Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Just another winter's tale

IT is a tribute to the tolerance of pagans that they don't resent Christians claiming the Xmas season as their own.

IT is a tribute to the tolerance of pagans that they don't resent Christians claiming the Xmas season as their own.

It would be a different story if the boot was on the alternative foot.

Not that anybody should be surprised. People in Northern Ireland have more reason than most to understand that tolerance isn't the defining characteristic of Christianity.

If the pagan origins of Xmas were taught in our schools, rather than the Christian myth, there'd be more peace on earth, and a richer store of goodwill for us all to draw on.

Two thousands years ago, there were at least a dozen stories circulating in the Middle East of gods being born to virgins around the time of the winter solstice.

These gods included the Syrian Adonis, the Phrygian Attis, the Greek Dionysius, the Persian Mithras and the Egyptian Osiris. It was from these stories that the myth of the origins of Christianity was assembled.

The 'Christmas' festival itself wasn't invented until the year 1278 AUC (ab urbe condita _ since the foundation of the city). In that year, the Roman Emperor Theodoric decided that something would have to be done about Saturnalia, the festival of the Sun- god.

Although Saturnalia fell on December 25, Roman officials complained that it was starting earlier every year, servants and even slaves knocking off work, eating and drinking to excess, indulging in ribald carousal and so forth.

(Other aspects of the festivities included the decoration of houses with laurel leaves, placing lit candles in windows to guide late- night revellers home and, on December 25, masters waiting on servants _ a tradition still honoured in some British Army regiments, where officers serve Xmas dinner to other ranks.)Theodoric invited Rome's leading theologian and mathematician, Dionysius Exiguus, to calculate exactly when Jesus had been born, with a view to instituting a more demure, less raucous winter festival.

After much cogitation, staring at the night sky and mysterious activity at the abacus, Dionysius announced that Jesus had been born in the year 753 AUC on, by astonishing coincidence, December 25.

Thus did 1278 AUC become 525 AD and 'Christmas' dislodge Saturnalia from December 25. Not that any of it did Theodoric much good.

The plain people of Rome carried on regardless, eating, drinking and making merry from mid- December onwards, unconcerned whether it was the traditional Saturnalia or the new-fangled 'Christmas' which they were celebrating.

We can but marvel at the uncommon good sense of these ancient, unlettered folk.

It's not difficult to discern the reason so many societies celebrated a magical birth in late December.

When the productive capacity of the earth could scarcely meet human need, and when the storage of foodstuffs was enormously problematical, making it through to the winter solstice was cause enough for an outpouring of joy.

It was the moment when the family, the community, the tribe, could feel that they had turned the cold corner of the year, and could set their faces to the sun again, to spring and to the miraculous regeneration of life.

How apt that they should thank their gods, break open their stores and spend freely of their treasure.

In pagan hearts and minds, what we call 'Christmas' was, thus, a celebration of bountiful nature, of human indomitability, and of people's interdependence and sense of oneness with each other.

The folk-tale of Mary, Joseph and Jesus is merely one among many imaginative renditions of these aspects of what it is to be human. On a worldwide scale, it's just another winter's tale.

But, of course, to allow our children to know that there is nothing unique or distinctive about the 'Christmas' story would be to alert them to the truth that there is nothing special about any religion, and no reason at all for ill-will against people of a different religion.

The true spirit of what we call Xmas lies in the veneration of humanity, not obeisiance towards a deity.

This is the pagan truth of the winter festival which we celebrate this week: peace, and love to every human thing.

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