Friday, November 22, 2013

Oh and One More Thing...

Saturnalia may have provided the blueprint for Christmas but even it was not an original idea. The Babylonians celebrated Zagmuk—meaning literally “beginning of the year”—a 12 day festival that symbolized Marduk’s triumph over chaos. Marduk also happened to be the Babylonian sun-god.

Sacaea, another Middle-Eastern solstice festival, sounds remarkably like Saturnalia. Berossus, a Hellenistic-era Babylonian writer, described a series of festivals characterized by a subversion of order similar to the reversal of power seen in Saturnalia. A mock-king was crowned. Masquerades filled the streets. 

Why were ancient peoples so obsessed with the solstice? 

Our ancestors didn’t have long weekends and statutory holidays: they worked the fields, often at the end of a whip's crack, for as long as there was work to be done. So when there was a brief moment of idleness—typically after the harvest—the priests who ran things back then decided to kill three birds with one stone. 

The priesthood was the elite; they didn't soil their hands in the fields. And since they lacked HBO and Reddit, they spent a bunch of time watching the sky and tracking the sun, moon, stars. They were the first to pick up on the shortening of the days that occurred like clockwork every year.

Our ancestors also happened to be a superstitious bunch. Whereas you and I know that the sun will rise tomorrow, the ancients had no such guarantees. The solstice festival resolves this first dilemma in a typically human manner: by flattering and bribing the sun-god into coming back full-time.

The second dilemma to afflict our ancient elite--how to keep the workers happy--was resolved in an equally pragmatic way. If the rituals and sacrifices were meant to appease the sun then the feasts and benders were meant to appease the slaves and lower classes who composed the bulk of these ancient civilizations.

The second solution also helps to remedy a third problem. Even today winter is a depressing time. The short, dark days wear people down, and we know the sun is coming back. Imagine how shitty this season would be if we believed that the sun's return was dependent on whether or not we made him happy with our offerings! 

We don’t need to burn yule logs to appease a trivial deity. We don’t need to light up the the night to ward away evil spirits. The Christmas tree, a pagan symbol of winter's inability to stop the cycle of renewal, is also unnecessary.

We’re practicing ancient, outdated, and obsolete rituals, and I for one think it's great. They are a part of our human heritage, little pieces of history carried to the modern era by the minds of our ancestors. They’re founded on real natural phenomenon and are largely symbolic. We can burn yule logs without believing that the sun would forsake us if we didn’t. We can decorate an evergreen with lights without believing it's a safety precaution against ghosts and spirits.  

What we can't do is support the Christian mythology of Christmas without believing in it. And since the Christian mythology supports a carefully crafted lie, it cannot qualify under the symbolism exception.

Whereas symbolism represents or suggests a belief, the Christian mythology of Christmas promotes false beliefs to the masses.

I'm a big proponent of letting people do their own thing. I don't subscribe to any religion myself but I support those who do and defend their beliefs so long as those beliefs don't bring harm or suffering. Deceiving people by appealing to their spiritual beliefs qualifies as harmful in my book.

I have no problem with Christianity. To me, all religions are memes born of human minds, possessing lives and minds of their own. Christians reading this should not be offended. If anything is offensive about this whole affair it's that early church fathers, hand-in-hand with the Roman empire, soiled Jesus by implicating him with Saturnalia, the pagan Fourth of July. 

Apologists who concede that Jesus wasn't born on December 25 say they are doing good by honouring Christ and taking attention away from Christmas' pagan roots. Only Jesus specifically warned his disciples to abstain from such practices in Matthew 15:9: "But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines of men." Then, in Mark 7:9: "Full well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your own tradition."

Uncanny. It sounds as if these passages were penned to address this exact situation!  There goes the "honoring Christ" explanation.

The reason I am spending so much time on the origin and evolution of Christmas is twofold: first, I want to make it clear that fighting to keep Christ in Christmas is a waste of energy. The historical and archeological evidence is unanimous on the topic. On this basis alone, we should take Jesus out of Christmas,

Second, I want to illustrate Christmas' obedience to memetic law. From Babylon to Rome to nearly a third of the world, Christmas has changed, adapted, and evolved to survive. We have been carrying the meme in our big sexy brains for 4,000 years, shaping and moulding it with our beliefs before passing it onward to the next generation.

Christmas is just one example of this phenomenon. Since the dawn of our species we have been the unwitting, unknowing carriers of religions, ideologies, traditions, and rituals. 

If enough people realize that they carry and shape ideas, we can turn the tables and gain some control over the process. If instead of blindly following tradition we look at the things we take for granted with a critical mind, we can trim the fat. We can discard the things we deem unnecessary and keep the things that make us happy. We can dispel the myths that have no place in our modern age and reinforce the facts. 

Quitting Christmas doesn't mean quitting the holidays. It doesn't mean getting rid of the family gathering, evergreen tree, bright lights, gifts, mistletoe, and yule log. Quite the opposite. These rituals form a part of our legacy. They are the fossils of dead memes dug up every December and re-examined. They serve as a sober reminder of how far we have come and that even our ancient ancestors possessed great wisdom and creativity.

We should honour our history, not a series of carefully constructed myths.

Let's take control of this storied tradition and make it ours again. The first order of business should be to abandon the word “Christmas.” I know, I know. "Why bother? It's just semantics. You can make it whatever you want it to be." True, we can and should make it our own, but as long as we call it Christmas, we're still enforcing a lie.
Something tells me he wasn't big on presents

Call it what you want. Festivus. Saturnalia. Solstice Day. Gift Day. Whatever. Even after we ditch the Christian myth, the spirit of the holidays remains unchanged. It will continue to be a time for the gathering of family and friends during the cold dark days of winter; a time to reflect on yet another year of life in this awesome and mysterious universe. And if you want to break the bank and buy a bunch of presents, why shouldn't you?

Just don't do it for Jesus.

(PS: You'll notice I haven't mentioned Santa yet. That's because he is perhaps my favourite character in the mythology of Christmas and deserves his own post, which I will be putting out next Friday. Until then, 33 days till Krissmuss. /rant over)

No comments: