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'Tis the season
by Jan Sand
2006-12-17 10:41:11
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Three hundred and fifty thousand years ago the Neanderthals who might have moved into Europe from Africa probably were going through a tough time. They began to experience the cold winters that we are all familiar with. It is evident that they survived and prospered and in all probability learned to protect themselves with animal skins and the use of fire. But, unlike the lush times in Africa, the freezing weather prevented nature from supplying many of the edibles that gave them dinner.

In northern winters, not only is it cold, but also the further north you go the longer the blackness of the nights become. No doubt there was some game for meat but it must have been very difficult in the early days of the invasion. I don’t know if these early humans had developed ways of preserving and storing food but it must have been barely sufficient to get them through times of scarcity. And at the winter equinox, when the days were shortest and the nights the longest, whatever food that had been put aside was surely in short supply.

When times are bad and the future uncertain humans can react in two opposite ways. They can retreat into fear, limit their activity and sweat out the bad times with their fingers crossed. But an adventurous culture, one that would move into and explore a hostile environment, might react in another way. “What the Hell!”, they would say, “ We made it so far, we are still alive and capable. Let’s take a bit of the food we have left and celebrate!”

And that’s when Christmas was born. It was a feast, and a celebration, and an affirmation that winter could and would be conquered. Of course, it wasn’t called Christmas at that point but the idea caught on.

The Romans called it Saturnalia, a feast day devoted to the god Saturn and during the holiday slaves could criticize their owners with impunity ad were served by their masters at a feast. And there was much gambling and drinking.

Yule originated in Teutonic areas to celebrate the rebirth of light after the longest night. The Christmas tree originated here and it was hung with edibles to be consumed in the holiday. The five-pointed star, which represented the five elements, was placed at the tip of the tree. The stag reindeer with its antlers represented a horned god. Bells on the tree were hung to detect the present of a spirit. The burning Yule log brought light to the celebration and a fragment of the log was preserved for the succeeding Yule celebration.

Chanukah, the Jewish celebration, has some of the characteristics of the other holidays but its traditional origin is totally different. Although the Jews were well treated under Alexander the Great, Antiochus IV was not so tolerant. Jews were massacred and persecuted. Sacrificial pigs desecrated the Temple so it had to be rededicated. The ruling Greeks had defiled most of the oil needed to keep the menorah burning and oil enough for only one night was available. Miraculously the menorah burned, nevertheless, for eight days and this event is the basis for the celebration.

By this legend, the Chanukah celebration has nothing to do with the winter equinox but strangely, it also, with the other holidays, celebrates light. And there is an auxiliary activity. The dreidel is a square faceted top with symbols on each surface and it is used in a gambling game during the holiday much as the tossing of dice was used in Rome during the Saturnalia

The latest holiday in the equinox celebration was invented by Ron Karenga in 1966 to give African Americans an equivalent holiday to Christmas. It is called Kwanzaa and is derived from Swahili. The phrase matunda ya kwanza means first fruits and is connected with the fight for civil rights and is involved with the development of a black community. Although originally conceived as a separation of blacks from the white community it has softened to join with Christmas to a degree that the holiday is celebrated to bring both ethnicities together.

All these holidays use candles and light to banish the darkness by the winter’s loss of sunlight. Adlai Stevenson’s praise of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life seems appropriate for the season. “She felt it was better to light a candle than curse the dark”.

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