Fort McCoy News Nov. 27, 2015

Chaplain: Remember true meaning of Christmas

Garrison Chaplain, Fort McCoy

The Garrison Chaplain assistant noncommissioned officer in charge asked me not too long ago about the meaning of Christmas. Here is my answer. Everywhere one looks this time of the year, one finds that people are in a festive mood.

Many people travel long distances to be part of this festivity with their Families. It is a time for some of us to catch up with how our long-lost relations are faring. It also is a time to make new friends and acquaintances.


But for many others, it is a time to spend hard-earned cash on frivolities. The one thing that has constantly been a surprise to me is the condition that many find themselves after this season. Is this the reason for the season?

I was in my office the other day, and in walked a very fine couple. I stood up, shook their hands, and asked after their Family and how they were doing. The answer was "fine, it is OK." I was later taken aback by the catalog of marital woes that followed their initial facade of joy.

The mainstay of their problem was financial. The root cause of most Family feuds during this time of the year is the question of spending. The most baffling thing is that most Families I deal with do not even know the true reality and the reason for this season and, of course, where their Families fit into this entire spending hullabaloo.

The man of the house is a born-again Pentecostal Christian, and the woman a practicing Catholic. "Sir, I hate all this spending on people who do not care about us," she lamented.

In the many years I have practiced marriage and Family counseling, this was unusual for me because it is always the woman who is on the spending spree and the man is the one who hates all this waste.

It took me almost two hours to explain to this couple what the reality of Christmas should mean. I agreed with one of my earlier clients, who dislikes what Christmas has come to mean to so many people, that the history of Christmas dates back more than 4,000 years.

Many of the present "Christmas" traditions were celebrated centuries before the Christ child was born. The 12 days of Christmas, the bright fires, the yule log, the giving of gifts, carnivals (parades) with floats, carolers who sing while going from house to house, the holiday feasts, and the church processions can all be traced back to the early Mesopotamians.

Many of these traditions began with the Mesopotamian celebration of the new year. The Mesopotamians believed in many gods, and their chief god was Marduk. Each year as winter arrived, it was believed that Marduk would do battle with the monsters of chaos (the same thing we face today in many cities).

To assist Marduk in his struggle, the Mesopotamians held a festival for the new year. This was Zagmuk, the new year's festival that lasted for 12 days. The Mesopotamian king would return to the temple of Marduk and swear his faithfulness to the god. The traditions called for the king to die at the end of the year and to return with Marduk to battle at his side.

To spare their king, the Mesopotamians used the idea of a "mock" king. A criminal was chosen and dressed in royal clothes. He was given all the respect and privileges of a real king. At the end of the celebration, the "mock" king was stripped of the royal clothes and slain, sparing the life of the real king.

The Persians and the Babylonians celebrated a similar festival called the Sacaea. Part of that celebration included the exchanging of places: The slaves would become the masters, and the masters were to obey.

Many early Europeans believed in evil spirits, witches, ghosts, and trolls. As the winter solstice approached, with its long, cold nights and short days, many people feared the sun would not return. Special rituals and celebrations were held to welcome back the sun.

In Germany, people honored the pagan god Oden during the midwinter holiday. Germans were terrified of Oden, as they believed he made nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people and decide who would prosper or perish. It was because of his presence that many people chose to stay inside.

In Scandinavia, during the winter months, the sun would disappear for many days. After 35 days, scouts would be sent to the mountain tops to look for the return of the sun. When the first light was seen, the scouts would return with the good news.

A great festival would be held, called the Yuletide, and a special feast would be served around a fire burning with the Yule log. Great bonfires would also be lit to celebrate the return of the sun. In some areas, people would tie apples to branches of trees to remind themselves that spring and summer would return.

The ancient Greeks held a festival similar to that of the Zagmuk/Sacaea festivals to assist their god Kronos, who would battle the god Zeus and his Titans.

The Romans celebrated their god Saturn. Their festival was called Saturnalia, which began in the middle of December and ended Jan. 1. With cries of "Jo Saturnalia!" the celebration would include masquerades in the streets; big, festive meals; visiting friends; and the exchange of good-luck gifts called strenae (lucky fruits).

Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful, and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun.

Each year, a beggar or student would be crowned the "lord of misrule," and eager celebrants played the part of his subjects. The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If owners failed to comply, their visitors would most likely terrorize them with mischief.

The Romans decked their halls with garlands of laurel and green trees lit with candles. "Jo Saturnalia!" was a fun and festive time for the Romans, but the Christians thought it an abomination to honor the pagan god. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes could repay their real or imagined "debt" to society by entertaining less-fortunate citizens.

The early Christians wanted to keep the birthday of their Christ child a solemn and religious holiday, not one of cheer and merriment as was the pagan Saturnalia. As Christianity spread, they were alarmed by the continuing celebration of pagan customs and Saturnalia among their converts. (How like the syncretism [Santeria] some practice today in most cultures in this country.)

At first the Church forbade this kind of celebration. It was to no avail. It was decided that the celebration would be tamed and made into a celebration fit for the Christian Son of God.

Some legends claim that the Christian "Christmas" celebration was invented to compete against the pagan celebrations of December. The 25th not only was sacred to the Romans but also the Persians, whose religion Mithraism was one of Christianity's main rivals at that time. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on Dec. 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra's birthday was the most-sacred day of the year.

The Church eventually was successful in taking the merriment, lights, and gifts from the Saturnalia festival and bringing them to the celebration of Christmas. The exact day of the Christ child's birth has never been pinpointed. Traditions say that it has been celebrated since the year 98 A.D. In 137 A.D., the bishop of Rome ordered the birthday of the Christ Child celebrated as a solemn feast. In 350 A.D., another bishop of Rome, Julius I, choose Dec. 25 as the observance of Christmas.

By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter-solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced but gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced pagan religion. On Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to that of today.

Is it not this unwarranted spending and carnival-like atmosphere that has put many Families in a financial bind? Is this the reason for the season? Or are we reverting back to the practices in pre-Christian times?