Presence! Not Presents? What Is Christmas All About Anyway?
Personally, I’m not a fan of Christmas with its obligations, shopping, and forced festive vibe. It appears that modern day humans miss Christmas’ deeper experience. Or maybe they are unaware there could be a deeper experience. Maybe they believe that Christmas IS about buying things on sale, at midnight, on Thanksgiving Night. Maybe they learned that love IS the purchase of an on sale forty-inch television. That waiting expectantly in line in a parking lot for the store to open, is the same feeling as waiting for Santa Claus to arrive. How have we progressed from Christmas sacredness to shopping excess?
The Christmas hopefuls want to believe Dr. Seuss’, small hearted character the Grinch when he awakens and contemplates, “Maybe Christmas, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas perhaps means “a little bit more.”
Can it be possible that Christmas means “a little bit more” than spending excessive amounts of money? Let’s begin with a quick peek at Christmas’ past. Hoping history points us toward the “little bit more” we need to reclaim.
Zoe Mintz, the author of “Winter Solstice 2014: 3 Things to Know About the Pagan Yule Celebration” teaches that “Originally the Christian calendar focused on Easter. It was only in the fourth century that the church decided Jesus Christ’s birthday should be celebrated. Since the Bible did not point to an exact date when Christ was born, Pope Julius I chose Dec. 25. It’s commonly believed that the church chose the date in an effort to replace the Roman Saturnalia with the Christian holiday.”
The Roman Saturnalia was a rowdy, lawless festival honoring Saturnus, the agricultural god. Once the fall planting was complete, they launched into debauchery. This carnival like celebration also marked the renewal of light known as the Winter Solstice. To throw an Ancient Roman Saturnalia all you need is to
– Wear the colors of the festival
– Adorn your doors, stairs, and windows with greenery and wreaths. Add acorn, stars, and pinecones
– Decorate your outdoor tree with sun symbols and stars
– Make cookies in the shape of stars, moons, fertility symbols, and herded animals
– Sip Mulsum, a drink of wine and honey
– Greet people with the holiday greeting of ‘lo, Saturnalia
– Invite your friends and family for a feast
– Give friends and family small gifts of food, sweets, candles, or lamps
– Create an alter for Saturnus
– Celebrate freedom
– Include everyone
Have you noticed that Saturnalia’s preparations and gathering sound unerringly like our Christian Christmas celebration? We are taught that Christianity and the birth of Christ is a deep and meaningful story. It may be uncomfortably shocking and disheartening to adjust to the randomness of the chosen birthday of Jesus Christ and the copy catting of Saturnalia’s festivities.
Mining for the sacredness of Christmas, I turned to my spiritual, traditional aunt who sees sacredness everywhere. After describing Christmas’ past, she expressed what Christmas means to her. Her childhood Christmas stories spoke of a young girl’s excitement. Her joy filled anticipation of positive and magical happenings. The rhythmic repetition of years of childhood traditions enriched her Christmas creation as she aged. The loving, playful and magical events that were bestowed upon her as a youngster were now created for others. With a twinkling eye, she spoke thru sweet love of the memories that emerged while she wrapped gifts and planned the traditional winter feast. She happily anticipated the arrival of friends and family in her vibrantly and seasonally decorated home.
She added, “that for me, it was and is always about being Christ centered – which for me becomes love of family, friends and those in need around us. Sharing. It is a time of giving and I guess that grew out of my Christian teachings – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Be loving in the joy of God having sent His only son on earth to teach us the way of living a God centered life.”
While for many Christmas joy may not place Jesus at the center of the holiday, the adage “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, are words of respect and love for all people. This communal and heart centered value coupled with sharing meaningful moments with friends and family is unquestionably a sacred act. The kind of foundation many believe Christmas is truly teaching and we ought to emulate.
But, many Christians and non-Christians enjoy Christmas today in the same manner as the partying Ancient Romans enjoyed Saturnalia. The over indulgent behavior of Saturnalia thousands of years ago has morphed into the excessive insanity of shopping. Including the bombardment of advertising that lays the ground work for the maddest of dashes thru a store.
This brief study of Christmas’ origins emphasizes that sacredness and riotous behavior has been part of the winter festival of Christmas and Saturnalia for thousands of years. Some of us create winter holidays around reverence, while other’s bang out the gift-sharing holiday by excessively shopping. However present-day people choose to celebrate Christmas, the most mind-blowing feature is that a winter festival that probably began thousands of years before Christ’s birth has overwhelmingly endured with practically identical activities and traditions. Through all the plentiful cultural shifts, frequent wars, and political downfalls a winter festival, now known as Christmas, has continued intact.
Maybe the deep sacredness is in understanding that humans, whether Ancient Romans or modern-day Christians; crave festivals. We require joy, love, connection, and sharing to be center stage in our lives at least once a year. Some of us enrich our meaningful connections thru ancient rituals of star shaped cookie making, winter tree decorating, and enjoyable visits with our family and friends over communally prepared feasts.
Some experience this connection and love by gladly sharing hot chocolate with friends and family while playfully waiting in line for the mad dash to buy, buy, buy. Maybe exchanging shopping strategies while sipping the warm sweet drink enriches the laughter, joy, and connection. Maybe others connect by exchanging online shopping tales or chatting lovingly about evolving family traditions for Christmas Eve and Christmas day.
This Christmas and thru every winter festival since the first feast, we reinforce the strong link to the Ancient Romans by living our version of excessive behavior and quiet worship. Try as we might to recapture the sacredness of Christmas, we can’t. It was never there to start with. But we can share love, food, joy, and glad tidings this holiday season thru the silly or honorable activities and traditions that build the joyful, fun, and sacred connectedness to our friends and family. This year, whether you bow in reverence, playfully tip your hat, or over fill your wine goblet acknowledge the worshipping and rowdy Ancient Romans. After all they created the ultimate gift that keeps on giving, our model for Christmas.
‘lo Saturnalia! And Merry Christmas!