Almost Two thousand and seven years ago Judaea had been under Roman occupation for a couple of hundred years. The territory had at various times been troubled by armed revolts and skirmishes with both armed and unarmed demonstrators. Dozens of sects flourished. So what was so different about, what was to become, the largest sect of ‘dissadents’ which survived,almost long enough, to see the end of that great empire?
John the Baptist was said by jc to have been the greatest of all the prophets. "the voice crying in the wilderness" and "the man sent from God," Some six months older than jc one wonders how he survived the infantacide ordered by Herod, no mention is made of his parents leaving the temple in jeruselam and fleeing to egypt. In about AD27 John began preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, and baptising his followers — including Jesus himself — in the River Jordan. His message was that people should repent because the kingdom of heaven was at hand. In common with most sect leaders of the time he was eventually arrested and executed. John had no trial because of a trick: when Salome had so delighted Herod by her dancing he agreed to grant her any wish. At the urging herodias, her mother, she insisted on receiving the head of John the Baptist. This was duly granted to her. Herod must have spent most of his life either wringing his hands or washing them ! John the Baptist was renowned for his preaching of virtue and repentance; this, coupled with his willingness to suffer martyrdom rather than betray his duty to his Master, made him a fit candidate for Patron of the Order of Freemasonry. Although we know of one major defector, Andrew, for a couple of hundred years after his death, his followers outnumbered those of jc. So what went wrong? Well I guess it was all down to spin. Power whether secular or religious even then was the name of the game. Two of jc’s men, Peter and Mark had been executed in Rome. It became the political base of that sect. In the year 350, Pope Julius 1st. declared that "Christ’s birth" would be celebrated on December 25th. There is little doubt that he was trying to make it easy for Pagan Romans (who were the majority at the time) to convert to Christianity. The new religion was a bit easier to swallow, knowing that their feasts would not be taken away from them. The Emperor Gratian (367-383 AD), in a final attempt to maintain control of the decaying Roman Empire outlawed pagan Mithraism and adopted christianity as the state religion. Or did the church make the empire its first conquest? So the Pagan festivals for Mithras, the celebration of the winter solstice ,Saternalia and the January observation of the Kalends,[which represented the triumph of life over death] became the new period dedicated to the birth of jc. Advent, christ’s birth and Epiphany. After all it is recognised that jc was born nearer springtime than in the deep mid winter. Shepherds tend not to sit in snow covered fields with sheep in december. At this time of year livestock were usually herded as near the settlement as possible. More easily accessible for slaughter. At this time Bethlehem was what we would call a hamlet – too small even to have a hostelry. The ground floor of an ordinary dwelling was for the animals. People lived on the first floor. A relatives house full, two teenagers turning up for the census,would have been given a place in the stable to sleep.
As the church calendar was being formulated around the the age old pagan festivals custom and practise meant that in the the 5th Century, Advent began on11 November (St Martin’s Day) and took the form of a six week fast. During the 6th century, Advent was reduced to its current length and later the fasting was dropped. Advent begins on the Sunday nearest to 30th November (St. Andrew’s Day), [the very first disciple of jc], and lasts until midnight on christmas eve. Advent Sunday is the first of the four sundays before the 25th December. It would be another thousand years before Christ’s Mass became Christmas and was introduced by the Lutherans,a german catholic sect. During the Roman festival of saturnalia, and well into the 17th century,Mummers,groups of costumed singers and dancers, would travel from house to house entertaining their neighbours, from this, the tradition of caroling was born. In northern Europe It was customary for live evergreen trees to be brought into the homes as a reminder to inhabitants that soon their crops would grow again. Sprigs of Mistletoe symbolizing fertility and everlasting life were placed at cave entrances and evergreen boughs were often carried as totems of good luck and were often present at weddings, representing fertility. The Druids used the tree as a religious symbol, holding their sacred ceremonies while surrounding and worshipping huge trees. Legend has it that the modern Christmas Tree and it decorations, was first introduced to these shores by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort. Only 2 years after the introduction of the penny black in 1840,the first christmas card was sent.The giving of a present has continued down the ages,even before the romans and saternalia. It is well known that these presents were exchanged on St Stephens Day. Incidently he was the christian sects first martyr, stoned to death by a mob.As the church grew in strength his dedicated day was moved to December 26th. His present to his god was his life! Another saternalian tradition has been imitated in the last couple of centuries,when christmas day became the only holiday that domestic staff were given.
Apart from the growth of the card industry, the first act of commercialism at this time of year was an unnamed drink ‘stealing’ the image ‘Santa’ and making him the centre of their advertisements. This person who I have nt yet mentioned is St Nicholas and his mark on the modern winter festival. In the fourth century St. Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, in Turkey. Legend says he saved his town from starvation. He is also said to have revived three dead children, and to have offered gifts of dowries to poor girls. He would eventually become symbolic to many different kinds of people including pawnbrokers, who use the three gold bags (balls) as their identifying symbol. His name inspires legends in Russia, Greece, Northern France, Germany, Belgium and Holland. In Holland, for example, his legendary gifts of dowries to poor girls led to the custom of giving gifts to children on the eve of his feast day, 6 December. [He died in 343 AD]. Children can put their shoes in front of the fireplace. During the night St. Nicholas visits all the houses by travelling over the roofs on his traditionally a white horse,(called "Schimmel" in dutch), to put little presents in the children’s shoes. Sometimes the children put straw, carrots and water near the shoe for the horse. Here in England, Father [of] Christmas or Santa Claus visits all the children on the eve of christmas day distributing presents.
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house ,Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, In hopes that St Nicholas would soon be there.’
From April until November, in the depths of Lapland, he supervises his elves in the production of all the toys that he will carry on his reindeer drawn sleigh. In 24 hours he circumnavigates the world. Through american spy satallites you can plot his journey at:http://www.noradsanta.com/en/default.php
On his return home he sleeps until easter, when the whole process begins again.
In common with many folk out there I have in the past disliked intensely the ‘commercialisation’ of this season of goodwill and cheer. I have also asked myself why it is, that people can nt be as nice to each other ALL the year round,as they appear to be over the 12 days of christmas. Unlike one blog I have read recently I would never impose the fairy tales from my childhood on other’s fortunate enough not to have been so indoctrinated. Now I recognise that this truly is how we should celebrate the winter festival of light and rebirth. It is St Nicholas/ sinterklaus/ who has kept the true meaning of this winter festival alive throughout the ages of religious oppression. Without any fuss or impossible promises he arrives every year on the dot, with your hopes fulfilled. This truly is a Saturnalia, a time to feast, share presents with loved ones and to make merry. As our ancestors did, we give thanks to the old year and to show a light to herald in a new year and renewed belief in Mother Earth.
I WISH YOU ALL A HEALTHY AND PEACEFUL FESTIVAL AND A PROSPEROUS 2007