I guess I’m in a bit of a holiday mood today. I’ve got my tree up, my advent calendar open, and girlfriend is ready for business!
Being an ex-pat American and living thousands of miles away from my family has meant that I’ve had to redefine what the holidays mean to me. Some family customs have taken on new meaning and intensity for me. Others I’ve adapted to suit life in London. Still others have gone by the way side to be replaced by new and interesting English customs. The way I celebrate Christmas will never be the same, even should I return to my homeland.
And actually, that’s how Christmas evolved in the first place. Christmas as we know it has been around for just 165 years. That’s right. Less than 200.
In 1865 an illustration Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children appeared in the London News. They were standing around a Christmas tree (a German tradition which had never caught on in Merry Ole’). Victoria was a hugely popular monarch, and before you knew it, not only did every English household have a Christmas tree, but it had spread to the American East Coast, as well.
But winter celebrations go back much, much further than “Christmas.” Thousands of years further, in fact.
Saturnalia, an ancient Roman holiday, was a time for giving “luxury” items to friends and family and seems to be the basis for “Santa Claus” and his presents. The feast of Saturnalia which honored the god Saturn was long established by the Romans before they invaded Britain, and was originally celebrated on the 17th December. It was so popular that it eventually extended to a seven day long party. It was the most popular holiday in ancient Rome and referred to as “the best of days.” It was a time of feasting, gift giving, and setting the conventional social order on its head. Servants didn’t have to work and could gamble in public. Slaves could wear their master’s clothing.
Misrule was the order of the day. “During My week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.” – Lucian
But Saturnalia is not the only ancient holiday from which our modern celebrations are derived. Yule was a winter solstice festival celebrated by pagan people (mostly Germanic and Scandinavian).
About AD 730, the English historian Bede wrote that the Anglo-Saxon calendar included December 25 as the first day of the heathen year and wrote that the Anglo-Saxons celebrated all night long to honor the Germanic divine “mothers”:
They began the year with December 25, the day some now celebrate as Christmas; and the very night to which we attach special sanctity they designated by the heathen term Mōdraniht, that is, the mothers’ night — a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies they performed while watching this night through.(Bede, De Temporum Ratione. Translated by Charles W. Jones.)
Of course, as time went on and the Church came to power, Yule was swallowed by Christmas and Christian tradition. Eventually even that was engulfed by commercialism and swallowed by greed.
Still, there is a new wave of celebrants trying to get back to the true meaning of the holidays, whether they celebrate Christmas or Yule (I’ve yet to hear of anyone celebrating Saturnalia, but darn, that would be fun!).
For me the holiday season isn’t about things. It’s not about what I can get. It’s not about tinsel and twinkly lights (Though I do love those!). It’s about friends, family, and giving of myself. It’s about thankfulness and generosity of spirit. It’s about joy and love and happiness and, dare I say, glitter. The holidays are about gratitude. And if you live your life in an attitude of gratitude, every day is a holiday.
And so, my friends, what do the holidays mean to you?