|The Nativity - Susan Gallagher|
Contemporary accounts provide us with little detail about the nativity. We know from the Bible that Jesus was born in a cave or stable. An angel informs shepherds of the miracle birth as they tend their flocks on a hillside nearby. Later three wise men arrive from the East, led by a wondrous star. They bring with them gold, frankincense and myrrh - traditional gifts for a king, although also attributed with spiritual meaning.
In a nutshell this is as much as the gospels tell us. All other traditions have been added during the centuries that followed. It would be three hundred years before the month was set as December and the date fixed as the 25th.
So why celebrate Christmas in December?
|Detail from 'The Stork' - artwork by Yvonne Gilbert|
From time immemorial people in Northern Europe have held rituals during the winter solstice. The word 'solstice' means 'the sun stands still'. The 21st December marks the point when the earth's axis in the Northern Hemisphere is tilted furthest away from the sun, it's path low in the sky as it travels from horizon to horizon and its weak rays offering little light and warmth.
Here in Ireland we have Newgrange in County Meath - older than both the pyramids and Stonehenge - perfectly aligned to the winter solstice with the path of the passage tomb illuminated once a year by the dawning light of the rising sun.
In ages past in the frozen north Celts, Lapps, Finns, Danes and Huns gathered around blazing fires, decorating their houses with holly, ivy, mistletoe and evergreen - plants that cheated the deathly grip of winter and were therefore thought to be charged with special power.
People did not take for granted that the sun would return victorious. They performed ceremonies and rituals, sometimes even including human sacrifice to ensure that summer would return. When darkness began to descend on the world they arranged great feasts and celebrated winter rites. The Celts in Ireland observed Samain, the Norsemen celebrated Yule with festivals that were spread over two months.
Further south the Roman festival of Saturnalia occupied the week ending on the 24th December. It was a feast of reversals - masters served slaves and slaves commanded masters. People gave each other presents and decorated their homes with greenery.
In Persia the followers of Mithras (the god of light who was born in a cave and drove away the darkness) celebrated the birth of their deity on December 25th.
|Bringing in the Yule Log - Troy Howell (1986)|
When Christianity began to spread into Europe people married the ceremonies they were used to with the new religion. They cherished their past without fear and felt no discomfort in fitting their memories of the old into the pattern of the new, absorbing all under the mantel of Christian celebration.
Today many people still observe these traditions, even though their origins have been forgotten.
Traces can be found in the continuing devotion to the flames of candles, great Yule logs that once burnt in hearth and hall are remembered by a (much smaller) chocolate covered treat (often decorated with holly). We mirror the past by feasting and with the choice of foods we enjoy, decorating our homes and giving each other presents.
Melchior (who brought the gift of gold), Odin and St Nicholas (see last week's post) have merged to become the bluff and jolly Father Christmas/Santa Claus. Even our Christmas trees carry a distant echo of Yggdrasil, the great World Tree of ancient Norsemen.
My own decorations always tend to veer towards the traditional. I love the rich colours of red, dark green and gold. (A bit like my favourite lunch of salad leaves, cherry tomatoes and cheese!) My tree is packed with memories. Most of my decorations originally belonged to my mother and date from the 1950's.
The significance of placing Christmas in the heart of the Northern winter ensures our festivities remain intertwined with the great natural crisis that has its apex on the shortest day of the year. It keeps mankind wedded to the natural rhythm of the seasons. To our ancestors placing the nativity at the darkest time of year seemed natural, linking past with present, the old with the new.
But most of all placing the Holy Birth in the heart of winter carries within itself a profound covenant - the attributes of Christmas are those of light and dark. It is a time for joy and worship, celebration and goodwill. In the Child born at Bethlehem there is the promise of Spring in the heart of midwinter, the divine gift of a bright, cleansing flame to drive away the fear of death. The power of light and love over darkness - and the promise to all who believe of life eternal.
'Fear not,' the angel said.
'For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,
Which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David,
a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you.
Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes,
lying in a manger.'