Dies Natalis Invicti Solis

A few thoughts about Christmas dedicated to my closest friends. If you are not among them, it doesn't make sense to read the rest.

Recently I've been wondering what the origin and meaning of Christmas is. I already knew that the nativity of Christ isn't the reason, that wasn't a problem.

According to many sources, there was a time, long before the invention of Christian religion, when, what we know as Christmas was a pagan festivity.

The Romans

Beginning on December 17, Romans honored Saturn, the God of Agriculture, in a festival called Saturnalia. This festival lasted for seven days and included the winter solstice which occurred around December 25 (Julian calendar). During Saturnalia the Romans feasted, postponed all business and warfare, exchanged gifts, and temporarily freed their slaves.

Romans also celebrated the winter solstice by participating in rituals to glorify Mithra, the ancient Persian god of light. These and other winter festivities continued through January 1, the festival of Kalends, when Romans marked the day of the new moon and the first day of the month and year. This whole season was called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Undefeated Sun.

It is in ancient Rome that the tradition of the Mummers was born. The Mummers were groups of costumed singers and dancers who traveled from house to house entertaining their neighbors. Much like the Christmas tradition of caroling.

The Barbarians

In northern Europe, many other traditions that we now consider part of Christian worship were begun long before the participants had ever heard of Christ. Those pagans celebrated their own winter solstice, known as Yule. Yule was symbolic of the pagan Sun God, Mithras.

Huge Yule logs were burned in honor of the sun. The word Yule itself means "wheel"; the wheel being a pagan symbol for the sun. Mistletoe was considered a sacred plant. Hollyberries were thought to be a food of the gods.

The Christians

Later on (probably around 330 AD) Christians adopted the festivity, renamed it "Christmas" and made the December 25 the day of the birth of Christ, an embarrassing detail Christians couldn't figure out and Christ himself forgot to tell before being crucified.

Why December 25? Probably because it was very popular since ever and the best way to become popular is to make people happy or endorse the greatest event in town once a year. Or possibly because this annoying cheerful event was too pagan to be left like that. A new morale and new symbols had to be introduced.

The Church didn't get along with certain aspects of the pagan Christmas, and absorbed, giving different meanings, some others. Thus the worshiping of certain pagan symbols was outlawed. As such, during the medieval age some kid had been slaughtered in the name of God, being guilty of decorating a tree on the 25 December.

The Church of today lost most of its power and now Christmas is opening again to a broader public. Certain traditional expressions of this celebration still survive intact: the giving of presents was a Roman custom and the Yule-tree (modern "Christmas tree") and the Yule-log are remnants of old Teutonic nature worship.

The New Pagans

In the modern times, Christmas has eventually become again a pagan celebration that unites people around the world regardless the color of the skin, creed, and geographical location. Beside few disturbing Christian details, all the festivity is characterized by the same activities the ancient Romans and northern Europeans used to indulge on: the exchange of gifts, the decoration of a tree, the abundance of food and drinks, the suspension of all business and warfare, the temporary release of slaves (bank holidays seen from the perspective of an office clerk).

Most of us hardly know why we are celebrating the greatest holiday in the year and, of the many symbols this tradition carries along, only few make sense and even fewer we can agree on. Christmas in Germany is different from Christmas in Italy, or in UK. Different symbolism, sometimes different days or different ways to celebrate it.

We certainly seem to agree on the exchange of gifts. We know Christmas as the year's principal shopping season. Some merchants estimate that sales at Christmas generate between half and three fourths of their annual profits. The exchange of gifts, while being a pagan tradition, viciously mixes with the Christian preaching about generosity, making the Christmas a shopping nightmare.

We feel guilty if we don't give, but on the other hand we give only to the few people we are likely to receive something from, so no good action is meant and the only one benefiting from all the shopping frenzy are, guess who, the greedy merchants who never fail to enjoy a Christmas.

My Christmas

Why all this interest in Christmas?

Mainly for curiosity, and partially because I found that, after a certain age, this annual event in our western world tends to become a sort of annoyance. I began to ask myself if there is a reason in perpetuating this tradition, year after year.

Well, there might be a reason for this, but, in my opinion, got lost on the way to us through the centuries. We don't celebrate any more the winter solstice (as we all live in comfy houses with heating), neither Mother Nature (actually we fight her as best as we can). We lost most of its symbols and even the late-comer, the nativity of Christ, beside in Church-ruled countries like Italy and Spain, is not really the main reason to celebrate the 25 December. What is left then?

The exchange of gifts. You bet!

Some times we like the idea that the hassle to find a proper present is worth suffering to give a merry Christmas to a dear friend. Although many of us every year just feel we have to endure yet another Christmas.

The tradition of gift exchanging is so rooted in our wealthy society that it has become a sort of protocol none dares to break. Most of us give presents because don't want to fail the expectations and behave antisocial. We rush the last minute to a shop in the city center, we drop a disproportionate amount of money on the counter and buy our liberation from this oppressive task: the Christmas gift.

Therefore it's understandable that some presents end to be things we don't really appreciate to receive and, in the worst case, recycle to someone else. Which is fair enough, though not very sensitive.

If we look back at the amount of money that has been spent in things we could happily live without, we feel a bit silly (or guilty if you are Catholic). Even the most selfish of us feels a bit awkward considering that the lousy pair of socks, he received last Christmas, could be worth up to ten pints of good ale or a month of pet food for an abandoned dog. We don't need the socks, and actually we don't like them, and giving them to a charity shop would raise not even one third of their original Christmas-inflated price.

I mean, I do appreciate Christmas time, regardless of its origin and meaning. I love the Christmas mood, even if it feels like being in a Coca-Cola advertisement. The decorations are cool and the Christmas songs make you feel cosy. I like to believe that at least once a year people can be good. It feels good to look forward to Christmas in a period of the year that otherwise would be just dark, cold and gloomy. I like the idea of giving gifts that are really appreciated. The excitement depicted on the face of the person you are giving a gift, is a great reward. I like, most of all, the gastronomic excesses.

I reckon my Christmas is quite selfish, but probably not different from many others. So, all in all, what I do is to attempt a gluttonous suicide and exchange gifts listening to mellow songs.

Well, after the 35th Christmas, it's becoming a bit boring and empty, so why not try to give a new meaning to it? Why not spice it up? Why not give Christmas some importance in our lives? Why not rediscover the feel-good atmosphere of Christmas time?

Here is the deal, that will make both of us happy:

If you feel I deserve a gift this Christmas, and you really wouldn't do it just because you have to, please consider making a donation to a non profit non religious organization I would support and send me the receipt. I've enough money to buy myself what I need, but I'm too lazy to support all the good organizations I wish I could. So, use your money for a good cause rather than giving it to a greedy fat merchant.

This is not dumb preaching for generosity and love. Don't feel forced to donate if you don't really consider making me a present. Just make good use of this opportunity and, most important, make good use of your own money!

Think about it. You won't be annoyed choosing a geeky gift for me. You won't have to queue in the city traffic to get into a packed shop, because you almost certainly can donate via phone or Internet. You won't feel ripped off by paying Christmas season prices, because the membership to WWF, for instance, is the same price all year around. In case you are worried, you don't have to get involved in all that pesky activism, just pay and there will be other people dressed in gorilla costume in front of 10 Downing Street for you.

You feel good giving, I feel relieved not receiving some crap present and we will together contribute to make the world a better place. Give yourself a merry Christmas!

Mind you, I'm not trying to save you money. I'm expecting you to donate as much as you would have spent to buy me a present.

You can find a list of some non profit organization at the end of my web page.

If by any chance you are considering to buy me that lovely Apple notebook for next Christmas, well, forget about all the bullshit above and go for the bigger hard disk.

Copyright © Walter C. Pelissero, all rights reserved
Last modified: Sat Feb 20 22:52:21 CET 2010