Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Happy Solstice, Y'all

UPDATE: I just finished watching the news, and apparently the tree in question was dragged back into the lobby yesterday, but was removed after a few hours. The plot thickens!

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There was all kinds of brouhaha recently about a Christmas tree that was removed from a downtown Toronto courthouse so that it wouldn't offend non-Christians. Most people are irked about the removal, and some, quite rightly, have pointed out the fact that Christmas and Christmas traditions - including the Christmas tree - are outgrowths of early pagan festivals that celebrated the winter solstice and aren't Christian at all.

I'm not a religious person myself, but I do enjoy a nice Christmas tree - ours is so large we have to walk sideways into our kitchen. (It's possible we are crazy.) In any case, in the spirit of debunking some perceptions about Christmas, I did some digging about Christmas origins and traditions.

It is widely believed that Christmas is an outgrowth of Saturnlia, "...one of the best known ancient celebrations of the Winter Solstice...Saturnlia was the greatest festival of the Roman year, and was marked with great feasting, gift-giving, dancing, playing, and relaxing. Homes were decorated, work was suspended, and there was general merry-making done by all." They also took their festivities on the road; "Caroling, Wassailing, and masked processions were other Saturnalia staples that outlasted the Romans." A few millenia ago, the solstice fell on the 25th of December, and in modern times it has shifted to the 21st or 22nd. (The solstice this year falls on the 22nd, at 22 minutes after midnight.)

What about the recently relocated Christmas tree, anyway? "The Christmas tree, like many Christmas customs, originated in the ancient Roman new year festival of Saturnalia...Home decoration was emphasized, and the decorations were the evergreen trees sacred to the sun- pine, holly, etc."

Even smooching at this time of the year has a pagan origin; "(t)he roots of [kissing under the mistletoe] are unknown, but is likely tied with the fertility aspects of mistletoe and that it was viewed as a bringer of peace by the Druids." This particular tradition was banned in many churches, due to its roots in paganism.

What about Yule? And what's up with that silly song about the partridge in a pear tree? "The pagan Norse Solstice celebration, Yule, gives us both the Yule log and the "Twelve Days" of Christmas. The burning of a tree, a log, or a wheel was a widespread custom in European pagan Solstice ceremonies. The burning of the Yule log is a symbolic sacrifice of the sun's sacred evergreen, and its sacrifice gave energy to ensure the rebirth of the weakened sun."

Personally, I've always wondered what Boxing Day - the day after Christmas - was all about. Apparently, "(t)his word comes from the custom which started in the Middle Ages around 800 years ago: churches would open their 'alms boxe' (boxes in which people had placed gifts of money) and distribute the contents to poor people in the neighbourhood on the day after Christmas.

Well, there you have it. I, for one, would like to thank the pagans for their partying spirit and general hedonism. Happy solstice, everyone! John and I are ditching our families and running off to ski the slopes of Quebec tomorrow. Now all we have to do is pray for snow.

I'll see you all in the New Year.

Maia

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