23 December 2005

And so this is Christmas...

Having spent too much time on what Christmas is not, I figured it only fair to take a shot at what Christmas actually is, or should be, or in an ideal world of my own construction would be. Just for reference, as I write this I’m looking out at a view of snow-covered hills, bare trees interspersed with the occasional evergreen, birds who refused to make the drive down to Florida for the winter scurrying about for food, the beginnings of sunrise illuminating the landscape. However, I also remember spending Christmases in subtropical locales, wearing shorts and looking out at palm trees, with bright sunshine and warm weather, and sand and surf nearby. To me, both of these are Christmas, and yet neither is a complete picture.

What makes these settings both Christmas-like is not the Currier and Ives landscape (or, alternatively, the Jimmy Buffett landscape), but the fact that I spend them with loved ones gathered together. Why do we gather at Christmas? In one word, I suppose, that would be because of tradition. Not exclusively religious tradition, but certainly not devoid of it either. Traditions, rituals if you will, are shaped and crafted and re-shaped over time by those who participate in them. Traditions evolve and ebb and flow as the people who celebrate them change and grow. That doesn’t make them any less valuable. Indeed, the fact that traditions and rituals have an inherent capacity for evolving makes them even more potent; it makes them alive.

Christmas is also about light. It is tied to the Winter Solstice, remember? It’s about the light's entry into the dark world, and the darkness’ inability to overcome it (or comprehend it, depending on your particular translation). That doesn’t mean that light overcomes darkness either – it’s not quite that simple. Light and darkness coexist, coming and going, ebbing and flowing. Good and evil reside together in this world. That’s not a call for moral relativism; it’s simply a statement of fact. Light and dark dwell together in each of us.

Christmas is also about gifts. No, don’t worry, I’m not succumbing to the commercialization of Christmas – I almost know that Linus speech by heart. In the Christian tradition, though, Christmas is about the gift of a child, a child that brings hope and peace to a world that is in dire need of all of those. Come to think of it, our current world could do with a good dose of hope and peace. Thus the title of this entry – hopefully some of you got the song reference from the beginning, from the John Lennon song Happy Christmas (War is Over).

Of course, everyone tells you to think of those less fortunate at this time of year, blah blah blah, but I think that too often that can become an excuse to forget about them the rest of the year. When you gather together with your loved ones this season, of course say a prayer or think of those less fortunate than you, but don’t stop with just a prayer. If you haven’t purchased that last gift for someone who’s so hard to buy for because they already have everything, consider a gift to charity in honor of him or her. And while you’re at it, call your Senators and Representative and ask them why Congress wouldn’t approve $50 million in funds for African Union troops who are trying to stop the genocide in Darfur, funds that Secretary of State Rice made an impassioned appeal to have included in the final defense appropriations bill, after Congress stripped it from an earlier foreign aid bill. I don’t know how the vote broke down on party lines, and frankly I don’t much care – funding efforts to stop genocide, led by troops that are actually from the region in question, shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Brava to Secretary Rice for stepping up on this one, and shame on Congress for pork-barreling billions of dollars hither and yon and yet not finding the spare change to combat genocide.

Sorry, that was a bit of a rant. But hey, the “first Christmas” wasn’t all sweetness and light either, remember? Teenage out-of-wedlock pregnancy, oppressive government, baby born out in a stable with a bunch of smelly farm animals…I have to think it wasn’t as pretty and clean and nice as our modern Nativity scenes depict it. Maybe that’s how light enters into the world – not bright and shiny and majestically streaming, but as little flickers here and there, sometimes barely perceptible unless you’re looking for it.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas…and tonight thank God it's them instead of you...

19 December 2005

Yo, Saturnalia!

As promised, here’s some background on the history of the celebration of Christmas, the Roman holiday known as Saturnalia, and other aspects of this Winter Solstice time. There exists no record of the celebration of Christmas itself as a distinct holiday until about 350 AD. Before that time (and still to this day in certain Christian traditions), the primary holiday commemorating Christ’s birth was Epiphany.

The most popular winter holiday in ancient Rome was Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, their god of seed and sowing/agriculture. The Winter Solstice was dated December 25 in the Julian calendar (in our modern calendar it falls on December 21), and the festival of Saturn took place for several days beforehand, ranging from a three-day celebration to an entire week (depending on who was Emperor).

By all accounts, Saturnalia was quite a party! It was a time for visiting friends and family and exchanging gifts – candles were a particularly popular gift, possibly signifying the return of the light. Social restrictions were relaxed, slaves were (temporarily) treated as equals, and much merriment ensued.

This was such a popular holiday that at the end of the first century AD, the poet Statius wrote: "For how many years shall this festival abide! Never shall age destroy so holy a day! While the hills of Latium remain and father Tiber, while thy Rome stands and the Capitol thou hast restored to the world, it shall continue."

Well, Saturnalia didn’t continue forever, at least not in its original form. Oh, I’m sure there are a few historical re-enactor types around who still greet each other in December with “Io, Saturnalia” (pronounced "Yo, Saturnalia"), but they’re most likely limited to hard-core Latin language convention attendees.

Early on in the third century, Sol Invictus (the “Unconquered Sun”) became an official religion of the Empire, celebrating the sun god. The birth date of Sol Invictus was, you guessed it, celebrated on December 25. In the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. A new religion meant new official holidays, and I don’t have to tell you what happened next.

Lest we think it was just the Romans who partied hearty around the solstice, remember too that much of Europe celebrated Yule as their winter solstice holiday. In fact, our modern Christmas traditions draw heavily on Yule traditions – Yule logs, mistletoe, holly, and feasting on ham, to name just a few.

Having said all that, does any of this mean that Christians shouldn’t take delight in celebrating Christmas? Of course not! In fact, my next posting here will probably be a take on the celebrations of Christmas itself. I’m only trying to point out that much of what we associate with Christmas (dates, gifts, trees and trimming, feasting and family) is not unique to Christianity. Once again, these may be handy metaphors for communicating the underlying truths, but when people start worshipping the metaphors instead of the truths they’re supposed to represent, that’s when we get into trouble.

14 December 2005

Housekeeping, logistics, etc.

First, a big thanks to all of you who have logged on and checked out these first couple of musings. I also appreciate the feedback I've received, and hope that you'll keep coming back on a regular basis. Toward those ends, I've made a couple of refinements that I hope will make your blog-reading a more enjoyable experience:
  • You should now be able to publish comments about any of my posts by clicking on the Comments button below that particular post. (There had been some difficulty with "non-members" of this site posting comments; hopefully I've resolved that.) Comments are still moderated by me - i.e., I have to approve them before they go up on the site. That's not to limit anyone's free speech; rather, it's to keep out the nutcases who go around to any site they can find and post completely unrelated comments (usually commercial solicitations). I don't need to read any more solicitations about the hot penny stock tip of the day from a former Nigerian government minister that will enhance various body parts for my partner's extreme pleasure, and I'm sure you don't either.
  • You should now be able to Subscribe via RSS to this blog by clicking on the link over there on the right side of this page, the one that says "Subscribe (RSS) to Dan's Musings". Creative link title, no? I chose RSS because it's what I'm familiar with; however, if I hear from you readers that you prefer Atom subscriptions, I'll add that as well. For those of you who haven't a bloody clue what I'm talking about, these are feeds that send you messages automatically when a particular website is updated. That way you don't have to browse on over here every day or two wondering, "Gee, has Dan said anything else I care to read about?" It also saves you from browsing over here hoping to find some new musings, only to be disappointed when you see that I still haven't posted anything new.
You'll note that for both of these new options, I've used the disclaimer "You should be able to..." This is all new stuff for me, so bear with me (and let me know!) in case something doesn't function as intended.

And lastly, I've been asked (no, really, I have) if it's OK to tell others about this blog. Of course you can - in fact, I would encourage you to do so. That's the whole point of writing a blog - the vague hope that at some point I'll have legions of regular readers who will tune in over their morning coffee (or evening cocktails). So share the love, tell your friends and enemies about this blog, link to it from your own site (if you do, let me know so I can return the favor).

That's all for this morning. More on Saturnalia to come soon.

12 December 2005

Christmas under fire?

The Christian Right is at it again. This time it’s about Christmas, or rather the lack of “Merry Christmas” in certain retailers’ marketing campaigns. Apparently the 80% or so of the country that celebrates Christmas as a religious holiday (to one degree or another) is feeling terribly oppressed by the folks who want to be more inclusive and use terms like “Happy Holidays”.

Boo hoo hoo! The poor oppressed Christian majority!

Give me a break. Nobody’s taking away your own private celebration of Christmas. They just want to make a little room in the public space to allow for the acknowledgement of traditions that might happen to be different from yours. Here’s a thought: In this season of giving, why not consider that approach - the acknowledgement of other traditions, or of no tradition – to be your Christmas gift to the 20% or so of folks in this country who don’t happen to share your religious beliefs?

Oh, and what’s up with wanting to shove the baby Jesus into the mall anyway? It’s as if the “Merry Christmas” advocates are saying that they really want corporations to exploit their religious beliefs in order to make a profit, and that if the corporations don’t crassly exploit those beliefs, they won’t spend their money there. Something tells me that if Jesus were given the chance to weigh in on this one, he’d probably go into driving-out-the-moneychangers mode and give a fiery sermon on the evils of conflating pseudo-religion with turning a profit.

It’s as if these folks don’t really take their own holy scriptures seriously. Not only that, but they don’t even get it when Linus tells Charlie Brown that Christmas isn’t about shopping malls and shiny aluminum trees – it’s about light and love coming into a dark and cold world.

For my money, I’d prefer that commercial enterprises stay the hell away from my spiritual beliefs and practices. I don’t begrudge them the right to make money in the marketplace; I’d just rather they didn’t exploit religion to do so. And I would think that other sincere people of faith, whatever their faith, would want the same.

I won’t even get into the fact that Christmas really is a replacement holiday, conveniently placed at the end of December to fill in for the big pagan blowout party known in Roman times as Saturnalia, and later on incorporating Druidic and Norse myths and practices to make it more palatable to the newly Christianized lands. Well, OK, maybe I will just a little…

07 December 2005

Violence in the name of fundamentalism

Yesterday I read a news report of a professor who was, in essence, carjacked and beaten by a couple of thugs who apparently were upset with his public statements critical of their particular fundamentalist religious viewpoint.

Where did this happen, you may ask? Iraq? Afghanistan? Iran? Perhaps even Syria or Egypt or Indonesia? Nope. Try Lawrence, Kansas, in the good old USA.

The victim is a professor at the University of Kansas who was planning to offer a course entitled “Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies”, but that got cancelled once he shot off an email criticizing religious conservatives as “fundies” (he has since apologized for those remarks). On Monday, according to an AP report, this professor was driving along a rural road in Lawrence when he was tailgated by a couple of guys, and when he got out of his car to confront them, “they beat him on the head, shoulders and back with their fists, and possibly a metal object” while referring to the aforementioned class.

Now, I’m not going to defend the guy’s email comments (neither did he), but according to the way I read the First Amendment, in America you have the freedom to sound like an ass without having to worry about getting your ass kicked.

Oh, and just what part of the teachings of Jesus were these carjacking thugs acting out? “Turn the other cheek, unless someone insults your notion of God, in which case you should whack them with a lead pipe?” Funny, I don’t remember that Gospel verse.

And for that matter, these thugs must worship a real wuss of a god, if their god needs them to do his dirty work for him. “Vengeance is mine, but I could really use some help with it down there, says the Lord”?? Can’t find that one in my Bible either.

This is one of those incidents that fall squarely in the category of “Seriously, what the heck?” (OK, so that’s not exactly the way I would normally phrase it, but I’m trying to keep my public writings PG-13.)

This is yet another example of people confusing the metaphor with the reality it’s intended to represent. More on that in a future posting – how metaphors, myths, and symbols are the only way for us to express ineffable truths, and how people forget about the meaning and start worshipping the metaphor instead.