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The History of Christmas: Day 6 – Awaiting Arrival of Perchta (650 CE) December 20, 2012

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The History of Christmas
Day 6: Awaiting the Arrival of Perchta- 650 CE

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Perchta, goddess of vegetation and fertility in Germanic mythology, is somewhat of an enigma. Depending on the date and location, she could be male or female and held many different names, including Percht, Frau Berchte, Quantembermann, Kwaternik, Frau Faste, Frau Berch, Posterli, and Frontastenweiber. And there are those who looked upon Perchta as simply another version of the goddess Holde, or Frau Holle.

It is said she would enter homes at Twelfth Night, giving small silver coins to children and young servants whom she knew had worked hard and behaved well during the year. She searched the home to ensure all the flax had been spun. If not, she would cut open the bellies of the wicked, lazy children, to stuff them with straw and pebbles. Long after Christianity had taken root in the area, the common people still looked upon Perchta/Holde as a goddess.

*

Near a small town, south of what is now called Munich in Germania, a bearded man entered his cottage, closing the door on a howling wind as snow followed him into the room.

“Josef, the weather is getting worse. Is there enough wood for the fire?”

“Ja, Herta, I have only just finished piling it next to the door so it is within easy reach. The plow and the wagon are both hidden as well.”

“Poppa, the raging rout is a bad sign, not?”

The old man turned and looked at his daughter. “Ilse, we were fortunate that the rout came peacefully this year but it is certainly raging out there now. I feel we shall have a plentiful new year. Have you finished your spinning? There must be no flax left.”

“Ja. I have, Poppa. The distaff is empty, the wheel is at rest and a good deal of yarn is laid by.”

The father nodded and let out a long breath. Removing his coat, he examined the supper table. He could see five places set on the rough hewn boards. “Five settings, Herta? Are we expecting more company than I know about?”

“I invited Berit to spend some time with us. She lives alone and I felt she would enjoy the company. Beside, while she’s here, she said she would tell our fortunes. No harm in that. The other setting is for Perchta.”

“Frau Berch,” he mumbled, sniffing towards the oven. “Zemmede, I presume?”

“Of course, zemmede, with Perchta coming to our home.”

The family enjoyed zemmede, a fasting fare made of flour, milk and water. Josef turned his gaze back to his daughter. “I hope you haven’t lied to us this year. Perchta will cut open your stomach and fill it with rubbish if you have.”

“Frau Berch will bring me nuts and apples again this year. I deserve it as hard working a daughter as I am.”

Ilse was interrupted by a knock at the door. Man and wife gave each other a solemn look as the father moved to open it.

“Guten Abend, Herr Erchanbold.”

Herta’s friend, Berit, fluttered through the opening, clapping snow from her mittens. “You are all ready for Perchta’s visit I see. Herta, the zemmede smells delicious.”

*

This is the first time that a seasonal visitor has the ability to tell if children are naughty or nice – a large part of our Christmas celebration today. Also it is the first suggestion of a special food prepared strictly for the season.

The History of Christmas: Day 5 – The Change (322 CE) December 20, 2012

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The History of Christmas
Day 5: The Change To A Christian Christmas – 322 CE

day 5

The period around 280 years after the death of Christ held confusion for both the new Christian populace and those who worshiped the old Roman gods. The Emperor Constantine had given up the worship of the Sun god, Mithra, and was said to have converted to worshiping Jesus, of the Christians. In the earlier years of his reign, he officially proclaimed Christianity to be one of the state religions of Rome. The Emperor’s pronouncement resulted in stability throughout the realm though it brought misunderstandings for pagans and Christians alike.

The great majority of people in the Empire still celebrated the old pagan holidays, worshiping the gods and goddesses they had grown up to know. Constantine’s proclamation helped to decrease the persecution of Christians, and occurrences of such maltreatment began to back lash upon their pagan perpetrators. Constantine put it upon the shoulders of the Church of Rome to bring about the conversion of the Empire to Christianity with all haste.

It would be another three years until Constantine called together the first Council of Nicaea in an effort to solidify Christian beliefs throughout the Empire. At this point, he had just defeated Licinius and solidified his own rule as Emperor.

*

A year or two later, on a balcony above a street near the Temple of Saturn, two Christian leaders watch the Roman crowd below celebrating the festivities of Saturnalia. Their conversation might have gone like this:

“Father Vincentius, it will be difficult to get the people to give up this pagan celebrating in exchange for the pure worship of the child of the Holy Virgin. Listen to them down there.”

In the streets below, celebrating Romans were shouting, “Io Saturnalia!” and taking part publicly in every excess of vice known to man. On top of the release of moral restrictions, presents were passed around, small clay dolls and wax candles. Slaves were given temporary freedom and a mock king was chosen. The people celebrated as they do today at our modern Mardi Gras.

Vincentius looked out over the merriment. The longer he watched, the stronger an idea burned into his mind. “They celebrate the birth of the god Mithras, do they not?”

“Yes Father. Aurelian established the festival of Dies Invicti Solis – The Day of the Invincible Sun.”

“And wasn’t Constantine a worshiper of Mithras before accepting the true religion?”

“Again, that is true.”

“What we need to do, Vincentius, is to transfer these old pagan holidays to Christian holidays so the people won’t have to give up their old ways to become Christian.”

“Father Victor?”

“We have some time until next year. Dress our priests in the same sort of garb used by their pagan counterparts. We have power now and it should be used to establish a Christian hierarchy. Set up statues of the Apostles, Mary, and the Saints in the churches so it appears we worship more than one God. But most importantly, merge this Dies Invicti Solis and the Saturnalia and make it all one holiday celebrating the birth of the Christ child. We have the stories in Matthew and Luke. It shouldn’t be that difficult. Allow them their revelry for the sake of the conversion of millions.”

“You know Victor, there are people that dislike the fact that the Emperor has accepted our faith. They are spreading vicious rumors. My own brother told me his daughter was accosted on the street and asked why her father worships the son of a woman raped by Panthera, a Roman legionary.”

“Yes, Vincentius, I’m aware of such things. This is why we must make changes – to appeal to the people. If my plans are carried out, few will make issue of lies like that. We must get Constantine to agree and make public declarations. By this time next year the Saturnalia will be a Christian holiday and after a few years, the people won’t think twice about it.”

“I think we must continue to get Constantine to promote a council to solidify our beliefs as well. We need to put one face on our beliefs for all time, Vincentius. Will you support me in this?”

“Of course Father Victor. I certainly will.”

*

It all came about as planned. The First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea was held in 325 AD and Victor and Vincentius were attendees. Twenty Church canons were agreed upon and those not agreeing to the formula were anathematized. The Christian religion, along with its celebration of Christmas had begun to take shape. Of course the narrative above is fictional, but the facts contained are historical and indisputable.

History of Christmas: Day 4 – The Roman Saturnalia (16 BCE) December 20, 2012

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The History of Christmas
Day 4: The Roman Saturnalia – 16 BCE

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By all accounts, the celebration of Saturnalia, commemorating the dedication of the temple of Saturn, the god of the harvest, grew to be the largest and most popular in ancient Rome. By 16BCE, the festivities lasted a full week, starting on the seventeenth and ending around the twenty-third day of December.

At the temple, a massive couch would be placed in front of it and the ropes which tethered the statue of Saturn for the rest of the year were let loose. It was a time to eat, drink and be merry. Celebrants even replaced the traditional toga with the synthesis – a colorful, informal dinner clothing.

Saturnalia included both public and private celebrations. Schools closed and a special market, the Sigillaria, opened to the public. Public gambling, usually frowned upon, grew to be a highlight of the merriment. The tomfoolery included the switching of places between masters and slaves, though this did not subvert the status quo.

*

In the city of Rome, it is yet ten years before the birth of Christ. On December 17th, the festival of the Saturnalia has begun as two good friends meet in the street near the Temple of Saturn.

“Caelianus! Have you been to temple yet? Have they loosed his bonds?”

Quintis Nepius Caelianus smiled at his good friend. “Io Saturnalia, Sidonius. Yes, they’ve loosened the god and the holiday has officially begun.”

“Good! And as old Saturn has been liberated so shall young Romans be liberated for celebration! Will the sweet Paccia Marciana be accompanying you to the banquet today, Caelianus?”

“Again, yes. I’m sure that her beauty will recommend seats near the head of Saturn himself. Who will you be attending with? Spirited Poppaea or the lovely Didia?”

“A very good question. I have purchased candles for both of them but I fear if I ask one and not the other I shall be in dire straits. Still I am leaning toward Poppaea. Didia would certainly look grand on my arm, but Poppaea will be more fun to party with.”

Caelianus nodded. “Well deserved straits too, by my way of thinking. Poppaea would be an excellent choice for Saturnalia.”

“At any rate will the two of you visit my doma afterwards?”

“I can’t think of anywhere else we would rather celebrate the festival, Sidonius. How many other couples will be attending?”

“Fifty in all. It should be quite a party.”

“What of Durio and Ulpia?”

“Both confirmed. Is there still bad blood between you and Durio? Oh remember, no togas. Everyone will be comfortable and relaxed. There will be plenty of wine, food and gifts; enough to party for days.”

“There is nothing between Durio and me that can’t be put off for the holidays. That’s encouraging, Sidonius. What kind of gifts?”

“Sigillaria, of course. Statues for everyone!”

“Fascinating. I have quite a collection already. I must leave to gather my flower. The streets are already crammed and we don’t want to arrive late for the public feast. See you there, Sidonius. Io Saturnalia.”

“Io Saturnalia, Caelianus. Give my love to Paccia!”

*

The Saturnalia brought many firsts to the celebration of Christmas:  Schools being closed for the holiday, the giving of gifts, and public feasts are only a few.  One of the most noticeable to my mind is the salutation of “Io Saturnalia,” heard everywhere during the holiday.  This phrase became the forerunner of “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.”

The History of Christmas: Day 3 – Sacaea in Persia and Rhodes (450 BCE) December 20, 2012

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The History of Christmas
Day 3: Sacaea – Persia and Rhodes – 450 BCE

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It is true that the tradition of replacing a ruler (later, any leader, government official or rich land owner) with a commoner can be traced from the Babylonians through the Greeks, who then passed it on to the Romans, with the practice ending up as the Misrule in England and America as part of the celebration of the Christmas season. There were differences, of course, especially in the earlier celebrations of the Sacaea in Persia and Greece.

*

The family of Hooshmand operated what would later be called a caravanserai, a shelter for caravans and pilgrims along a trade route. This inn stood some fifty miles to the northwest of ancient Persepolis. In approximately 490BCE, during the reign of the Persian King, Darius the Great, the caravan route between Persepolis and Pasargadae remained heavily traveled, and Hooshmand was a wealthy man. During the midwinter in Persia, Hooshmand gathered his family and slaves at the beginning of the festival of Sacaea.

The old man stood on a wooden dais and raised both hands to quiet the crowd of people gathered in his great hall. He and the rest of his relations were dressed in the attire of slaves.

“My family and loyal servants. It is time to begin the sacred celebration of Sacaea. I remind you that the business of the caravanseri must continue to be carried out with as little disruption as possible. As in the past, I rely on the integrity of my servants to carry on the rich traditions of this family and faithfully pursue the business as if it were your very own.”

Hooshmand’s family consisted of his three wives, fifteen children (ten of whom were married with children of their own), six brothers, their wives and children, four sisters, along with their families, plus an assortment of cousins, half-cousins, their families, and a collection of concubines. Over one hundred-fifty Greek slaves served the family of the caravanseri.

Both relations and slaves listened with growing anticipation. The concubines passed around wineskins and smells from the kitchen foretold of the fabulous feasts that all looked forward to with great expectancy.

“As you know, Erechtheus, our House Master, has been given my position during this season of Sacaea. Pythia, Marjan’s mistress, will act as his wife. Erechtheus has assigned the various positions of the household to the rest of you. My family looks forward to serving you during the holidays.”

With that, a roar of approval erupted from the crowd. The servants selected articles of fine clothing suitable to their new station as tables bearing robes and head pieces were uncovered. People congratulated Erechtheus with thumps to his back as the wine flowed even more freely. Dressed in their new ceremonial garb, the slaves and servants took charge of the caravanseri, shouting orders as the new ‘servants’ bowed in submission and readied themselves for the twelve days of work ahead.

*

Although the household of Eryximachos of Rhodes went through a similar transformation, young Pervica had something more malevolent on her mind.

Pervica shivered. Being newly married and with child throughout Sacaea frightened her. During the twelve day holiday, the Kallikantzaroi, a species of goblins, emerged from the center of the Earth to slip into people’s houses down their chimneys. More mischievous than actually evil, they would snuff out fires, ride upon people’s backs, braid the tails of horses, sour the milk, and perform other such pranks. To counter the Kallikantzaroi, Thessala, Pervica’s mother, made sure that a small wooden bowl with a piece of wire suspended across the rim found its way on to the main table. Water from the bowl and a sprig of basil would be sprinkled throughout the house as a defense against the Kallikantzaroi. Also old shoes would be burned in the family’s fireplace so the smell would act as a distraction.

But it was not the Kallikantzaroi themselves that Pervica feared. It was well known that any child born during the Sacaea runs the risk of becoming a Kallikantzaroi.

To divert herself from her fears, Thessala sent Pervica on a slave’s mission – riding a donkey to the miller’s to grind some corn meal for the festival. After arriving, Pervica called out for the miller to help her unload the two bags of corn to be milled. When no one answered, she entered in search of him – only to find him tied to his chair inside.

A number of black, hairy, Kallikantzaroi with glaring red eyes, huge heads, and mouths with blood red tongues hanging out, reached for her with their monkey arms and long fingers that ended in dangerous curved nails. They seized her and began arguing amongst themselves over which should have her for their own.

Pervica overcame her fears and told them she would become the wife of the one who presented her with the finest bridal gift. They immediately dispersed to look for fine clothing and jewelry.

Pervica went to work grinding the corn. Each time a Kallikantzaroi returned, she sent him on a fresh errand for something more. When she completed her grinding, she loaded the mule with the two sacks of meal. She clothed herself in the wealthy attire, gold and jewels that the Kallikantzaroi had already brought. She covered herself with a sack and headed home.

She eluded the Kallikantzaroi, who pursued her, and made it safely to her abode. One of them soon arrived at the door and found a colander on the stoop. He sat down, fascinated by the object and began to count the holes. But because he could not get past the number two, he soon became frustrated, dropped the utensil and left – forgetting why he was there.

Pervica breathed a sigh of relief and told her tale to her mother. She thought, if I do give birth during the Sacaea I will most certainly singe the toenails of my little one so he will not become one of those creatures.

*

An interesting footnote to this story is the Kallikantzaroi method of entering a home by climbing down the chimney. Another link to Christmas as we celebrate it today. The same could be said for the large family meals enjoyed by both groups. Those Kallikantzaroi, by the way, are the first of many types of fantasy folk to appear in sagas of the season.

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.

The History of Christmas: Day 1 – Celebration in Ur (2000 BCE) December 20, 2012

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The History of Christmas
Day 1: Celebration in Ur – 2000 BCE

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Two thousand years before the birth of Christ, late in the month we refer to as December; a twelve day celebration took place in the ancient city of Ur, located in modern Iraq.

Ur, held as the cradle of civilization and located by the original source of both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, had been birthed by the Ubaid peoples who farmed the alluvial plain of southern Mesopotamia.

As the city grew, the festival of Zagmuk began to take place around the time of the winter solstice. It celebrated the triumph of Marduk, the patron deity of Ur, over the symbolical forces of Chaos. The simulated battles raged for twelve days, with the king, En, playing Marduk and his son playing Nabu, his rescuer and the god of writing.

The battle, as acted out in the High Court, had En enacting the rite of the Sacred Marriage with Entu, a specially chosen High Priestess. Sexual intercourse between En and the virgin Entu played out the regeneration of the cosmos through their reenactment of the primordial coupling of An, the god of the night, with Ki, the goddess of the Earth.

On the twelfth night of the ceremony, a substitute playing the role of the En ran through the streets of Ur with a crowd of battlers. After his run, the mock king would be killed in order to do battle at Marduk’s side while another prisoner would be set free.

*

In the lower portion of Ur, near the river Euphrates, lived Pauldin, a dealer in grain, and his wife, Onita. The couple prepared for the twelfth day of the holiday with their children, four year old Sharona and Beniel, who neared the age of seven.

Beniel chopped wood outside their dwelling. Sharona carried the splintered pieces to Pauldin, who made preparations for a large bonfire. “Father,” she asked. “Why do we build a fire in the street this day?”

Her father smiled and answered, “Do you not remember the images of the Monsters of Chaos I carved yesterday?”

“Those ugly things, yes, father. You said they are fighting against Marduk, who will save the world from death.”

“That’s right, and we will help Marduk defeat them by burning those images in this bonfire. This will purify us of the evil that our sins of the past year have brought upon us. It will renew our strength for the coming year. Then we can celebrate Marduk’s victory over evil later tonight and a new year will begin.”

“What is mother doing?”

“She is inside preparing costumes for us. We will dress up as fighters in Marduk’s army and parade down the streets of Ur by the light of these fires. Beniel and his friend Mardin will be taking part in an enactment of the great battle with the dark powers of the deep.”

“Will I be able to watch?”

Her father smiled. “If you don’t fall asleep like you did last year. When we get home there will be a feast and wondrous gifts for everyone.”

Little Sharona’s eyes went wide and thoughts of gaiety and gifts filled her young mind.

*

Bonfires, feasts, gifts, costumes, and even substitute kings would be symbolic of the season for thousands of future celebrations at this time of the year.

History of Christmas: Prologue – A Gift of the Ages December 20, 2012

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The History of Christmas
Prologue: A Gift of the Ages
prolog

It all started some 4,000 years ago, when that first person became aware that the light from the great giver of life, the sun, dwindled away on a daily basis after crops had been harvested and the cold weather settled in for the winter . Then, by some miracle, the light started to regenerate itself and circumstance gave birth to religion.

The people of these times had a connection to the Earth they lived upon. When good things happened, they noticed it and tried to repeat the circumstances so the good thing would happen again. This is much like a baseball player who hits a game winning home run and then wears the same socks and underwear for the next ten days trying to keep the good fortune going.

But for the ancients, the shortening hours of daylight could not be left to chance. This situation had to be reversed or surely death and destruction would follow. The problem was seen in various ways. To some, the Evil had stolen the light and God had proclaimed a war upon it to regain control of the sun. Others saw only the simplicity of needing to placate God with gifts, dancing, and song in order to conciliate him into granting rebirth to the dying light.

Whatever the case, the days surrounding December 25th became an important time on many western calendars. Celebrations of one type or another grew up all across the Middle East, Europe and the Americas. Even the birth of the Christian Son became attached to the pagan day of the Sun’s rebirth. And the traditions of this celebration, even those from the earliest times, have stayed with us even to today in our celebration of Christmas.

This book will contain twelve chapters –  short vignettes from a different time and place concerning the trail taken by our Christmas as we celebrate it today. I will post one chapter daily, starting on Christmas Day.

Please don’t be upset that this book does not start with the Nativity of Jesus. History has been quite clear that the birth of Jesus was NOT on December 25th. Even the Bible does not mention this date. Sadly, Jesus is not the reason for the season, as so many like to say. The traditions we celebrate at this time of year come from many peoples and cultures, each every bit as interesting and unique as the story of the birth of Christ.

Have a wonderful holiday season!

Your Host,
Erick Emert