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.

Ante Diem VIII Kalendas January

Modern Date : December 25th

Ante Diem VIII Kalendas January
Eighth Day to the Kalends of January

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

Dies Natalis Solis Invictus (Birth of the Invincible Sun)
After Caesar's reform, this day became the traditional Dies Natalis Solis Invictus, The Day of the Birth of the Invincible Sun, instead of the more precise solstice of 21-22.

The early Christian leaders moved Christmas here from January 6th, the assumed date of Jesus' birth. Although the name of this holiday has been altered, it continues to be a festival of joy, peace, feasting, and goodwill to men. Helios was the god honored this day.

The illiterate barbarian king Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans this day in 800 by the Pope, who had the right to do so by default. He was, in name, the first emperor of the Western Roman empire since 460 AD. His lands split three ways, amongst his sons, when he died but the title passed to the kingship of what are now Germany and Austria. The title actually passed in direct succession right up to Kaiser (Caesar) Wilhelm in WWI, who was the last man on earth who could claim the title Emperor of the Romans.

In ancient Persia, this day was celebrated as Atargatis, while Mesopotamians celebrated it as the Day of Astarte, the mother goddess.

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.

In the Northern hemisphere, the most important festival day of the year, marking the birth of the Solar Child, the Savior, Renewer of the Light. This day has been celebrated in the Northern world for more than 6,000 years as the birth or feast day of many solar deities, resurrected kings and queens, and saviors. When the mythic cycles of Sumeria, Egypt, India and China were forming and on their way to being vivid and complex, Dec. 25 was the accepted date of the winter solstice, before the ancient star priests were able to reckon it precisely on Dec. 21.

The birth of many dying solar savior-gods (Osiris, the Syrian Baal, Attis, Helios, Apollo, Dionysus, Balder, Frey) was celebrated on this day. According to Roman tradition this was Dies Natalis Solis Invictus, "the day of the birth of the undefeated sun," a Mithraic cult. A festival was held in honor of the birth of the son of the Babylonian queen of heaven. In Semitic lands she was a form of Astarte. This is also the feast of Frau Holle, a Germanic weather goddess.

In the Egyptian calendar, Dec. 25 is the shared father-and-son birthday of Osiris, Neter of male creativity and vegetation; and Horus, son of Isis and Osiris, the falcon-headed solar hero who is destined to battle Set, Neter of destruction and chaos, for the survival of life on Earth. Horus is solar energy in active physical manifestation. Thus the living Pharaoh is considered the human embodiment of Horus. The birthdays of Osiris and Horus fall on day 10 in the Month of Mechir.

Dec. 25 is the birthday of the Persian solar deity Mithras, whose ritual slaying of the Bull enacts the ascendancy of spirit over matter, and also the end of the Age of Taurus. Mithras' day first entered the Roman Calendar as the holiday sacred to Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. This is lso the birthday of the ancient Babylonian god Baal.

In the ancient Greek calendar, this day is celebrated as a birthday or major festival day of Apollo/Helios, who merges into the single figure of Apollo, god of the Sun, patron of intellect, rationality, the ideal beauty of classical form, and the mystery of prophecy. On the same day, curiously, some of Apollo's opposite numbers are born and honored too: Dionysus and the Phrygian Attis, both associated with ecstatic revelry and passion, blood and wine. The incomparably beautiful and doomed Adonis, lover of Aphrodite, is reborn on this day each year and dies a few months later on what some other calendars usually call Easter.

In the Norse tradition, this is the birthday of Baldur, yet another beautiful young god who dies in the bloom of youth and returns to life on the first day of winter. His feast is associated with wreaths of greenery and holly. At his death each year his blood is said to fall on the white young holly berries, staining them bright red. These colors also symbolize Baldur as the joining of spiritual love (white) with erotic love (red).

Isra Miraj Nabi Muhammed
In the Islamic calendar of Indonesia, this day is Isra Miraj Nabi Muhammed, commemorating the prophet Mohammed's ascension.

In Christian calendars, this is Christmas, birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, considered by his devotees to be the Promised One, the Messiah, whom Christians revere as the fully realized embodiment of divinity, the Christ. In the words of Isaiah: " . . . unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. And the government shall be upon his shoulders, and his name shall be called wonderful, counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the prince of peace."

The metaphor of the birth of the sun worked equally well for Christians celebrating the birth of the Son of God, who brings Light to the world. Biblical scholars speculate that Christ was actually born in the fall after the harvest or in the spring after the birth of the new animals, both the most likely times for taxation. The British scientist Colin Humphreys believes Christ was born between April 13 and April 27, the week of Passover in 5 BCE, when a great comet appeared.

The birth of Christ was celebrated in the early church on January 6th (on the same date, Kore gave birth to the year god Aeon). However, in the 4th century, it was moved to December 25th. Biblical scholar Brent Walters says that the Pope authorized the change at the request of Cyril of Jerusalem who was concerned about the pilgrims who flocked to Jerusalem to celebrate Christ’s birth, then turned around and headed to Bethlehem to attend special ceremonies there on the same day. By moving the date of Christ's birth forward to December 25th, they had more time to make the trip to Bethlehem by January 6th. Of course, not everyone was pleased by this change. The Christians of ”dessa accused the church in Rome of idolatry and “sun worship."

Christmas/Yule Traditions
Many of the ceremonies of the Saturnalia continue in our modern Yuletide celebrations. Temples were decorated with greenery. Holly was used by the early Roman Christians to decorate churches and dwellings at this time, but the tradition was derived from earlier practices. Pagan Romans would send their friends holly-sprigs with wishes for their health and well being. The evergreens for Yuletide decorations were holly, ivy, mistletoe, bay, rosemary, and green branches of the box tree. One of the oldest Yule traditions comes from its origins in Saturnalia. During that time, it was customary for all creatures to be equal. Charitable acts were not the exception, but the rule. Master and servant were on equal terms and people even acted with charity toward the lesser animals. Extra food was given to livestock and pets, and food was laid out for the birds or other wild creatures.

Yule has many names in many lands. To the Druids and Celtic tribes, it was Nodlaig, An Nodlaig, La Nodlag, or Nodlaig Day. Yule. Jul or Jol is a Gothic word signifying a sumptuous treat, and the month of January was called Giuli (the Festival) by the Saxons. The festival of the Sun at the winter solstice ushered in the New Year’s sun. To the Saxons, it was Gehul, 'the Sun-feast', for the Danes, Juul, the Swedes called it Oel, in Breton, it was Heol (the sun), and for the Welsh it was Hal. The word Yule is derived from an old Norse word Iul, meaning a wheel, and the symbol of a wheel is still used to mark Yuletide.

The ash is the wood of the world-tree, Yggdrasil, with its roots knotted in Hell and its boughs supporting Heaven. Beneath Yggdrasil sit the Norns or Nornir, Urth (past), Verdandi (present), and Skuld (future). Like the Greek and Roman Fates, they sit spinning the events of human life. Nearby is the spring of Urd from which the Norns draw water and clay every day. They sprinkle this on Yggdrasil to keep its branches from wither and decay.

The Yule log was chosen of green ash wood and cut before Yule. In Devon, a bundle of ash sticks were bound together with nine ash-bands. The us of nine, or thrice three, ash-bands may be an indirect reference to the Norns. Amidst much rejoicing, it was carried in on Yule Day or on Yule Eve. Sometimes it was sprinkled with corn or dragged in with a girl seated upon it. A new fire was made, and the log was kindled with the last fragments of the previous log, kept throughout the year for this purpose.

The mistletoe sprig has a long history of use, perhaps older than the Yuletime tree. The traditional Kissing Bough or the Kissing Bunch was hung from the ceiling with a ring of candles above and a ring of bright red apples below, perhaps hinting at fulfillment in the hour of promise. It was also said to represent the sun and the earth. On Yule Eve, the candles were lit in ceremony, and it became the center of the festival. It was lit again on Yule Day, and every evening thereafter till the Twelve Days were done. It hung from the middle of the ceiling, just high enough from the ground for a couple to stand or stoop and kiss beneath it.

Welsh churches held a carol service called Plygain between 3 am and 6 am on Christmas morning. The name is derived from the Latin pulli cantio (“cock crow”). The churches were decorated with candles. After a brief session of prayers, people spent the remainder of the time singing plygain carols. It seems possible this was originally a ritual designed to comfort people during the darkest hours before the sun was born, or to help welcome the newly-emerging sun.

Christmas/Yule dinner
Christmas dinner is one of those grand seasonal feasts for which each culture has its own set of traditional dishes. In France, the big meal, called the revillon (meaning the beginning of a new watch) is served immediately after Midnight Mass. It often begins with oysters and champagne. Roast turkey with chestnuts is the usual dish but in former times, each region had its own specialty: a daube (beef in red wine) in Armagnac, sauerkraut and goose liver in Alsace, aligot in Auvergne, black pudding (blood sausage) in Nivernais and goose in southwestern France. In the southeast, a large meal was eaten before Mass consisting of cauliflower and salt cod with raito (or perhaps snails), grey mullet with olives, or omelette with artichokes and fresh pasta.

The Poles eat foods containing poppy seeds. The English serve plum pudding. Romans eat eels. In Bologna, it's tortellini stuffed with minced group pork, turkey, sausage, cheese and nutmeg, followed by desserts of nocciata (walnuts and honey, cut into triangles), cassata flavored with Ricotta cheese and chocolate, and torrone, made with almonds.

The Germans used to serve blue carp, a fish that had been specially fattened for Christmas from August onwards, turned blue by pouring hot vinegar over it before cooking and served with sour cream, horseradish and apples. Now the main dish is more likely to be goose, turkey, venison, wild boar or a roast. However, apples, walnuts and almonds are always served.

The Swedes for centuries have feasted on marinated ling, served in a white sauce with butter, potatoes, mustard and black pepper. The Danes like roast goose or duck stuffed with apples and prunes and garnished with red cabbage, caramelized potatoes and cranberry sauce. Dessert consists of rice porridge or rice with almonds and cherry compote. The Norwegians serve roast pork chops and sauerkraut (flavored with cumin). The Finns cook a ham in a rye-flour pastry case. In all the Scandinavian countries, Christmas is the occasion for a sumptuous smorgasbord.

Most countries also have a traditional Christmas cake. In France, it's buche de noel, a cake of dough rolled up and frosted with buttercream to look like a log. In England it's a fruitcake, sometimes soaked in alcohol, and then spread with apricot jam, almond paste and frosting. In Germany, it's stollen which contains crystallized fruit. In Alsace, it's bireweck (a cake which includes nuts and dried and candied fruit) served with compotes and gingerbread, traditionally eaten before Midnight Mass. In Brittany, it's a star-shaped fouace.

In France, the dinner concludes with the traditional Thirteen Desserts. Each one must be tasted to bring good luck in the coming year. According to Larousse Gastronomique, the number thirteen commemorates the thirteen participants at the Last Supper (this seems a bit far-fetched and out-of-season as well). The desserts are: pompe a l'huile (a fruit pastry), raisins, quince paste, marzipan sweets, nougat, fougasse (a rich cake), crystallized (candied) citrons, walnuts and hazelnuts, winter pears, Brignoles plums, dried figs, almonds and dates.