|Holiday Messages from our Co-Presidents
Where Did Christmas (And Hanukkah) Really Come From?
Roman pagans first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, a week-long period of celebration between December 17th and 25th. It included getting drunk, going from house to house singing naked (the genesis of caroling), sexual wantonness and consuming human-shaped cookies (still produced in some English and most German bakeries during the Christmas season).
In the 4th century CE, early Christianity succeeded in converting large numbers of pagans to Christianity by promising them they could continue to celebrate Saturnalia the way they always had by drinking, sexual indulgence and other hijinks, even as Christians. Christian leaders declared Saturnalia's last day on the 25th Jesus' birthday. In America, because of its known pagan origins, Christmas was banned by the Puritans and its observance was illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681.
Unfortunately, early Christianity was catalyzed by a virulent hatred of Jews. In December 1466 Pope Paul II forced Jews to run naked through the streets of the city, taunted and laughed at while the Pope stood "upon a richly ornamented balcony and laughed..." When the Jewish community of Rome sent a petition in 1836 to Pope Gregory XVI begging him to stop annual Saturnalia abuse, he responded, "It is not opportune to make any innovation." In other words, no. On December 25, 1881, Christian leaders whipped Polish masses into anti-Semitic frenzies that led to riots across the county. Huge numbers of Jews were maimed, raped and killed.
What About the Fun Stuff?
In America, Germans brought the custom of brightly decorated living trees lit with candles when they emigrated in the mid-19th century. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe is a synthesis of the sexual aspects of Saturnalia combined with Norse and Druid beliefs. Gift giving derives from the Roman custom of citizens bringing tribute to their emperor. The church overlaid this with the half-true, half-false myth of Saint Nicholas. Nicholas, born in Turkey, died in 345 CE and was named a saint in the 19th century.
The Sad Origin of Saint Nicholas
Sadly, the real Nicholas was among the most senior bishops who convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE to create the New Testament. The text they produced portrayed Jews as "the children of the devil" who sentenced Jesus to death. Eventually, in Italy, Nicholas supplanted a female gift-giving deity called The Grandmother, who filled children's stocking with gifts. Women were now ousted from the celebration.
The Nicholas cult spread north; he grew a beard, mounted a flying horse, donned winter clothing and rescheduled his flight for December. The early church adopted the pagan cult and taught that Nicholas distributed gifts on December 25th. In 1822, Dr. Clement Moore published "Twas the Night Before Christmas," adding to the myth by portraying Nicholas with eight reindeer. Thomas Nast added to the modern picture when, from 1862-1886, he drew more than 2,200 cartoon images of Santa, now living at the North Pole in a workshop filled with elves.
In 1931, Coca Cola commissioned an artist to create a Coke-drinking Santa. Portrayed with a bright red suit trimmed with fur, the Santa we know today was born.
Celebrating Those of All Persuasions
I guess the lesson in all this is to honor the wispy trails of history however we wish. Our family, made up as it is of Christians, Buddhists, Jews and non-believers, does. It is disheartening that anti-Semitism has played such a part in Christmas history. And that when American Jews, in a collegial effort to include the light-filled celebration of Hanukkah in the December celebrations by wishing friends and family Happy Holidays, were excoriated by fundamentalists for ruining Christmas. Really?
They're lucky we don't demand they honor the holiday by forcing them to run naked through the streets.
Happy Holidays everyone!
Honoring Diverse Cultures and Beliefs
Mine is an elderly (me,77), young (Elijah, 4) agnostic, Christian, Jewish, tall, thin, chubby, petite, in-between, Caucasian, African-American, highly political, apolitical, funny, serious, rich, not-so-rich, hard-working, creative, well-educated, life-loving family. In other words, we're Americans.
We celebrate Christmas at a mixture of gatherings--in my home, in my son's home, in the homes of my far-away children, with phone calls and texts and Face-time to connect us. What we do is share cooking meals and opening gifts and playing games and laughing, lots of laughing.
Celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah
This year Christmas and Hanukkah coincide, so we will have two readings: one is a Christmas story about a father and son that my daughter-in-law loves, and the other is a Hanukkah story that I will read. We'll sit in the living room, near the Christmas tree decorated with ornaments made by my children and grandchildren, and some handed down, and we'll light the Hanukkah candles in the menorah on the mantle. We'll talk a little about both traditions. Then my granddaughter will distribute the gifts.
We'll squeeze around my dining room table and comment as we eat our Christmas dinner about how delicious and abundant everything is and we'll thank all those who've contributed.
Then we'll get down to the games. We always play a silly form of Pictionary and a card game called "Hell" that my grandmother taught my mother, who taught me. Now it's played by every generation in our family and has even traveled to a few other countries via the international students who've stayed with my son's family.
Sometimes we play a guessing game called "Come See, Come See" that originated with my paternal grandparents. These games go on for hours, through dessert, through coffee and extra glasses of wine, until someone finally says, "last round!"
Our family isn't much focused on traditions. We aren't particularly religious. Some of us do go to church on Christmas Day, and I have occasionally attended midnight mass on Christmas Eve. I am fond of Christmas music, especially the well-known carols, the songs I grew up with.
The Spirit of Love & Laughter
What we enjoy most about Christmas is the spirit of love and laughter that permeates our gathering. We love knowing that most of us have, in some way, contributed to the Christmases of families we've never met, families who may need comfort or food or gifts for their children.
This year, instead of giving lots of gifts to my ever-growing family, I am donating to charities and non-profit organizations. I've asked my children and grandchildren if they would send me the names of those they want to support and they've responded enthusiastically. This year--especially this year--I believe it's important to support those dedicated to keeping our country safe and honest and free from hunger and fear of discrimination.
May your holidays be full of love and light and extraordinary acts of generosity!