Winter Solstice, the point where the days once again become progressively longer and another annual cycle of life on the planet begins. A celebration that is found across many ancient cultures.
The ancient Egyptians decorated their homes with palm fronds on the shortest day of the year and celebrated for twelve days. Similar traditions can be found among the Hebrews and in Asia. The Scandinavians have given us Yule logs and Christmas trees from their ancient celebrations. Evergreens were seen by them as a promise of the return of Spring. In Celtic culture holly and mistletoe were significant, symbolizing fertility. In ancient Rome the celebration was called Saturnalia, and from the Pagan Romans we get the decorating of trees with lights and ornaments. Even some Christmas carols have their roots in Pagan rituals rather than in the Christian Church, and Santa Claus' history traces back to the pre-Christian times of Northern Europe. Christ, however, was more than likely not born in December.
So, perhaps a better question is "who put Christ in the Solstice?" It happened in the Fourth Century, after Christianity was adopted as the official religion by the Roman Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor.
Religion is a tool of politics, a device for social control, and alternative religions and beliefs were then, as always, a problem for priests and those that they served. People were reluctant to give up their party time, so Constantine declared Christmas an immovable feast to be celebrated on December 25.
The Church then, over time, began co-opting Pagan festivals and customs and reassigning them Christian meaning. The Christmas Tree, for example, was proclaimed, because of its triangular shape, to symbolize the Holy Trinity. The Solstice festival, the celebration of the birth of the Sun, was changed to celebrate the birth of the Son.
Christians, like other radicals, often have a hard time agreeing on the finer points with one another - witness the Reformation and a few more sordid episodes in Church history - so the acceptance of Christmas celebrations was not universal throughout the Church. The Protestant regime of Oliver Cromwell in England actually banned Christmas celebrations, and Christmas as we know it today did not begin to really take shape until the 19th Century. Of course one could argue that the Christmas that we know in this new century did not really take shape until the advent of mass marketing and the mindless production for witless consumption of the last half of the last century.
In any event, whether you are celebrating the Son or the Sun, or just out to have a good time, this is still the season of hope and joy, and love. These are three things that we could use a lot more of in this world, and whose season ought to be extended.
Jerry West is Editor and Publisher of THE RECORD newspaper in Gold River, BC.