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Presented December 1, 2013, by Paul Miller
Listen to a recording of "What's the Reason for the Season?"
29:45 minutes - 27.2 MB - What's the Reason for the Season? .mp3 file.
Now at the depth of winter, is the waning of the year accomplished, and the reign of the Holly King is ended. The Sun is reborn, and the waxing of the year begins. The Oak King must slay his brother the Holly King and rule over my land until the height of summer, when his brother shall rise again.
Come are those last days that Sybil sang.
The age's mighty march begins anew.
Now comes the virgin, Saturn reigns again.
Now from the height of heaven descends a wondrous race.
The new-born babe - who first shall end that age of iron
Bid a golden dawn upon the broad world.
They said there'll be snow at Christmas
They said there'll be peace on earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the virgin's birth.
I remember one Christmas morning
A winters light and a distant choir
And the peal of a bell and that Christmas tree smell
And their eyes full of tinsel and fire.
They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
And they told me a fairy story
'till I believed in the Israelite
And I believed in father Christmas
And I looked at the sky with excited eyes
'till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise.
I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave new year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear.
They said there'll be snow at Christmas
They said there'll be peace on earth
Hallelujah noel be it heaven or hell,
The Christmas you get you deserve.
The elves are dressed in leather
And the angels are in chains
The sugar plums are rancid
And the stockings are in flames
There's a demon in my belly
And a gremlin in my brain
There's someone up the chimney hole
And Satan is his name.
The rats ate all the presents
And the reindeer ran away.
There'll be no Father Christmas
'Cause it's Evils holiday.
No bells in Hell
No snow below-
Silent Night, Violent Night
So come all ye unfaithful
Don't be left out in the cold
You don't need no invitation, no...
Your ticket is your soul
Merry Christmas to all! 'Tis the season to be jolly, to eat and drink too much, to spend too much buying more stuff for people who already have too much stuff. 'Tis the season of crowded stores , busted budgets, and busted bathroom scales. And interminable repetitious Christmas music. As we go frantically amongst the noise and haste, let us not forget the reason for the season. Er, what is the reason for the season?
We are reminded daily, Jesus is the reason for the season. On Dec.25, 2013 years ago, we are told, our savior was born. You can look it up in the bible. Well, Okay, there is no record of what day Jesus was born, but there are clues. There were shepherds in the field watching their flocks by night. Oops, it's freaking cold at night in Palestine in December. No reasonable shepherd would be out there watching his flock by night on December 25. The sheep would be safe and warm in the barn. So if the shepherds story is correct, Jesus was more likely born in the summer. There are clues to the year of His birth, and it wasn't the year 1 AD. He was reported to have been born during the reign of Herod the Great, which ended in 4 BC. Early Christians argued over the date, whether Dec. 25, Jan.6, or March 25, and nobody had any historical evidence to support a specific date. Eastern Christians settled on Jan.6, which by their calendar, was also the birthday of the Egyptian god Osiris. Meanwhile, back in Rome, the holy roller Roman Empire was trying to assimilate Roman Pagans. Pagans were partying hard on Dec. 25.
Dec.25 was the birthday of the Persian god Mithras, who was popular with roman soldiers. Mithras birth was attended by shepherds. At the end of his time on earth, when Mithras returned to his father, he took a last supper with his followers, later remembered by believers in a communion of bread and wine. At the end he was believed not to have died, but ascended to heaven, whence it was believed he would return at the end of time to raise the dead from their tombs for a final judgment. Sound familiar?
The week leading up to Dec.25 was the feast of Saturnalia, celebrating the birth of Saturn, God of agriculture. This was the biggest party of the year in Rome.
If you can't beat 'em join 'em, and the church wasn't gonna beat the Pagans out of their Saturnalia celebration. Since nobody knows when Jesus was really born, the church did the sensible thing, and officially set Christmas on Dec.25. The calendar has slipped a bit over the millennia. The midwinter solstice was then Dec. 25, and it is now Dec.21. As St. Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople explained, the nativity of the "Sun of Righteousness" had been so fixed in order that "while the heathen were busied with their profane rights, the Christians might perform their holy ones without disturbance."
Wouldn't it be nice if the church was always so accommodating? Christianized Pagans were glad to continue their festival of riotous merrymaking in Jesus's name. There's always room in the Pagan pantheon for another god to join the party. Come on in, Jesus. Happy birthday! Have a mug of wassail.
Not everyone was so pleased. Syrian and Armenian Christians, who still preferred Jan. 6, accused the Roman Christians of sun worship and idolatry. The Greek Christian , Origen , in AD 245, repudiated the idea of keeping the birthday of Christ "as if he were a king Pharoh". "In the scriptures, no one is recorded to have kept a feast or held a great banquet on his birthday. It is only sinners who make great rejoicings over the day in which they were born into this world".
That's what Origen said. I say "Bless me, Jesus, I am a sinner; let's have some eggnog."The transition from Paganism to Christianity was gradual but became more apparent after the fall of Rome in Ad 476 when the
church was the one organization with the strength and wisdom to withstand the disorganized centuries of the dark ages. When missionaries were sent from Rome to outlying provinces in AD 601, Pope Gregory I instructed them to "Let the shrines of idols by no means be destroyed . . . Let water be consecrated and sprinkled in these temples . . . And because they were wont to sacrifice oxen to devils, some celebration should be given in exchange for this . . . they should celebrate a religious feast . . . so that still keeping outward pleasures, they may more readily receive spiritual joys."
The feud continued between church leaders who wanted to assimilate heathen customs with a Christian spin, and those hard-nosed bible thumpers who condemned all Christmas traditions as Pagan idolatry.
Medieval celebrations lasted for a season extending from Christmas eve to Epiphany (12th Night), and in some localities even longer, from St. Thomas day to Candlemas (Feb.2). In England, Christmas became increasingly the great festival of the year from the 11th to the 17th centuries, with observance from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Day. In the holly-decked great halls of the feudal lords, whose hospitality extended to all their friends, tenants, and household; wassailing, feasting, singing and games, dancing, masquerading, mummers presenting pantomimes, and masques were all part of the festivities. A lord of misrule and his jester directed the revels and kept them uproarious, from the dragging in of the yule log to the end of the holiday. The Christmas feast, brought in state into the hall, heralded by the lord of misrule and the minstrels headed by the chief cook carrying the boar's head followed by the servants bearing an incredible number of dishes, was the outstanding event. But the wild license of these celebrations with no semblance of the inner vision and meaning of Christmas, came under the disfavor of the Puritans and were forbidden by parliament in 1644, after the Puritans came to power.
Happily, the heathens and more liberal Christians eventually took Christmas back from the Puritans. Not everyone is happy, though. Herbert W. Armstrong, leader of the Worldwide Church of God, wrote in 1980: ". . . when we examine the facts, we are astonished to learn that the practice of observing Christmas is not, after all, a true Christian practice, but a pagan custom, one of the ways of Babylon our people have fallen into!...it is offering what is abominable to him, and therefore it honors , not Him, but false pagan gods. . . We have professed to be Christian Nations, but we're in Babylon, as Bible prophesy foretold, and we don't know it! 'Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues' - soon to fall- is the warning of revelation."
Gosh. I wonder if Reverend Armstrong knows wassail is a remedy for constipation.
So where did modern Christmas traditions come from? What about our obsessive excessive gift giving? As any Sunday school teacher can tell you, it started with the gifts the 3 kings of orient gave to baby Jesus. Who were these 3 kings? They were Magi, commonly translated as "wise men", and meaning professional practitioners of magic and astronomy. Thus, it's no surprise they were following a star. Chinese astronomical records indicate a supernova in 5 BC. It's tempting to speculate that supernova might have been the star of Bethlehem.
They were more like Ph.D. scholars, not kings, and there is no record of how many magi there were. One tradition says there were 12, but "We twelve Kings of Orient are" would have too many verses to sing in Sunday school so the 3 kings became fixed in popular lore. However many magi there were probably had travelling companions, as high society professionals generally travelled with an entourage of attendants. Thus, they may have arrived unannounced at Joseph and Mary's house with a whole caravan, possible throwing poor mother Mary into a tizzy. They were presumably gracious visitors, and they brought gifts. They thought they were visiting a king, and when you visit royalty, you better show up with a gift in your hands, so they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold, frankincense and myrrh?! What is a kid gonna do with frankincense and myrrh? Most little boys would rather get a lump of coal than a bag of stinking myrrh.
The Magi also brought news that King Herod was looking for the kid, and he was up to no good. So the magi and their entourage sneaked back east to Persia, and Jesus, Mary and Joseph sneaked west into Egypt, probably selling the boy's birthday presents to finance their sabbatical.
The magi didn't exchange gifts amongst themselves or with anyone else. They just brought gifts for the "newborn king" in accordance with royal protocol. Gift-giving at midwinter is an ancient tradition in many cultures, including Rome, where debaucherous Saturnalian revelry included gift-giving. The fourth century writer Libanius described the festival thus: "The impulse to spend seizes everyone . . . People are not only generous with themselves, but also towards their fellow men. A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides . . . The Kalends festival banishes all that is connected with toil, and allows men to give themselves up to undisturbed enjoyment. From the minds of young people it removes two kinds of dread: the dread of the schoolmaster and the dread of the pedagogue. The slave it allows, as far as possible, to breathe the air of freedom. Another great quality of the festival is that it teaches men not to hold too fast to their money, but to part with it and let it pass into other hands." As the church assimilated pagans and their celebrations, they were happy to use the gifts of the magi to put a Christian spin on yet another pagan custom.
What about the Christmas tree? Did somebody erect an evergreen tree beside the manger? Maybe the shepherds drug a cedar of Lebanon into the stable so the wise men would have a place to put their gold, frankincense and myrrh? Not likely. Again, we can thank the fun-loving pagans. Romans ornamented their temples and homes with evergreen boughs and flowers for the Saturnalia. Druids gathered mistletoe with great ceremony and hung it in their homes, because the golden berries symbolized the sun. The Saxons decorated with holly, ivy, and bay.
There is an Egyptian myth that the god/king Osiris, after being killed and dismembered by his bad brother Set, appeared every midwinter as an evergreen tree, whereupon gifts appeared for his widow Isis.
The tradition of chopping down a whole tree and dragging it into the house comes from medieval Germany. One legend tells of Saint Boniface chopping down one of Odin's sacred oak trees, much to the amazement and horror of the German Pagans, I am sure. The mighty oak fell on a fir tree, and the fir was miraculously undamaged. Capitalizing on this unlikely coincidence, the saint declared that the fir tree was protected by divine power, and it should be adorned in tribute to the Christ child. Accounts persist that Martin Luther introduced the tree lighted with candles, which festive though it is, would give a fire marshal fits. The tradition, no doubt, transformed many Lutheran houses into Yule bonfires. It is known that the German Prince Albert, soon after his marriage to Queen Victoria, introduced it to England, and that German immigrants brought the custom to the United States.
And then there's Santa Claus. Surely Jolly old Saint Nick is of Christian origin.
Yes, in fact there really was a real honest to gosh Saint Nicholas. He was a rich kid, born in Turkey about AD 270. As a precocious teenager, he went on a pilgrimage to the holy land. On the return trip, his ship got blown off course, and he ended up in Myra, where it happened that the old bishop was retiring. Nicholas walked into the church at the right time and got the job, in spite of his young age. You might think he had it made at this point, but then Emperor Diocletian decided to enforce worship of the old pagan gods, and he threw all the Christians, including the young bishop Nicholas in prison. Three years later, the new emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and he let Nicholas and his brethren out of jail.
Nicholas is credited with many good deeds and miracles. For example, two boys travelling to Athens stopped at an inn in Myra, where the innkeeper killed and robbed them. He disposed of the bodies by chopping them up, and threw them in a vat of brine, intending to pass them of as pickled pork. Nicholas, sensing foul play, went to the inn and busted the murderous innkeeper. He then resurrected the boys intact from the brine vat, and sent them on to Athens with great joy. This has nothing to do with Christmas, but I like the story, so I told it anyway.
Nicholas is best remembered for surreptitiously bestowing gifts upon poor people of Myra, especially 3 daughters of an impoverished citizen who had no dowries for them. Nicholas saved the girls from a life of shame by throwing 3 bags of money through their window. We might be tempted to speculate about the relationship between the popular young bishop and these 3 young ladies, but of course we won't.
Over the ensuing 16 centuries, Saint Nicholas acquired traits of various pagan deities and morphed into Santa Claus. He bears a striking resemblance to the Holly King, pagan Lord of the waning year, who is deposed at midwinter by the Oak King, lord of the waxing year, symbolizing the triumph of light over darkness. Naturally, the feast of St. Nicholas is Dec.6, near the end of the Holly King's half-year reign.
Wiccan authors Janet and Stewart Farrar commented:
"All too often, the harmonious balance of the dark and light twins, of necessary waxing and waning, has been distorted into a concept of good versus evil. At Dewsbury in Yorkshire, for nearly seven centuries, church bells have tolled "the Devil's Knell" or the "Old Lad's Passing" for the last hour of Christmas eve, warning the Prince of Evil that the Prince of Peace is coming to destroy him. Then, from midnight on, they peal out a welcome to the Birth. A worthy custom, on the face of it- but in fact it enshrines a sad degradation of the Holly King.
"Oddly enough, the popular name 'Old Nick' for the Devil reflects the same demotion. Nick was a name for [the Norse God] Woden, who is very much a Holly King figure - as is Santa Claus, otherwise St. Nicholas (who in early folklore rode not reindeer but a white horse through the sky - like Woden) So Nik, God of the Waning Year, has been Christianized in two forms: as Satan and as the jolliest of the saints.
"Incidentally, in Italy, Santa Claus's place is taken by a witch. She is called Belfana (Epiphany), and she flies around on Twelfth Night on her broomstick, bringing gifts for children down chimneys."
The aforementioned Christian curmudgeon Herbert W. Armstrong would have none of this Santa Claus heresy. He wrote:
"Throughout the year, parents punish their children for telling falsehoods. Then, at Christmas time, they themselves tell their children this "Santa Claus" lie! Is it any wonder many of them, when they grow up and learn the truth, begin to believe God is a myth, too "One little fellow, sadly disillusioned about Santa Claus, said to a playmate, 'Yes, and I'm going to look into this Jesus Christ business, too!' Is it Christian to teach children myths and falsehoods? God says 'thou shall not bear false witness!' It may seem right, and be justified by human reason, but God says 'there is a way that seemeth right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death!' Old Nick is also a term for the Devil! Is there a connection? Satan appears as an 'angel of light' to deceive!"
Chill out, Rev. Have some wassail.
The reality of Santa Claus was confirmed in the New York Sun newspaper in 1897 when Francis B Church answered Virginia O'Hanlon's query "is there a Santa Claus?":
"Virginia, your friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds . . . Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus!"
I agree. How dreary without Santa Claus, or the Holly and Oak Kings, or Isis or Mithras, or Baby Jesus! How wonderful that the church has blessed our yuletide pagan traditions with a Christian spin! Let us enjoy our festive rites, sacred or profane. In honor of all the pagan gods and Christian saints of the season, ho Saturnalia, good Yule, and a merry Christmas to all!
Behold the solstice fire!
Behold the wonder of the sun at midwinter!
Accept the blessings of the old ones
And take the light back into your world in the kindled fires of your heart!
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.