2011-12-29 / Commentary

Light in a season of darkness


Your very interesting Dec. 23 commentary “The People’s Tree” by Leon Neyfakh caused me to reflect upon what some call Christmas and others refer to as the holidays or the holiday season, Winter Solstice or the Solstice.

Each year, there are outraged letters to the editor at the use of any other terms than Christmas or greetings other than “Merry Christmas.” Most recently, Dave Ricker of Wiscasset wrote: “The fact is that Christmas is the only holiday celebrated the world over, and over a greater period of time than any other ...”

As Beyfakh’s commentary states: “The overwhelmingly public nature of Christmas in America (today) can now leave those who are not Christian feeling excluded rather than included. Whether or not Christmas has transcended its religious roots, and should be treated more like a civic holiday than a religious one, is a debate worth having.”

Although I was raised a Roman Catholic, I no longer attend church. I try to have an ecumenical attitude when it comes to decorating for the holidays.

Because I have Jewish, Muslim, Chinese, Japanese and Somali friends — and because I want all of them to feel comfortable and welcome in my home — I don’t have a Christmas tree or Santas galore. I use red (poinsettias) and evergreens; snowflakes and snowmen; felt stockings; nutcrackers and gingerbread; lights and sparkly things to give a festive feel to my home.

I see Christmas as one of many festivals of light celebrated by major religions throughout the world for thousands of years. These festivals of light occur when nights are longest and days shortest, the time of winter solstice. Although the weather in the Middle East, Asia, and the southern hemisphere is perhaps not as cold as that in Europe and North America, the solstice always means long nights and short days — a lack of light.

The Christian Christmas features lights and candles, as does Jewish Hanukkah; African Kwanzaa; Muslim Eid-ul-Fitr; Buddhist Bodhi Day (Dec. 8), the day when the Buddha attained enlightenment (appropriately celebrated with displays of lights).

Hindu Diwali or Dewali, celebrated with lights and firecrackers is yet another major festival of lights. Persian Sadeh, the mid-winter Zoroastrian festival, is celebrated with bonfires, and Iranian Shab-e Yalda, is the eve of the birth of Mithra, the sun god. The Mithraic religion was widespread among the Romans, especially the Roman legions, who brought it with them wherever they went across the Roman Empire.

A distinction needs to be made between Christian customs and symbols, and those adapted from other religions and celebrations. During the third century, the Roman Emperor Aurelian proclaimed Dec. 25 as a special day dedicated to the sun- god, Mithras, also called the unconquered Sun. His birthday had long been celebrated on the date of the winter solstice, then Dec. 25, according to the Julian calendar then in use.

The cult of Mithras was very strong in Rome at that time. The Romans had long equated the gods of peoples conquered by them with Roman gods or goddesses, always a common practice among religions. The Roman Catholic church, in an attempt to make the Romans comfortable with the then-new Christian religion, later adopted this day as the birthday of Christ.

Many of the celebrations listed in the last paragraph are very ancient, some even more ancient than Christmas. Because some cultures, such as the Semitic and Muslim ones, use a lunar, rather than solar, calendar, their feasts move each year in relation to ours, but occur sometime in November and December.

Picture Paleolithic man, huddled in caves. The cold and shortening days, as well as the lack of light and warmth in European winters, were associated with death by primitive man. Terrified that the sun would not return, he attempted to influence the return of it and its warmth through what Sir James George Fraser, in his work, “ The Golden Bough,” called imitative or sympathetic magic. It was used by early man to try to control the very uncertain universe around him through the mimicking of a desired event, for instance, by surrounding himself with plants that remained green even in winter.

Evergreens have long been used as emblems of human hope for the rebirth of light at the time of the winter solstice. This symbolism predates Christianity by quite a bit.

During their winter Saturnalia festival, early Romans decorated with pine, cypress, and holly. Pre- Christian northern European tribes hung fir trees with lights and decorations, and the Teutonic peoples continued this practice into more recent times.

Red berries are used to symbolize the red blood of life, and bonfires are lit even today in European countries to “drive the cold winter away” and remind the sun to return and shine on the Earth with the longer days of summer.

The images of prey and hunting parties on Paleolithic cave walls, such as Lascaux (17,300 years old) and Chauvet (more than 30,000 years old) are thought by some to be attempts to secure good hunting through use of imitative magic. A Neanderthal burial contained the mineral red ocher sprinkled over the remains, perhaps in an attempt to ensure eternal life for the deceased.

The ocher exists, found in the grave by the archaeologists at the site; however, who today can read a Neanderthal’s mind based on archaeological evidence — this is supposition on my part.

Saying “ Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” also brings anguished cries. However, in the spirit of good will and generosity, which is, surely, one of the foundation blocks of the Christian ethos, shouldn’t we consider those of non-Christian faiths who also have holidays at this time?

In a dark season, light and a festive feeling are enough for me, particularly because I suffer from major depression, and winter is a struggle for me.

If, as Leon Neyfahk posits, Christmas should, perhaps, be treated more like a civic holiday than a religious one. I would like to bring to the table a proposal for a festival of lights; evergreens and green, growing things; and reds to inject color into a white (sometimes) world.

I say to all, wholeheartedly: Peace, joy, and light to you and yours.

DIANNE GUTSCHER lives in Brunswick.

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