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24.12.17

A Seasonal Thought

Well, it's that time of year again - our second-most favorite (Thanksgiving being the first). I love the history of Christmas. It's a very ancient holiday that has undergone dozens of iterations over the millennia. All of them are very interesting and worth keeping in mind.

One of the oldest European versions of this holiday is the Teutonic Yuletide. This was the time of a mythic wild hunt organized by Wodin and his wolves and was the last hunt before full winter set in. A good hunt meant the difference between survival and certain death, so one imagines that it was a rather important holiday.

For the extent of the holiday, folks would take a large log that would burn for a good amount of time. They would coat it with various minerals so that when it burned, it would give off colors for at least a couple of days. This was the Yule log of song and story. It provided heat and cooked the hunting trophies, and was the last big blowout of the season before settling in for the brutal cold.

Winter was something to be feared. Vegetation died, game disappeared and the old folks had a better than equal chance of not seeing spring. It was also marked by the shortest day of the year, in the northern hemisphere. For people that didn't know about Earth's axial tilt, it was mystifying.

Thus was born various celebrations to "resurrect" the Sun, as it appeared to die (stop moving) for three days between the 21st and 24th of December. Naturally, when it started its northward movement again, it was a time of celebration. At the darkest time of the year, folks created celebrations of light to encourage the Sun to return. Bonfires, candles and all manner of lamps were lit in offering to the Sun gods. We still do this with some neighborgoods in the US going to obscene and absurd lengths to display lights, though I've always been partial to the "luminarias" - candles placed in bads of sand.

Ancient Rome took the holiday to excessive lengths, as they were prone to do. They called it Saturnalia, which was a seven day holiday of complete surrender to the party spirit. What with the Sun dying, the world may end, so why not go out with a good buzz on?

The festival featured huge public banquets and gift-giving. Frequently, master and servant would reverse roles. Folks would gamble, drink and party for a week, which probably would do the world a great deal of good about now.

In the time of Constantine, the holiday was Christianized to celebrate the Birth of the Son(Sun). Lights (German) and feasting (Roman) were combined with the tradition of gift-giving, which now was in the tradition of the Three Wise Men, rather than offerings.

In the English language, we adopted the word "tide" as a verb to wish someone good things. We bring tidings of joy. In the past few decades, the holiday has become almost entirely commercialized, so that retailers have come to depend on Christmas gift-giving to fund their entire year. In the US, folks buy more stuff for themselves than anyone else. Lighted displays have become contests and political statements. The Pope wrings his hands over the true meaning of Christmas, though methinks he has forgotten, too. Everyone wants their personal version of the holiday recognized by public displays. And not many people now worry about dying before spring.

All of this precedes the global New Year celebration, which is of course, yet another Roman/Christian creation. We celebrate it on January 1st thanks to Pope Gregpry XIII and his court astrologers. This year alone in Indonesia, we've already celebrated the Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist new years, so the event is rather arbitrary, though msot folks observe the Gregorian calendar on this occasion. January is named after the Roman god Janus, who looks backward and forward, stands at the threshold both inside and outside, at the same time. We raise our glasses to Auld Lang Syne, even though most folks couldn't tell you what that means (old long time). It's an ode to those who have been lost over the past year. Nice cheery stuff.

Regardless of when, how or what you celebrate, we here on the Far Side wish you and yours the very best of the Season and a happy and prosperous New Year. Never lose the traditions. They bind us to the past and guide us to the future.

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