A LITTLE OVER TWO THOUSAND YEARS AGO IN A LAND FAR FAR AWAY. . . .
In Palastine to be precise, a land under first Greek and then Roman occupation for several 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 the great Roman empire?
John the Baptist was said by his cousin Jesus 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 jesus 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. Now in his late twenties 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 Peter. 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. This was a direct result of him ending a run of defeats in battle and having run out of roman gods to dedicate a win to, chose the latest option from the east. Had he chosen the god of the forests, tree hugging would now be more in fashion and we would not be felling the rain forests with such blind enthusiasm.
Or had the catholic church made the empire its first conquest? So it came to pass that 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 Advent, the birth of jesus and Epiphany. After all it is recognised fact that jesus 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. Making them 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. With a relatives house full, two teenagers turning up for the census, would have been given a place in the stable to sleep.
With the church calendar being formulated around the age old pagan festivals, customs and practises, it meant that in the the 5th Century, Advent began on (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 Andrews Day, he being of course 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 incidently 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, yes another one, has it that the modern christmas tree and it decorations, was first introduced to these shores by prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort. Only two 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 their feast of Saternalia. Tradition had it that these presents were exchanged on St Stephens day. Incidently he was the christian sects first martyr, stoned to death by a mob at the supreme court of ancient Israel and as the fledgling sect grew in strength his dedicated day was moved to December 26th. His present to his god was his life! A final saternalian tradition has been imitated in the last couple of centuries, when christmas day became the only holiday that domestic staff were allowed.
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’,turning his green garb to red and making him the centre of their advertisements. Let us reflect on the real man, the myth of 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:
I think Charles Dickens in “A Christmas Carol” reflects my thoughts:
“There are many things from which I have derived good, by which I have not profited.” “ I dare say.” Said the nephew. “Christmas, being among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come around, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time that I know of, in the year long calendar, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and think of people below them as if they really were fellow – travellers to the grave and not a race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
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 and make merry, to share presents with family and loved ones. 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 2009