Monday, November 30, 2020

Advent Traditions - The Advent Calendar

An advent calendar is usually a poster with 24 small doors, one to be opened each day from December 1 until Christmas Eve. Each door conceals a picture. This popular tradition arose in Germany in the late 1800s & soon spread throughout Europe & North America. Originally, the images in Advent calendars were derived from the Hebrew Bible.
The Advent calendar windows open to reveal an image, poem, a portion of a story (such as the story of the Nativity of Jesus) or a small gift, such as a toy or a chocolate item. Some calendars are strictly religious, whereas others are secular in content.
During the 19C in Germany, the days preceding Christmas were marked off from December 1 with chalk on "believers" doors. Then in the late 19C the German mother of a child named Gerhard Lang made her son an Advent Calendar comprised of 24 tiny sweets stuck onto cardboard. Lang never forgot the excitement he felt when he was given his Advent calendar at the beginning of each December, & how it reminded him every day that the greatest celebration of the whole year was approaching ever nearer. 
As an adult, Lang went into partnership with his friend Reichhold opening a printing office. In 1908, they produced what is thought to be the 1st  printed Advent Calendar with a small colored picture for each day in Advent.  Around the same time, a German newspaper included an Advent calendar insert as a gift to its readers. Lang’s calendar was inspired by one that his mother had made for him and featured 24 colored pictures that attached to a piece of cardboard. Lang modified his calendars to include the little doors that are a staple of most Advent.
The idea of the Advent Calendar caught on with other printing firms as the demand swiftly increased, and many versions were produced, some of which would have printed on them Bible verses appropriate to the Advent period.  By the time that the Advent Calendar had gained international popularity, the custom came to an end with the beginning of the WWI, when cardboard was strictly rationed to be used for purposes necessary to the war effort. 
President Eisenhower's grandchildren with an Advent Calendar

However, in 1946, when rationing began to ease following the end of the WWII, a printer named Richard Sellmer once again introduced the colorful little Advent Calendar, and once again it was an immediate success.  After the war, the production of calendars resumed in 1946, by Selmer. Selmer credits President Eisenhower with helping the tradition grow in the United States during his term of office. A newspaper article at the time showed the Eisenhower grandchildren with The Little Town Advent calendar. 

Some European countries such as Germany, where the 1st Advent poster originated, also use a wreath of fir with 24 bags or boxes hanging from it. In each box or bag there is a little present for each day.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Advent - A Brief History

Advent is observed in many Western Christian churches as a time of expectant waiting, self-examination, & preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas. The name Advent comes from the Latin word Adventus, which signifies a coming.

The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of the man called Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light & birth in the darkest days of winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them & they could look forward to longer days & extended hours of sunlight.

Advent has probably been observed since the 4C.  It would seem that Advent could not have occurred, until the Roman Catholic Church & state decided to declare December 25 as the day of the birth of Christ, in 345.  Advent was 1st recorded about 380 AD in Spain.
St. Perpetuus, Bishop of Tours 460-490, from Images of All the Saints of the Year... Paris: Chez Israƫl Henriet, 1636)

As far back as the 5C, there existed the custom of giving exhortations to the people in order to prepare them for Christmas. The oldest document, the 2nd book of the History of the Franks by St. Gregory Bishop of Tours (536-594), states that St. Perpetuus, one of his predecessors, had decreed a fast 3 times a week, from the feast of St. Martin until Christmas.  St Perpetuus, who died December 30, 490, was the 6th Bishop of Tours, from 460 to 490. It is unclear whether St. Perpetuus established a new custom, or merely enforced an already existing law.
St Gregory, Bishop of Tours (536-594) & King Chilperic I, from the Grandes Chroniques de France de Charles V, 14C illumination.

In the 4C & 5C, Advent was the preparation for the January "Epiphany" rather than Christmas.  It was also a time for new Christians to be baptized & welcomed into the church, while existing members of the church examined their hearts & focused on penance. Religious leaders exhorted the people to prepare for the feast of Christmas by fasting. Early documents show that many church leaders treated Advent as a 2nd Lent.

The 9th canon of the first Council of Macon, held in 582, ordained that between St. Martin's day & Christmas, the Mondays, Wednesdays, & Fridays, should be fasting days.  In 567, the 2nd Council of Tours enjoined the monks to fast from the beginning of December till Christmas.

The obligation of observing Advent, which, though introduced so imperceptibly, had by degrees acquired the force of a sacred law, began to be relaxed, & the 40 days from St. Martin's day to Christmas were reduced to 4 weeks.

Sometime in 6C Rome, the focus of Advent shifted to the second coming of Christ. In the 9C, Pope St. Nicholas reduced the duration of Advent from 6 weeks to 4 weeks. The 1st mention of Advent's being reduced to 4 weeks is to be found in a 9C letter of Pope St. Nicholas I to the Bulgarians.

After having reduced the time of the Advent fast, the church seemed to change the mandatory fast into a simple abstinence & required only the clergy to observe this abstinence. The Council of Salisbury, held in 1281, seemed to expect none but monks to keep it. On the other hand Pope Innocent III, mentions that, in France, fasting was uninterruptedly observed during the whole 40 days.

By degrees, the custom of fasting fell into disuse; and in 1362, Pope Urban V asked only that the clerics of his court should keep abstinence during Advent.  In his 4th Council, he enjoins the parish priests to exhort the faithful to go to Communion on the Sundays, at least, of Lent & Advent; & he strongly urges them to fast on the Mondays, Wednesdays, & Fridays, at least, of each week in Advent.

And finally, sometime in the middle ages--approximately the 1500's--an additional focus on the anticipation before Christ's birth was added to that of His 2nd coming.

Today Advent in most Christian churches begins on the Sunday nearest November 30, & covers 4 Sundays. Because the day it begins changes from year to year, so does the length of each Advent season. 

Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Winter Solstice - 3200 BC Prehistoric Passage Tombs or Monuments

Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland

Newgrange is a prehistoric structure in County Meath, Ireland.  It was built during the Neolithic period around 3200 BC, making it older than Stonehenge & the Egyptian pyramids.  According to carbon-14 dates, it is about 500 years older than the current form of Stonehenge, and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, as well as predating the Mycenaean culture of ancient Greece.  The site consists of a large circular mound with a stone passageway & interior chambers. The mound has a retaining wall at the front & is ringed by engraved kerbstones. 
Entrance to Newgrange in Ireland in  1905, when the mound had become largely overgrown.

Newgrange contains various examples of abstract Neolithic rock art carved onto it. These carvings fit into 10 categories, 5 of which are curvilinear (circles, spirals, arcs, serpentiniforms & dot-in-circles) and the other 5 of which are rectilinear (chevrons, lozenges, radials, parallel lines & offsets). There is no agreement among archaeologist & historians about what the site was used for, but it has been speculated that it had religious significance – it is aligned with the rising sun & its light floods the chamber on the winter solstice.
Entrance to Newgate in Ireland today

A passage grave or tomb or monument consists of a narrow passage made of large stones & one or multiple burial? chambers covered in earth or stone. The building of passage tombs usually dates from the Neolithic Age.  Those with more than one chamber may have multiple sub-chambers leading off from a main chamber.  One common layout, the cruciform passage grave, is cross-shaped.  Not all passage graves have been found to contain evidence of human remains. One such example is Maeshowe in Scotland.  Maeshowe is a Neolithic chambered passage monument or grave situated on Mainland, Orkney, Scotland.  It was probably built around 2800 BCE.  Megalithic art has been identified carved into the stones at some sites. The passage itself, in a number of notable instances, is aligned in such a way that the sun shines into the passage at a significant point in the year, for example at the winter solstice.
Maeshowe in Orkney, Scotland

Passage tombs or monuments are distributed extensively in lands along the Atlantic seaboard of Europe. They are found in Ireland, Britain, Scandinavia, northern Germany, & the Drenthe area of the Netherlands. They are also found in Iberia, some parts of the Mediterranean, & along the northern coast of Africa. In Ireland & Britain, passage tombs or monuments are often found in large clusters. Many later passage tombs were constructed at the tops of hills or mountains, perhaps because their builders intended them to be seen from a great distance.
Maeshowe Entrance today

Friday, November 27, 2020

The Winter Solstice - Yuletide

Germanic & Northern European peoples observed Yule or Yuletide, a Winter Solstice festival connected with the worship of the Norse god Odin & the celebration of Odin’s Wild Hunt, where Odin & his goddess Frigg rode through swathes of winter light in the night sky to chase damned souls to the underworld. People feared that if they witnessed or in any way mocked the hunt, they too could be taken into the underworld.
Yule was typically celebrated for three days from the first night of the Winter Solstice, December 21 or 22, to December 24 or December 25.

Starting in December, some peoples celebrated Yule for a whole month, often up to three. People slaughtered animals, cooking the meat to enjoy with wine & ale. But, purposely, they saved the blood. Blood was used ritually to decorate the people & the statues of their gods & goddesses.
The solstice brought the darkest & longest night of the year. Celebrations were lit by firelight from masses of candles, bonfires, & the burning of a large log called the Yule Log, which was sprinkled with salt & oil so that when it burned down the ashes could be scattered around homes to ward off evil spirits.
Other customs carried to the modern era included decorating homes with trees covered in candles, metal ornaments, & fruit, & caroling or wassailing, where wandering groups of singers were rewarded with warm mugs of cider or ale.

The First Day Of Yule
A Yule-Tide Carol For Christmas
Bodleian Library, MS Eng. poet. e. I, f. 22 r. XV Century

Make we mirth
For Christ His Birth
And sing we Yule till Candlemas.

1. The first day of Yule we have in mind
How man was born all of our kind,
For He would the bonds unbind
Of all our sin & wickedness.

2. The second day we sing of Stephen
That stoned was, & said1 up even
With Christ there he would stand in heaven,
And crowned was for his prowess.

3. The third day 'longs to St. John,
That was Christ's darling, dearest one,
To whom He took, when He should gone,
His dear mother for his cleanness.

4. The fourth day of the Children young
With Herod's wrath to death were throng,
Of Christ they cold not speak with tongue,
But with their blood bare witness.

5. The fifth day hallowed St. Thomas,
Right as strong as pillar of brass,
Held up his church & slain was,
For he stood fast in righteousness.

8. The eighty day took Jesus His name,
That saved mankind from sin & shame,
And circumcised was for no blame,
But for example of meekness.

9. The twelfth day offered to Him Kings three,
Gold, myrrh, incense, these gifts free,
For God & man & king is He,
And thus they worshiped his worthiness.

10. The fortieth day came Mary mild
Unto the Temple with her child,
To shew her clean that never was 'filed,

And herewith ends Christmas.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Winter Solstice - The Roman midwinter festival Saturnalia

"How did the Romans celebrate ‘Christmas’?

"It is today associated with decorations, gift giving and indulgence. But how did the Romans celebrate during the festive season? English historian Dr Carey Fleiner, a senior lecturer in classical and medieval history at the University of Winchester, looks back at Saturnalia, the Roman mid-winter ‘festival of misrule’

"Q: What was Saturnalia, and how was it celebrated?


"A: It was the Romans’ mid-winter knees up!

"It was a topsy-turvy holiday of feasting, drinking, singing in the street naked, clapping hands, gambling in public and making noise.

"A character in Macrobius’s Saturnalia [an encyclopedic celebration of Roman culture written in the early fifth century] quotes from an unnamed priest of the god Saturn that, according to the god himself, during the Saturnalia “all things that are serious are barred”.  So while it was a holy day, it was also very much a festive day as well.

"The ordinarily rigid and conservative social restrictions of the Romans changed – for example, masters served their slaves during a feast and adults would serve children, and slaves were allowed to gamble.
Dice players in a wall painting from Pompeii

"And the aristocracy, who usually wore conservative clothes, dressed in brightly coloured fabrics such as red, purple and gold. This outfit was called the ‘synthesis’, which meant ‘to be put together’. They would ‘put together’ whatever clothes they wanted.

"People would also wear a cap of freedom – the pilleum – which was usually worn by slaves who had been awarded their freedom, to symbolise that they were ‘free’ during the Saturnalia.

"People would feast in their homes, but the historian Livy notes that by 217 BC there would also be a huge public feast at the oldest temple in Rome, the Temple of Saturn. Macrobius confirms this, and says that the rowdy participants would spill out onto the street, with the participants shouting, “Io Saturnalia!” the way we might greet people with ‘Merry Christmas!’ or ‘Happy New Year!’

"A small statue of Saturn might be present at such feasts, as if Saturn himself were there. The statue of Saturn in the temple itself spent most of the year with its feet bound in woolen strips. On the feast day, these binds of wool wrapped around his feet were loosened – symbolising that the Romans were ‘cutting loose’ during the Saturnalia.

"People were permitted to gamble in public and bob for corks in ice water. The author Aulus Gellius noted that, as a student, he and his friends would play trivia games. Chariot racing was also an important component of the Saturnalia and the associated sun-god festivities around that time – by the late fourth century AD there might be up to 36 races a day.

"We say that during Christmas today the whole world shuts down – the same thing happened during the Saturnalia. There were sometimes plots to overthrow the government, because people were distracted – the famous conspirator Cataline had planned to murder the Senate and set the city on fire during the holiday, but his plan was uncovered and stopped by Cicero in 63 BC.

"Saturnalia was described by first-century AD poet Gaius Valerius Catullus as “the best of times”. It was certainly the most popular holiday in the Roman calendar.
"Q: Where does Saturnalia originate?

"It was the result of the merging of three winter festivals over the centuries. These included the day of Saturn – the god of seeds and sowing – which was the Saturnalia itself. The dates for the Saturnalia shifted a bit over time, but it was originally held on 17 December.

"Later, the 17th was given over to the Opalia, a feast day dedicated to Saturn’s wife – who was also his sister. She was the goddess of abundance and the fruits of the earth.

"Because they were associated with heaven (Saturn) and Earth (Opalia), their holidays ended up combined, according again to Macrobius. And the third was a feast day celebrating the shortest day, called the bruma by the Romans. The Brumalia coincided with the solstice, on 21 or 22 December.

"The three were merged, and became a seven-day jolly running from 17–23 December. But the emperor Augustus [who ruled from 27 BC–AD 14] shortened it to a three-day holiday, as it was causing chaos in terms of the working day.

"Later, Caligula [ruled AD 37–41 ] extended it to a five-day holiday, and by the time of Macrobius [early fifth century] it had extended to almost two weeks.

'As with so many Roman traditions, the origins of the Saturnalia are lost to the mists of time. The writer Columella notes in his book about agriculture [De Re Rustica, published in the early first century AD] that the Saturnalia came at the end of the agrarian year.

"The festivities fell on the winter solstice, and helped to make up for the monotony of the lull between the end of the harvest and the beginning of the spring.

"Q: Were gift-giving and decorations part of Saturnalia?

"A: Saturnalia was more about a change in attitudes than presents. But a couple of gifts that were given were white candles, named cerei, and clay faces named sigillariae. The candles signified the increase of light after the solstice, while the sigillariae were little ornaments people exchanged.

"These were sometimes hung in greenery as a form of decoration, and people would bring in holly and berries to honour Saturn.

"Q: Was Saturnalia welcomed by everyone?

"A: Not among the Romans!

"Seneca [who died in AD 62] complained that the mob went out of control “in pleasantries”, and Pliny the Younger wrote in one of his letters that he holed up in his study while the rest of the household celebrated.

"As might be expected, the early Christian authorities objected to the festivities as well.

"It wasn’t until the late fourth century that the church fathers could agree on the date of Christ’s birth – unlike the pagan Romans, Christians tended to give no importance to anyone’s birthday. The big day in the Christian religious calendar was Easter.

"Nevertheless, eventually the church settled on 25 December as the date of Christ’s nativity. For the Christians, it was a holy day, not a holiday, and they wanted the period to be sombre and distinguished from the pagan Saturnalia traditions such as gambling, drinking, and of course, most of all, worshipping a pagan god!

"But their attempts to ban Saturnalia were not successful, as it was so popular. As late as the eighth century, church authorities complained that even people in Rome were still celebrating the old pagan customs associated with the Saturnalia and other winter holidays."

Tuesday 17th December 2013  BBC History Magazine by Emma McFarnon

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Winter Solstice - Why is Christmas celebrated on December 25th?

Actually, the Winter Solstice is an astronomical phenomenon marking "the shortest day" & "the longest night" of the year. Winter solstice occurs for the Northern Hemisphere in mid-December & for the Southern Hemisphere in mid- June.  As the Earth orbits around the Sun, the same hemisphere that faced away from the Sun, experiencing winter, will, in half a year, face towards the Sun & experience summer.  A hemisphere's winter solstice occurs when the sun's daily maximum elevation in the sky is the lowest.  The Winter Solstice is also called "Midwinter." The earliest sunset & latest sunrise dates differ from winter solstice, however, & these depend on latitude, due to the variation in the solar day throughout the year caused by the Earth's elliptical orbit.
Stonehenge in England

The solstice itself was probably a cultural event as early as neolithic times, but because there are no written records, historians simply have to guess at that.  Historians are convinced that astronomical events, which during ancient times controlled the mating of animals, sowing of crops & metering of winter reserves between harvests, show how various cultural mythologies & traditions have arisen. This is attested by physical remains in the layouts of late Neolithic & Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in Britain & Newgrange in Ireland.
Newgrange in Ireland

The primary axes of both of these monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) & the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge). At Stonehenge, the Great Trilithon was erected outwards from the center of the monument, with its smooth flat face was turned towards the midwinter Sun.
Newgrange in Ireland

The winter solstice may have been important because the people in these early communities were not certain of living through the winter, & had to be prepared during the previous nine months. Starvation was common during the first months of the winter, January to April (northern hemisphere) or July to October (southern hemisphere), also known as "the famine months." In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered, so they would not have to be fed during the winter.  It was one of the only times of year, when a supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine & beer made during the year was finally fermented & ready for drinking at this time. 

Since the Winter Solstice is seen as the reversal of the Sun's ebbing presence in the sky, concepts of the birth or rebirth of sun gods have been common &, in cultures using winter solstice based cyclic calendars, the year as reborn has been celebrated with regard to life-death-rebirth deities or new beginnings. Before the scientific revolution, many forms of observances, astronomical, symbolic or ritualistic, had evolved according to the beliefs of various cultures, many of which are still practiced today.

When Christian sovereigns extended their rule into pagan lands & converted the inhabitants to Christianity, they eased the cultural transition to a new religion by allowing the people to keep most of their major holidays, which they renamed, changed slightly, & sanctified as Christian holidays. When Christianity developed in the ancient Roman world, the winter solstice in that culture was already marked around 25th December.  
Though he was called “King,” Herod I (or Herod the Great, as he liked to be called) was really a Roman governor over Israel and Judah.

Early Christians celebrated the birth of the Savior for the first 3 1/2 centuries on March 25.  The date of Christ's birth is nowhere mentioned in the Gospels or by tradition.  The Bible, astrology, & a tax collection census offer a few clues.  The gospel of Matthew states that Jesus was born "in the days of king Herod." The book of Josephus notes that Herod,  King of Judea, died after ruling 34 years de facto, 37 years de jure.  Josephus states that an eclipse of the moon occurred not long before Herod's death.  A eclipse occurred from 12 to 13 March, A.U.C. 750, so that Herod must have died before the Passover of that year which fell on 12 April. As Herod killed the children up to 2 years old, in order to destroy the new born King of the Jews, Jesus may have been born about 2 years before Herod's death. The tax enrollment under Cyrinus mentioned by St. Luke in connection with the nativity of Jesus Christ, and the remarkable astronomical conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, & Saturn in Pisces, occurred in the spring of A.U.C. 748. (A.U.C. stands for Ab Urbe Condita, meaning "from the foundation of Rome."  The Roman A.U.C. calendar was enforced under the penalty of death throughout the Roman Empire during that time.
Pope St. Julius 1 (337-352)

The adoption of the date of December 25 by Pope St. Julius 1 (337-352) was primarily a means by which the early Church could insert itself into many of the popular mid-winter festivals which already were observed by "the pagans" - particularly the celebration of the Roman sun god, Mithras; since 274, under the emperor Aurelian.   Rome had celebrated the feast of the "Invincible Sun", Natalis Invicti Solis, on December 25.   Other festivals that were appropriated included the Roman Saturnalia celebrations (which changed dates, originally December 17-19, later December 17-23, & finally December 1-23).  During this festival, work ceased, gifts were exchanged, & slaves ate with their masters.  The festivals of northern Europe, particularly Yule, & also other customs such as yule logs, holly, ivy, mistletoe, candles, evergreens, became part of the Christmas celebration.

Since there was only a loose Christian authority limited by distance & rival power centers at the time, it took centuries before the tradition was  adopted geographically: 
- Eastern churches began to celebrate Christmas after 375 CE. 
- Ireland started in the 5C
- The church in Jerusalem started in the 7C
- Austria, England & Switzerland in the 8C
- Slavic lands in the 9C & 10C