Happy Yule

A youngster corrected me the other day when I said “Merry Christmas”. He looked at me firmly and replied, “Happy Holidays”. (Actually, this happened a year ago, but some blog postings take a while to finish.)

Most years here in the US there’s a public squirming about how to manage both the culturally inclusive nature of the US, and the peculiarly American notion of Christmas. Instead of the (to some) culturally offensive reference to Jesus Christ, variations like “Happy X-mas” and “Season’s Greetings” are introduced. Worst of all is when there’s pretense of inclusiveness by adding things like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa to the mix – but more on this later.

Certainly, mid-winter celebrations are an old notion. Celebrating Winter Solstice predates all current organized religions. The Newgrange Megalithic structure, which provides the clearest evidence, is about 5200 years old: at dawn, from around December 18th to 23rd, a narrow beam of light penetrates the roof-box and reaches the floor of the chamber. Some 25,000-30,000 people participate in the lottery each year for one of the 50 (!) tickets. Ġgantija in Turkey is even older (in fact, the world’s oldest ruins), but is not in a good enough shape to confirm alignment with mid-winter sunrise. To put this in perspective, Newgrange is more than 500 years older than the oldest pyramid.

The reason is obvious: in a society intimately dependent on the whims of nature, the steadily shortening days of sunlight is frightening, and the turning point, with the shortest day and longest night, is a time to celebrate: to say goodbye to the old, and to welcome the new. (And in the case of frigid cultures, to mark a suitable time for winter slaughter.)

Winter Solstice is easily predictable. When it occurs in the calendar depends on the calendar. The Julian calendar from 45 BC defined Winter Solstice as occurring on December 25th, a date that in the fourth century the new Christian church under Pope Julius (the first) decided should be the birth day of Jesus Christ, thus “coincidentally” replacing the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which in turn dated back to ancient celebrations of the Sun God.

The popular notions that are widespread around Christmas today are largely popularized by the US in modern times. By now most people have heard that our image of Santa Claus was invented by Coca Cola – or specifically, by the (ethnically Swedish) artist Haddon Sundblom in 1931. It was part of Coke’s business challenge to recast the soft drink away from being seasonal, an effort that began around 1922 with the slogan “Thirst Knows No Season”. St. Nick was the icon of winter, so having him drink Coke was brilliant marketing, addressing the business challenge head on. Sundblom took inspiration from Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (also known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”) and the color red from earlier renditions (and supposedly only coincidentally the same color as Coke’s logo).

The Christmas tree as we know it today came through the British royal household. Introduced in the early 19th century by George III’s Hanoverian Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen Victoria grew up with the specific tradition of presents around the tree. After her marriage with her cousin Prince Albert reinforced the tradition, the custom gained popularity in Great Britain, and notably was reproduced by Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book for their Christmas issue in 1850. Like Coke, this was no small commercial matter: Louis Godey was the first to copyright every issue of his magazine starting in 1845, and it was the most popular journal publication of it’s day (as a percentage of GDP, I estimated that the magazine in 1850 was similarly sized to the New York Times today).

By 1870, the tradition had become ingrained to the point that Congress declared it a federal holiday (together with Independence Day, New Year’s, and Thanksgiving, though at the time it only applied to federal employees in the District of Columbia, about 10% at the time).

Not coincidentally, just a few years after Queen Victoria’s marriage, in 1843 Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carol.” A best seller of it’s time, Dickens aimed to “raise the Ghost of an Idea” (his words) of re-casting old traditions of 12-day Yule celebrations, a luxury the common folk could hardly entertain (and that was a factor in the mid-seventeenth century Cromwellian Revolt that abolished the celebration of Christmas as well as the monarchy), and to instead have one day of lavish family celebration.

These secular traditions were all controversial in their time. Christianity as an organized religion resisted them, but as so often, eventually adopted an “embrace and extend” approach (e.g. nativity scenes under the evergreen). You’ll still find religious controversy to this day.

Some brief comments about the misguided inclusiveness notions of Kwanzaa and Hanukkah: Kwanzaa was deliberately invented and promulgated in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, as an amalgam of “African” traditions (real and imagined). It’s particularly bizarre since many words in the Kwanzaa tradition (including the word “Kwanzaa”) are from Swahili. Now, Swahili is more of an African-Arab creation. In fact, the word “Swahili” derives from the Arab word “coast”, and was the (Arab) reference to the people “of the coast”, e.g. Eastern Africa. Hardly a genuine old tradition.

Hanukkah (where the leading ‘H’ is the ‘het sound, a sound that doesn’t exist in English but English speakers will be familiar with the similar ‘ch’ sound in the Gaelic word ‘loch’) is not quite as artificial as Kwanzaa, but merits some comment. Tradition says that Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of the Menorah (a seven-branched candelabra) that the Maccabees found after their victory over Syrian forces in the 2nd century BCE. But the prominence of the celebration did not develop until the late 19th century in eastern Europe as a part of the Zionist movement – and the development of a heroic tradition that grew into the creation of the State of Israel. It was more a political and cultural expression of identity than a religious celebration. (*)

What strikes me about these religious aspects of the holidays is indeed the lack of inclusion. Various religions will independently assert “embrace and extend” around what appear to have been generic, communal celebrations of the season. And grouping a set of non-inclusive approaches into a sentence does not make it inclusive. All you get is a set of separate groups of people.

To be inclusive is to emphasize the underlying theme of this time of year: I’d like to suggest the term used by my Nordic ancestors, and which still lives on, somewhat obscurely, in English: Yule. Though the etymology is in some dispute, I believe (probably for sentimental reasons) the version that the word derives from the old Nordic word “Hjól” which means “wheel”. The reference is to the completion of the year – the turn of the seasons has made a full revolution. Yule itself was a Germanic pagan celebration that dates to well over 1000 years ago. I’ll gloss over the fact that Yule was probably the full moon closest to the Winter Solstice, and not the solstice per se, though this does make 2010 an auspicious year to reset traditions: there’s only been one previous time since Year One (1) when a total lunar eclipse coincided with winter solstice, and that was 1638 (the next one is 2094).

While I’m at it, I will also further suggest that we merge Christmas and New Years into a week-long celebration of life, and change our Gregorian Calendar so that all months have 30 days, the remaining 5 or 6 days (depending on the year) being “Yule” or “Yuletide”. The tree is the Yuletree. This is something all people of the world can celebrate, together (The Southern Hemisphere is reversed, of course, but 90% of humans live on the Northern Hemisphere). Regardless of religious outlook, we can all celebrate life and family.

So, to all of you: Have a very Happy Yule!

(December 2014: minor fixes and alterations, including addition of Ġgantija reference, and the footnote below.)

(Footnote (*) from 2014 with more details than you probably want to read: Something interesting about the choice of the Maccabean Revolt for Hanukkah is that it celebrates an event that predates Judaism; what constitutes “Judaism” today is rabbinic Judaism which evolved out of the Levant around the 1st century C.E. Christianity was a roughly contemporary sect of Judaism. Both have the Masoretic Texts as the central scriptures. Today’s strict division between Judaism and Christianity did not happen until well after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Historians refer to the early sect as Jewish Christians, who in the first few decades after Jesus’ crucifixion around 30 C.E. would have viewed themselves as Jewish. The details have been hotly debated over the centuries, but some versions of history would have the killing of James the Just, Jesus’ brother and leader of his church after his death, as the trigger to the Jewish revolt that eventually led to the destruction of the Second Temple. Other versions hold the reverse, that James was killed in the Roman sacking of Jerusalem. Regardless, the destruction led to a dramatic reduction in the number of surviving copies of the Masoretic Texts. Now, the events marked by Hanukkah, namely the rededication of the Second Temple, occurred in 160 B.C.E. – that’s 230 years before the destruction of Jerusalem. In contrast, the current version of the Tanakh is thought to date to around 450 C.E., with the oldest surviving version being the Aleppo Codex from 920 C.E. The Christian Bible is both older and newer (as a defined collection of both OT and NT) and with a remarkably complex history: the oldest fragments of the NT are from around 120 C.E., the canon was mostly defined by the 200s, though a full consensus wasn’t reached until the 5th century. The oldest complete version of the NT is the Codex Sinaiticus from the 4th century.)

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