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The History of Christmas: Day 2 – Brug na Boine (1950 BCE) December 20, 2012

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The History of Christmas
Day 2: Brug na Boine – 1950 BCE 

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Near the bend of the river Boyne, in what is now the county of Meath in Ireland, stands the ancient mound of Newgrange or Brug na Boine. Constructed over 5,000 years ago, the great circular mound of stone and turf stood capped by a white quartz and granite entryway. Surrounding the mound are massive standing stones. The entry leads to a long passage within, which culminates in a grand chamber with a corbelled roof. The crown rises sharply to a height of twenty feet. At the winter solstice, the sun shines through a small, specifically located roofbox, which sets directly above the entrance. Then it travels down the passage without stopping until it strikes the back wall of the chamber. The light can be seen for approximately seventeen minutes.

*

Young Cathbad tended a large fire in the dead of night. Our calendar would place this time between the days of December 20th and 21st – the time of the winter solstice.

Cathbad has performed this specific task for the past month, an important job. Keeping the flames alive meant the sun, harbinger of all life, would be kept alive as well. Darkness would not permeate the Earth forever.

On this particular night, the entire village remained awake as well. Cathbad watched as men and women danced to ancient music in an effort to bid the sun return so it would not disappear perpetually. Some dancers wore carved masks; others shed tears as the energy of their dance strained their emotions.

Many of Cathbad’s family had spent the night before, the sixth day of the moon, gathering mistletoe that grew on the sacred oak trees. This rare and spiritual decoration would adorn the participants of this night’s ritual as would sprigs of various local evergreens.

Four priests, seated in front of a long house near the mound of Brug na Boine, stood and raised their hands. The dancing ended. In silence, family groups came together. Cathbad joined his father Ono and mother Miluchra. His older brother Tages and his younger sister, Aoifa, carrying the baby, Geal, came with them as well. At a signal from the priests, the families started walking slowly and silently toward the entrance to the great mound.

They filed past the huge standing stones, and Cathbad marveled at the dancing reflections his fire made on the quartz outer wall of the mound. Moving around the entrance stone with its uniquely carved swirls, the community entered a passage that led upward into the earth.

At the end of the passage, families sat huddled together in the middle of a large hollow. With everyone inside, the priests mumbled a few prayers and then nothing but darkness and silence existed within the chamber. Only the muffled sounds made by small children and babies could be heard. Cathbad wondered if his fire has been strong enough to keep the sunlight alive. The minutes passed and you could feel the tension of the surrounding inhabitants. Everyone’s eyes focused on the eternal blackness of the stone slab at to the rear of the chamber.

Consider the dark,
mysterious as the womb,
unvoiced as afterdeath.

Aoifa grasped Cathbad’s hand. Her fist tightened with impatience. Suddenly, a single ray of sunlight struck the slab.

A pinprick of light
wedges through gloom;
an iota of optimism;
a small speck of promise
maturing on a stone slab wall.

Ever so slowly it widened, much like the eyes of those beholding it.

Muffled reverberations of awe
strike the ear.
Speck grows to spot;
spot becomes splash;
light smothers the slab wall.

The light entered the dark womb of the earth, climbing upward, illuminating a number of mysterious carvings – circles, spirals and zigzagging patterns, all with religious significance to the families who watched.

Shouts of appreciation
joyous dancing
God is rejoined.

Sighs of relief mixed with adulation arose from the community as the light brought with it the promise of warmth and life to come.

*

The fact that this celebration does not take place on the 25th of December makes it no less a Christmas celebration. Festivals relating to Christmas as we celebrate it today have started as early as December 6th and as late as the middle of January. The promise of a new start arrives; another chance; god is born again. Who could deny the premise of the delight of these people?

Also present can be found intricate carvings and patterns, similar to the way we decorate our homes for the holidays. And let us not overlook the use of sprigs of evergreen and mistletoe. The existence of plants and trees that did not succumb to the ravages of snow, sleet and freezing cold fascinated Cathbad’s people. They could not only be construed as festive in appearance, but brought with their use the promise of immortality. They represented continuing life during the time of winter’s deep sleep of death.

So you see, we celebrate the birth of the Son with the same joy of spirit that the ancients rejoiced in the rebirth of the sun; a familiar touch at the hand of the living God.

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