Sunday, December 25, 2005

Ante Diem VII Kalendas January

Modern Date : December 26th

Ante Diem VII Kalendas January
Seventh Day to the Kalends of January

This is one of the dies comitiales when committees of citizens could vote on political or criminal matters.

This is the first of the twelve days of Yule.

Decima, the middle Fate in charge of the present, presides over December, but the month may have received its name as the tenth month of the Roman calendar. Vesta, patroness of fire also laid claim to the month of December.

The Jewish festival of light, Hanukkah, begins on the 25th of Kislev, three days before the new moon closest to the Winter Solstice. This means it spans the darkest time of the year both in the lunar cycle and the solar cycle.

Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees against the Hellenistic overseers of the Land of Israel who outlawed Jewish religious practices (and punished them with death) while reinstating pagan rituals. In 166 BCE, the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem. They chose the 26th of Kislev as the day to purify and rededicate the temple which had been desecrated three years earlier. The explanation for the emphasis on lighting candles is explained by recounting the miracle of the oil, how one jar of oil kept the lamps lit for the eight days of the festival. But as Arthur Waskow points out in "Seasons of Our Joy: A Modern Guide to the Jewish Holidays", the Greeks were probably celebrating a Winter Solstice ritual on that day and by claiming the same day for their festival the Maccabees:

“were rededicating not only the Temple but the day itself to Jewish holiness; were capturing a pagan solstice festival that had won wide support among partially Hellnized Jews, in order to make it a day of God's victory over paganism. Even the lighting of candles for Hanukkah fits the context of the surrounding torchlight honors for the sun.” [p. 92]

The main practice of Hanukkah is the lighting of the candles in the menorah, one each night until on the eighth night all eight candles are lit. The traditional menorah has eight lights in a row with none higher than the other. Since the lights are not to be used for any practical purpose, it became customary to add a ninth candle, a shammas or shammash, which is often set above the others and used to light them. The candles are lit as soon as possible after the stars come out each evening and are left to burn for a half an hour.

On the first night, one candle is put into the menorah, on the far right, and the shammas is lit. Then three blessings are said before the shammas is used to light the candle. The blessings acknowledge the Lord God, who commands us to light candles for Hanukkah, who worked miracles for our ancestors in this season, who has given us life, lifted us up and brought us to this season. Unlike other Jewish traditions, women are also obligated to light Hanukkah candles. In some households, there is a separate menorah for each family member. The menorah should be placed in an outside window so it can be seen from outside, although if this is dangerous, it can be placed on a table in the room.

After the candles are lit, several songs are sung, including this one:

"We kindle these lights on account of the miracles, the wonders, the liberations, and the battles that You carried out for our forbears in these days at this time of year, through the hands of Your holy priests. For all eight days of Hanukkah these lights are holy. We are not allowed to use them; they are only to look at, in order to thank and praise your great Name on account of Your miracles, Your wonders, and Your liberations." [p. 95]

Both men and women are forbidden to work during the time it takes the candles to burn each night. In some Sephardic communities, women do not work at all on the first and eighth days of Hanukkah, and in some places, they don't work on any of the eight days. Just as the Sabbath is the day for rest provided during the week, so are the eight days of Hanukkah a mandatory resting time at this pivotal point in the year.

Hanukkah foods tend to be foods that are cooked in oil, like potato latkes and doughnuts, thus connecting the holiday feast with the historical legend.

The festival of Kwanzaa, celebrated by African Americans and other descendants of the African peoples, and also widely respected by environmentally conscious people for its emphasis on communal values that support sustainable, Earth-friendly economies: teamwork, responsible stewardship, unity of faith and purpose, and the honoring of creativity and beauty.

This new winter festival was created in 1966 by Dr Maulana Karenga to give African Americans a focus during the holiday season. He synthesized various African harvest rituals to create new customs for this holiday; the name Kwanzaa means the first or the first fruits of the harvest in Swahili.

One of the main Kwanzaa practices, which aligns it with the other festivals of light like Hanukkah and Christmas at this time period, is the lighting of the seven candles of the Kinara (kee-NAH-rah), a candelabra with 7 candles, three red, one black and three green. Each candles symbolizes seven qualities of African culture to be emulated: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility); Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imana (faith).

Boxing Day
In 19th century England, employers gave gifts to their servants on Boxing Day. Tradesmen, servants and children went "boxing," going from house to house, soliciting Christmas tips from householders, which they deposited in slitted earthernware Christmas boxes. This poem, quoted by Kightly(The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore), seems to reflect this custom:

When Boxing Day comes round again
O then I shall have money
I'll hoard it up and Box and all
I'll give it to my honey.

Boxing Day continues to be celebrated in England and Scandanavia and is a legal holiday.

Feast of Fools and Seasonal Theater
The Medieval Feast of Fools ran from today until the 28th. Wren hunting was once practiced on this day. And though it hardly provides a mouthful to a cat, it was protected at all other times during the year.

This is the traditional time in Italy of Columbine and Pantomime. Performances were enacted in mime by traveling companies. There represented ancient symbolic figures. Columbine was traditionally dressed in white with black pompoms and is believed to have symbolized the moon. Columbine or Columbina was the sweetheart of Harlequin, and, like him, supposed to be invisible to mortal eyes. Columbina is a pet-name for a lady-love in Italian, meaning “little dove.”

Christmas plays were common at this time following in an ancient tradition handed down from the Greeks and Romans. In Greco-Roman times, Andromeda, Ariadne, Ceres, and the Nymphs were honored with plays. Orpheus was shown with the beasts. Perseus and Andromeda were depicted. Ceres was drawn by dragons, and Bacchus and Ariadne by panthers, and finally the education of Achilles was enacted. A ballet of the famous lovers of ancient times was performed, followed by a troop of Nymphs. During the Christian era, plays about the Greek and Roman gods gave way to morality plays adapted from the Bible.

The Twelve Days of Christmas/Yule
In Babylon, the 12 intercalary days between the Winter Solstice and the New Year were seen as the time of a struggle between chaos and order, with chaos trying to take back over the world. Other cultures (Hindu, Chinese, Celtic) also viewed this as a time for reversing order and rules.

The Romans celebrated Saturnalia from December 17 through December 24, an eight-day festival when social roles were reversed. No one was allowed to work but expected to gamble and feast instead. Hanukkah is another eight-day feast celebrated at this same time period. No one is supposed to work during the half hour each evening when the Hanukkah candles are lit, but in some traditions, women are not allowed to work at all during the eight days of Hanukkah. Playful gambling (with the dreidl) is also a part of Hanukkah traditions. And in Mexico, the Posadas, the processions re enacting the search of Joseph and Mary for shelter, take place during the eight days before Christmas.

The Twelve Days of Christmas end on January 6th with Twelfth Night. Supposedly each of the twelve days predicts what the weather will be like for the corresponding month of the year (that is, the first day foreshadows the weather in January, etc.). In Wales, they were considered ‘omen’ days. In Scotland, no court had power during the twelve days. The Irish believed that anyone who died during these days escaped purgatory and went straight to Heaven.

In medieval England, all work was suspended during the Christmas holidays. Women could begin spinning again on January 7th, the day after Twelfth Night, which was called St Distaff’s Day. According to Germanic tradition, the goddess Holle, dressed all in white, rides the wind in a wagon on the Twelve Days of Christmas. During this time, no wheels can turn: no spinning, no milling, no wagons (sleighs were used instead). Holle punished women who disobeyed the taboo. Women were also forbidden to work on the days of certain female saints whose holidays fall during the winter. Lacemakers and spinners take a holiday on Nov 25, St Catherine’s Day. And any woman who works on St Lucy’s Day (Dec 13) will find her work undone the next day. Helen Farias suggests that the 12 days were originally 13 nights, celebrated from the dark moon nearest the solstice through the next full moon (Jan 1, New Year's Day). Greek women celebrated a Dionysian ritual on the full moon nearest the Winter Solstice.

The Greeks told a story about the Halcyon Days, the two week period before and after the solstice when the kingfisher built her nest on the waves and the sea was calm while she hatched her chicks.

It seems clear that this is a magical period, a time out of time, whatever dates you choose. It is a special time, existing outside of the usual rules, when work is forbidden and all routines should be turned upside down. If you compare the cycle of the year to other cycles, as Demetra George does in Mysteries of the Dark Moon, this time is equivalent to the dark moon in the lunar cycle, the time of bleeding in the menstrual cycle, the hours before dawn in the daily cycle and, in our life cycles, the period after death and before birth. It is the time right before your birthday in your personal year cycle, often a time to reassess what you've accomplished. All of these are powerful moments when new possibilities are seeded.

Hunting the Wren
The old English custom of hunting the wren on this day may be the remnant of an ancient midwinter sacrifice. The official explanation given is that wrens are hunted on St Stephen's Day because their chattering in the bushes gave away the saint's hiding place, leading to his martyrdom. The usually sacred and protected bird was ceremonially hunted and its decorated corpse carried about to bring luck.

The Wren, the Wren, the King of all Birds
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze
Although he be little, his honor is great
Therefore, good people, give us a treat.

The custom still survives in Ireland and the Isle of Man where the bird's corpse is replaced by a potato stuck with feathers. It's not clear if the children even bothered to create a mock Wren in Deborah Tall's(Island of the White Cow) description of how the holiday was celebrated on an island in Ireland in the 1970s:

"St. Stephen's Day, the children went pagan and mad, roaming the island in gangs, bursting in doors, unannounced, masked, painted, bedraggled, piping, dancing, and singing at the top of their lungs in their ritual "hunting of the wren." Cookies and pennies buy off their shrieks, the players curtsy and bow, then streak out through the rain to their next stage, indefatigable."

St. Stephen
In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian calendars of Greece and Russia, birthday of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

Blessed be St Stephen
There's no fast at his Even

An first Christian martyr, one of the early disciples, he became the patron of stonemasons because he was stoned to death. Possibly because of the date of his feast day, he took on the attributes of Frey and Freya in Scandinavia. Early Scandinavian Christmas legends, make him the groom who carries the boar's head to the feast of Herod and is stoned to death for announcing the birth of Christ. Frey is associated with horses and Freya's animal is the boar.

In Scandinavia, this day was devoted to horses. Horses were raced and the one who reached the well first got the lucky first drink. This was also a traditional day for blood-letting in horses, perhaps a masculine appropriation of the feminine mysteries.

In the Zoroastrian calendar, this day marks the death of the saint and teacher Zarathusthra, or Zoroaster, in 551 BC, celebrated in rites that observe the universal myth pattern of the Double Holy Seven--in this case seven male and seven female emanations of the deity, whose efficacy in purifying the earth from evil is praised in sacred fire rites. Other examples of the Double Holy Seven: the fourteen body parts of Osiris, the fourteen Stations of the Cross in Roman Catholic ritual, and, in symbols common to Egyptian mystery schools and the biblical Book of Revelations, the cycle of the Dove descending into the crown of the head and down through the seven chakras, then reascending the chakra column as the Eagle.


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