Thanksgiving is nearly forgotten, Sponge Bob Square Pants has floated off into oblivion and the Santa Maria has been replaced by the Santa Claus. The stores are a symphony of Christmas spirit orchestrated by the shopping elf. The presence of Christmas is, indeed, presents. Everyone goes "buy buy." Tis the season to run up credit card debt.
On Black Friday, the Malls became mauls as the word SALE turned the counters into grab bags. Scraggly Santas coaxed children onto laps while cameras clicked a remembrance of this special occasion.
Every year, brains are racked with the annual Christmas quandary........"who" will receive "what." How much can we afford to spend and how much will we wind up spending. Nobody wants to appear cheap. Don't give cash...it's tacky. Gift certificates are a suitable subtle replacement. And, more importantly, they can be charged.
The children, having been groomed by televisions ads, are no longer merely requesting their "two front teeth, " but rather, they have donated their lengthy Christmas "wish lists" to Santa's surrogates.....Mom and Dad. Visions of X-Boxes, rather than sugar plums, dance in their heads. Billions of dollars will be spent on gifts, wrappings, candy, decorations, and greeting cards in the frenzied spending spree that appears to begin earlier every year.
Christmas trees ride on hoods of cars en route to rooms where they will be adorned, ornamented and lit. Christmas stockings enjoy their yearly hangout by the fireplace waiting to be stuffed.
In the midst of this manic merriment and joy to the world, the more contemplative ponder "What is the reason for this season?" Is it the birth of Jesus the Christ, who was born in a manger in Bethlehem on December 25th? How did Christmas devolve into little more than a mandatory ritual of gift exchanging done under the guise of family togetherness and pleasing the kiddiepoos?
Nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of the disciples singing "Happy Birthday Dear Jesus." Nowhere in the Bible is there a command to honor this day. The Bible is strangely silent. And yet, The American Book of Days, George W. Douglas, p. 658, speaks loudly on the topic. "The observance of birthdays was condemned as a heathen custom repugnant to Christians,"
Some well placed googling reveals that the origins of this holiday date back over 4000 years, centuries before the Christ child was born. The twelve days of celebrating, the Yule log, the giving of gifts and carolers going from house to house can be traced back to the early Mesopotamians.
The Mesopotamians were polytheistic. Their chief god was Marduk. Each year, as winter arrived, it was believed that Marduk would do battle with the monsters of chaos. (I cannot help but wonder if Marduk frequented the Palisades Mall in West Nyack) To assist Marduk in his struggle, the Mesopotamians held a festival for the New Year which lasted 12 days.
The ancient Persians and the Babylonians also had a similar celebration which they called Sacaea.
As daylight grew short and the Winter Solstice approached, the early Europeans feared that the sun would not return. Rituals were held to lure back the "Prodigal Sun." In Scandinavia, the return of that warm hearted orb was celebrated with a festival called Yuletide. A feast would be served around a fire burning with a Yule log.
According to some legends, "Christmas" was invented to compete with the pagan celebrations in December. The 25th of December was a sacred day for both the Romans and the Persians, whose religion was Mithraism, one of Christianity's main rivals. The Church adopted many of the Pagan rituals in their attempt to make the religion more attractive to converts.
Google as one may, there is no record of the date of Christ's birth. However, the computer of logic reveals that it is improbable if not impossible that it would have been on December 25th. Since the Biblical account states that the child was born when shepherds were "abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night" ( Luke 2:8 ), it is unlikely that shepherds in Israel would have been sleeping outside with their flocks during the month of December.
It was not until 350 AD that the Bishop of Rome, Julius 1, chose December 25th as the observance of Christmas. This was obviously influenced by the ancient Romans year end festivities to honor Saturn, their harvest god and Mithras, the god of light. The Roman feast of Saturnalia was a seven-day festival in honor of the deity Saturn. It began on December 17. Saturnalia was considered a fun and festive time for the Romans. As Christianity spread, the Church became alarmed by the continuing practice among its flock of indulging in customs such as this Saturnalian feast. If you can't beat 'em ...join 'em. Slowly but surely, the pagan ritual of using greenery to decorate homes, moved from being prohibited as idolatry to becoming an accepted custom of the festivities. Another tradition at the Saturnalia, involved exchanging candles, clay dolls, and other small gifts.
Did someone say "small?" There's an endangered word and an endangered tradition. "Small" these days describes the size of ones bank account as the calendar flips into January of the new year and people line up at the return counters of their favorite stores.
"Here she goes again, Grinch Andreas"
Not at all. Whether the reason for the season is secular or spiritual, "giving" is a separate issue. With all due respect, however, let's not confuse runaway materialism, avarice and gluttony with the spirit of generosity. Gifts come in all shapes, sizes and elements and are not necessarily located in the material. Gifts need not break the family bank nor the family's back.
Is it difficult to imagine how the gift of time must feel to the lonely?
One year I worked in a soup kitchen in New York City. Watching the endless lines of hungry people coming for their small brown bags broke my heart over and over again. And the only thing I was giving was my time.
Websites such as Giving @ Home suggest a variety of services that provide help for people whose cries would otherwise go unheard. A gift can be something as simple and economical as "listening."
Holidays are Holy Days. There are many ways that we can honor them and one another. Perhaps a little thought might be given to how these occasions can best be spent. A trip to Walmart need not be part of the ritual.
Copyright Judy Andreas 2004