by John Colgan-Davis
An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.——Bill Vaughan
There is something about humans that needs ritual, celebration and holidays. We seem to need these and other things to draw us together into societies and groups; to say, “This is who we are” and “This is how we see the universe.” Our myths and rituals take various forms and have different meanings, but underneath them all there are similarities in mythic structure and motif that reflect a surprisingly common set of patterns and symbols. Our different religious practices are really less different than we usually think, and are all rooted in the same basic question: “Just what does it mean to be a human, anyway?”
Christmas is a great example of that. As we celebrate it now, Christmas is an amalgam; it is a grand combination of symbols, religions, celebrations and more. According to Charles Panati in his wonderful book, “The Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things,” what we think of as Christmas came about when Roman Christians wanted to come up with a holiday to rival the existing Roman celebration of Mithraism, a religious import from Persia that celebrated the birth of the “Invincible Sun God-Mithras.” This was celebrated in December, and the Christian Church leaders decided to proclaim a December “holy-day” to compete with Mithraism.
When Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire, Christmas, or Christ’s Mass, was firmly established. And as Christianity took root and spread, the idea of Christmas changed. It picked up fir trees from the Celts and the Germans, mistletoe from the British Isles, Santa Claus from Southwest Asia and Europe, gift-giving from the Dutch, among others, and more. It is a mishmash of cultures, symbols and rituals that all help us adapt to the cycle of the seasons and come together as a community.
And there are, of course, the lights of the season. Whether they are Hanukkah candles, Kwanzaa candles, or Christmas tree lights, they all harken back to the time when humans tried to meet the dark and cold of winter with the warmth and power of light. This is where they started, and they have since taken on a variety of symbolic meanings in different cultures and religions around the world.
Ancient Celts, for example, used to have bonfires around their sacred trees around the Winter Solstice. The Hanukkah candles refer to the miracle of one day’s oil lasting for eight days in a tabernacle. The Kwanzaa candles relate to the African idea of a week-long period of re-commitment to the community’s values and deities. And Christmas candles refer back to the Protestant leader Martin Luther, who put candles on a tree inside his home to try to capture some of what he saw as God’s winter miracle of stars in the winter sky.
Underneath all these things, then, are the same mythic patterns that can be found in the creation stories of many religions from various times and places: extraordinary birth, light, trees as symbols of permanence, renewal and strength, affirming belief, fertility; revelation from the sky, and more. It is all there, mixed and buried, but there nonetheless in our December observances.
And that same mix of motifs and mythic similarity continues into how we look at the New Year. Janus, the Roman god for whom January is named, was depicted with two heads, one facing backward and one facing forward. In other words, “What did I do wrong in the past, and how can I change in the future?”
Spring planting festivals from various cultures always included some ceremony where the community resolved to be better in some way in this new year than they were in the previous one. These are all the start of our idea of “New Year’s Resolutions.” It is an ancient and universal tradition. In other words, our souls, spirits and minds all drink from the same watering hole.
One of the beautiful things about mythic belief is that it is beyond the realm of pure logic, rationality and/or historical truth. That is why there are words such as”faith” and “belief.” We all can find the ways these traditions speak to us and find our place within them. To me, though, they are all just another way the universe is saying to us, “Hey, we really aren’t all that different from one another; there is more that unites us than separates us. We all share the same genes, all of us, and we all create the same patterns in our most important stories, no matter where we come from, what we believe or when we lived. This is an important part of what it means to be human; this is what makes us, us. So let’s recognize that similarity, acknowledge that, celebrate that. Therein lies our hope and our possibility.”
Happy Holidays to you all, no matter how you celebrate them. I wish the best for you and your family and friends.
John Colgan-Davis, 60, is a long-time Mt. Airy resident, teacher, member of the fabulous local rockin’, bluesy band, Dukes of Destiny, and one of the world’s greatest harmonica players. He says that “Spiritually, I take things from Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism,” but he has “no particular ideology or theology.” You can reach John at email@example.com