The History of Christmas

Right around this time last year, I wrote a post about the history of significance of the Winter Solstice.  As we draw closer to the Solstice and the Christmas holiday, I thought I would write a more detailed follow up post about how the way Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus has been influenced by ancient traditions.

When we think of Christmas, we think of spending time with friends and family, decorating the Christmas tree, and waiting for Santa Claus to visit.  The cynical among us think of the holiday season as an excuse for companies to make a major advertising push to help the bottom line before the end of the fourth quarter.  Regardless of your feelings about Christmas, let your inner historian at least appreciate the thousands of years of rich tradition have converged and adapted to produce this unique holiday.

Before Christianity

Walk through New York City’s Herald Square and spend a minute watching the shoppers frantically enter and exit Macy’s department store decked out in holiday regalia. Then try and wrap your mind around the fact that some of the seeds of Christmas as we know it were sown long before the Virgin Mary was forced to find refuge in a stable in Bethlehem.

The seeming disconnect can be quite a trip, but let your mind travel back to a time before skyscrapers and automobiles, before Newton told us what goes up must come down, before knights in shining armor stormed castles, and even before three wise men started following the brightest star to Bethlehem.

The Saturnalia

Roman Poet Catullus

The Roman poet Catullus described Saturnalia as “the best of days.”

We find ourselves in the height of the late Roman Republic.  At this point in history, the Roman Republic is the most powerful military and cultural force on the planet.  The Republic controls most of the Mediterranean rim and Julius Caesar will soon incorporate Gaul (modern day France) into the Empire in one of the most storied, but brutally violently conquests in the history of the empire.

It was against this backdrop, that the Roman poet Catullus, a contemporary of Caesar, wrote his famous words about the festival of Saturnalia: “Saturnalibus, optimo dierum!” or “The Saturnalia, the best of days!”  By this time, the ancient festival of Saturnalia had been celebrated for hundreds of years.  Many historians view Saturnalia as one of the oldest influences on our Christmas holiday but you don’t need to be an archaeologist to see the similarities.

Roman God Saturn

Many historians believe that the Saturnalia, in honor of the Roman god Saturn, is a predecessor to our Christmas.

The timing of Saturnalia is one of the most apparent elements that the Roman holiday shares with Christmas.  This was not an accident, but we’ll get to that in a moment.  Saturnalia was celebrated from December 17th through December 23rd and was thrown in honor of Saturn, one of the chief gods in the Roman pantheon.  Saturn was thought to influence the outcome of the harvest which is why the festival in his honor was so important.  A key element of Saturnalia was the reversal of the usually rigidly stratified social order of Rome.  Slaves became temporary masters in their homes and peasants were in control of the city.  The History Channel has a good write up of how Saturnalia was celebrated.  The reversal of the social order can be seen as a predecessor to our focus on those in need during the holiday season.

Like Christmas, and most Roman festivals, Saturnalia involved heavy feasting and liberal consumption of wine.  Imagine the ancient version of a Christmas ham and a glass of eggnog.  Instead of hearing, “Merry Christmas!” on your way to the grocery store, you might hear, “Io Saturnalia!”, the traditional salute of the holiday.

Mithras and Sol Invictus

Sun God Mithras

The birth of the deity Mithras was celebrated on December 25th, before the Christian church had settled on a firm date for this birth of Christ.

Another influential ritual that fell around the time of Saturnalia and on the date we now celebrate Christmas, was the birth of Mithras.  Worshipping Mithras was outside the traditional Roman pantheon of Gods and was popular amongst the military and the upper classes.  The Cult of Mithras probably has origins in the Zoroastrian tradition, but once coopted by the Romans, Mithras transformed into a distinct god with uniquely Roman rituals.  The Roman version of the Mithras myth tells that the infant sun god was born out of a rock on December 25th.

The official sun god of the later Roman Empire was known as Sol Invictus, or the Unconquerable Sun, and while historians are somewhat unclear on the exact relation to Mithras, the birth of Sol Invictus was also celebrated on December 25th.

December 25th

So back to the the proximity between Saturnalia, the birth of Mithras, and what eventually became Christmas on the Roman calendar.  The three major festivals fell within a week of one another.  Was this just a coincidence or do the gods just dig the end of December?  The answer is complicated, but there are two major reasons for the gauntlet of major holidays before the new year.

The first is the Winter Solstice.  Cultures from around the globe, many who had no cultural contact with one another, celebrate the Solstice as the beginning of the end of darkness and the welcoming of the sun.  In fact, many of our more modern Christmas traditions are drawn from Nordic and German solstice celebrations.

The second reason involves a bit more politicking and early public relations by the leaders of the nascent religion of Christianity.  While some Christian historians argue that the date of December 25th was chosen as the birth of Christ because it falls nine months after March 25th, a proposed date for the Immaculate Conception, there is almost definitely more to the story.

The earliest documentation of December 25th as the birth of Jesus comes from St. Irenaeus almost 130 years after the traditional year of Christ’s birth.  Some historians believe Christ was actually born in the spring, and some Eastern Orthodox traditions celebrate the birth in early January.  So why all the confusion?

Part of the reason for the disagreement on the actual date is that there isn’t much evidence that early Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus at all.  Then, as now among the devout, the most important holiday in Christianity was Easter, the remembrance of the Passion and the subsequent resurrection of Jesus.

Early Christians had a rough go of it in the Roman Empire to say the least.  They were widely persecuted by Roman leadership. From brutal and unstable emperors, like Nero to the most academic and thoughtful, like Marcus Aurelius.  Being fed to lions in the Coliseum or executed for performing Christian wedding ceremonies (St. Valentine is a story for another day) were not uncommon ways of being punished for performing Christian rituals.

Constantine Bust

Constantine the Great’s conversion to Christianity shepherded in the Christianity as the Roman Empire’s official religion.

As the empire began to decay in the later centuries, the tide of Christianity began to turn.  More and more Romans, especially the poor and enslaved, turned to Christianity as a source of hope.  The groundswell culminated in the deathbed conversion of Emperor Constantine the Great.  Constantine credited his conversion to a Christian vision he had before a battle which he felt led to a seminal victory.  After Constantine’s conversion, it was only a matter of time before the official religion of the Roman Empire became Christianity.

So back to December 25th.  An edict declaring Christianity the official religion is one thing.  Having an empire of millions with thousands of years of pagan tradition buy in is another.  Many historians believe that in the 4th century A.D., leaders of the Christian church decided to celebrate Christ’s birth during the same period as Saturnalia and the birth of Mithras as a way of softening the blow to pagan religions.

Ironically, the Christian church deftly applied the Roman tactic of conquest by inclusion into their strategy of religious conversion.  Unsurprisingly, the disappearance of the Cult of Mithras, which had been made an official religion of the military by Emperor Aurelian in 274, corresponds with the introduction of Christmas in the 4th century.

The Feast of the Nativity, as it was known, spread to Egypt by the early 400s and was widely celebrated in England and Scandinavia by the 7th century A.D.

Shadows of Saturnalia

One of the pervasive traditions of Saturnalia that survived into the Middle Ages was the idea of reversal of the social order during the Christmas season.

An officer known as The Lord of Misrule was appointed from amongst the peasants to preside over the Feast of Fools, the Christmas feast which carried on the traditions of excessive drinking and partying which accompanied Roman Saturnalia.  Drunken peasants were known to visit the homes of the wealthy and ask (or demand) gifts, food, and drink.

Originally an homage to the Roman tradition of reversal of the social strata, the mobs would sometimes become violent, causing the church and the wealthy to make a concerted effort to rebrand Christmas as a peaceful holiday to be celebrated in the home with family.

We just hurtled through about a thousand years of Christmas tradition.  I hope it shed some light on where some of our customs came from.

Notes and More Information

Check out the History Channel’s History of Christmas, the and the Wikipedia pages for Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, The Cult of Mithras, and the Lord of Misrule to learn more.

If you want to learn more about Christmas in America, check out this piece on when the Puritans banned Christmas in Boston.

Love Trumps all When it Comes to Spirituality

Monk walking toward light

There are many ways to define spirituality.

Have you ever tried to define spirituality?  If you have chances are it got fairly murky fairly quickly.  As we discuss regularly on this blog, spirituality means something different to everyone.  No matter how much we try to quantify, measure, or define spirituality, there will always be a subjective element to it.

Are there any commonalities that everyone’s definition of spirituality share?  Probably not, but that doesn’t have to stop us from constantly striving to find what’s at the root of spirituality.

Mastin Kipp recently had an article published on the Huffington post Spirituality blog that attempted to bring the spirituality’s core into focus.  Kipp agrees that spirituality is almost impossible define, but he has a very simple way of spotting it.  The tell tale sign?  Love.  Kipp argues that doing certain things from religious rituals to yoga won’t necessarily help us achieve a higher purpose or higher self.  Living in an Ashram in India won’t bring you closer to your spiritual side if the essential ingredient is missing.  Kipp implies that many people who are seeking a spiritual life may be looking for the easy route rather than letting their actions bring them closer to a higher level of existence.

Much like buying an expensive juice diet rather than eating healthy and exercising, some people look to achieve spirituality by cross off a series of spiritual checkboxes rather than doing the heavy lifting which will actually bring them what they desire.  Focusing on incorporating love into your daily interactions can help you feel like you are living a more fulfilling life.

Are We Ready to Merge Science and Spirituality?

The dichotomy of science and spirituality is ever present in our daily lives.  From the latest political debates about creationism in the classroom to Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos, the tension is all around us.  NPR’s Marcelo Gleiser wonders, does it have to be that way?

In a recent post, Gleiser argues for bringing science and spirituality together in harmony.  The rigidity of both sides can be detrimental to greater understanding.  The idea that science and spirituality are mutually exclusive not only leads to and unproductive standstill in thought, it also shapes our ideas about the natural world and the universe as a whole.

In his post, Gleiser quotes Lucretius, a Roman poet writing during the time of Julius Caesar.  Many in his time, as in ours, felt that the mysteries of the universe and the sinking feeling that comes with the human realization of the miniscule part we are here to play could only be resolved through faith in the divine.  Lucretius eloquently refutes this idea when he says:

“This dread and darkness of the mind cannot be dispelled by the sunbeams, the shining shafts of the day, but only by an understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature.”

Essentially what Lucretius is saying is that we cannot rely on divine revelations to understand our world and our place in it.  The only path to understanding and inner peace is by continuing to try and understand who we are using the information available to us.

Gleiser’s thesis is that through an almost religious dedication to gaining scientific knowledge, we can achieve a higher purpose and sense of being.  While that may be true, we can take it a step further.

One of the ironies of the debate between science and spirituality is that both schools are trying to arrive at the same conclusion and are simply coming from opposite directions.  In other words, spirituality accepts some kind of divine and seeks to become closer with it to achieve another level of understanding, while science uses physical evidence to uncover answers to those same mysteries.

In some ways you can think of the mysteries of the universe as a math problem.  Spirituality helps lead us right to the answer while science seeks to show the work.

Trying to Pin Down Spirituality

Spirituality Psychic Readings by Ronn

Spirituality can be a tricky term to define.

The term spirituality is extremely vague and can sometimes cause confusion even amongst those that consider themselves to be “spiritual” people.  Some people define spirituality as being religious, while others define it as being in touch with nature.  Some people feel spiritual by being in touch with their own feelings, while still others feel most spiritual when they are engaged in ritual like meditation or hypnotism.  So what is true spirituality?

The answer is that spirituality means something different to everyone and the key is to find the type of spirituality that gives you fulfillment.

Heine de Waal, a contributor for News 24 recently published a blog post that attempts to work out some of the issues surrounding the definition of spirituality.  He uses the Wikipedia definition as a jumping off point: “Spirituality can refer to an ultimate or immaterial reality, an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of their being; or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.”

The most salient and relevant part of that definition for discovering one’s own spiritual side is the suggestion that we can discover the essence of our own being.  Once we discover that, we are more likely to have a fulfilling and happy life.  While the question of what spirituality is can be difficult to answer, perhaps an even more difficult question is what do we actually do to come closer to discovering the essence of our being?

de Waal posits that no action or ritual will automatically lead to a more spiritual existence.  He suggests that “spiritual” activities like religious worship, meditation, burning incense, or reading tarot can be conduits to spirituality but will not cause an individual to be more spiritual on their own.  These rituals help achieve a higher level spiritual understanding by making us more aware.  More aware of our surroundings, more aware of the living creatures we share the planet with, more aware of our own feelings, and most important more aware of the feelings of others.

By concentrating on those feelings, we can achieve a higher level of consciousness.  de Waal believes that this higher level of awareness leads us to choose our actions from a place of love rather than from a place of fear, and it’s difficult to see how that could be a bad thing.

Challah as a Metaphor for a Spiritual Life

Challah Bread

Challah is more than just bread to some Hasidic Jewish Communities.

Baking homemade bread has become something of a lost art in today’s one-stop shop world of mega grocery stores and pre-packaged everything.  But for one devout sect of Hasidic Jews, baking traditional Challah bread is more than just cooking.  Baked the same way for centuries, the art of making Sabbath Challah is not only still alive and well in the orthodox Lubavitch Chabad community, it holds deeper spiritual meaning.

As members of a small community, Chabad followers such as Feige Slavaticki are passionate about preserving these types of traditions so they can be passed from one generation to another.  Baking Challah bread in particular is one of the most important of these traditions because each ingredient symbolizes an important element of the faith.  Each step in the process helps remind followers of the way they should strive to live their lives.

Slavaticki explains that when yeast and water are combined before the baking process, they create a foam which represents passion for life and for her faith.  The proportions of sugar and salt not only help make for a delicious Challah, they also symbolize the sweetness and accountability.  The fact that the recipe calls for more sugar than salt reminds Chabad followers that they should approach all the challenges of life with more sweetness than anything else.

The final stage in the process, waiting for the bread to rise, symbolizes the balance between doing all we can as humans to make something perfect, while also remembering that our fates are ultimately in the hands of God.

Slavaticki felt so strongly about preserving the traditional way of baking Challah that she help a seminar in Chicago for Jewish women to learn the art.

Next time you are looking for spiritual guidance, remember to look at one of your everyday tasks and see how all the elements can represent higher level keys to living a fulfilling life.

You can read the full story on the Skokie Review.

The Spiritual Path to Relieving Anger

Let spirituality guide you when trying to relieve your anger.

Let spirituality guide you when trying to relieve your anger.

Many encourage the release of anger and rage from our lifestyles. The reality, however, is that anger is something that has its purpose. It induces balance and justice, proving to be essential to the operation of society on earth.

Most of those who are spiritual go about exerting their anger in a passive-aggressive way.

To walk the spiritual path it is essential to deal with anger as efficiently as possible. In the spiritual world, anger is a tool of balance and karma. Anger can be released temporarily in a variety of ways, such as screaming into a pillow or throwing a soft object across the room.

Like anything, it is important to first identify that you have a problem with anger. Women have a particularly hard time with this (partially because anger is not considered to be ladylike).

In the spiritual realm, the proper way to release rage is by calling upon karma and balance against the source of the anger. Someone has to pay for this anger – either the source of the anger or the one receiving it.

If someone betrays you, without achieving spiritual balance you are losing twice. Without relieving this negative energy by turning it back on the perpetrator, you are keeping the energy within yourself.

You are benefiting yourself and the perpetrator, as you are immediately returning this negative karma instead of letting it boil and multiple into exponentially worse karma. Calling it on the perpetrator now allows them to immediately see the consequences of their doings. This can positively change the relationship you two have.

By opening the perpetrator’s eyes in a spiritual way, it allows him to see his impact on others and hopefully will change his future actions.

Spirituality Around the World: Jamaica

Jamica_Spirituality

Jamaica has a long and unique spiritual history.

The history of Jamaican spirituality explained by Bernard Jankee.

The kumina was a musical and religious form originating with the Congo people. The dance features lots of hip movement, the use of flat-footed sliding of the feet and breaks. Drums and singing are included in the ceremony. These breaks in the dancing are the result of the musical instruments, which give clues as to how to move your body. These sessions are not intended for entertainment.

Soon, the revival bands began forming in Jamaica. These groups came from different parts of the world – even as far out as Germany. Ettu, another spiritual group, came to Jamaica with indentured servants.

In the 1930s, Rastafarianism began. Rastafarian draws heavily on other religious practices and has become more and more modern.

Symbols

Water is almost a universal symbol across all types of spirituality in Jamaica. Christian churches use wine and white rum is used in kumina, ettu and revival ceremonies.

These symbols are starting to become intertwined – a result of globalization. Rastafarians have begun dancing kumina.

Spiritual possession is something that occurs across both the kumina and ettu ceremonies. During these ceremonies, people will feel as though a spirit enters them and takes control of their body.

Blood sacrifices are part of some rituals, with goats and other animals being slaughtered. These animals were then skinned and eaten.

Christmas Disturbances Law

Jankee told an anecdote about the 1841 Christmas Disturbances Law. The law banned the playing of musical instruments during the season and resulted in some children getting arrested. Riots followed the arrests, led by the mothers of the children involved.

Using Spirituality to Avoid Holiday Stress

Holiday_Stress

There are ways to de-stress your holiday season.

The holiday season is a time of joy, love, and togetherness.  For many though, it can be a time of stress and anxiety.  Preparing your home for visitors, cooking for what seems like an army, and making sure the kids are having the kind of magical holiday season you remember from your childhood is a lot easier said than done.  Spirituality and Practice has a timely list of thirteen ways to take the stress out of your holidays.  For the full list check out the full blog posts, but here are a few of the highlights:

Stay Healthy

Many people channel their holiday stresses into unhealthy habits by indulging in all the vices this time of year has to offer.  You can still enjoy yourself, but try to avoid common holiday pitfalls like overeating, excessive drinking, and slacking off on your exercise routine.  This will help you keep your stress levels low and ought to help you get a head start on some of those New Year’s resolutions that are soon to follow.

Concentrate on Relaxing

This may sound like a contradiction, but it isn’t.  Take some time for yourself and let go of your worries.  This may come in the form of a few minutes of meditation, yoga, or whatever activity you find most relaxing.  Whatever it is you choose to do, make sure you are in a resting position and that you are taking slow and deliberate breaths.  Spirituality and Practice recommends turning on some soothing, low-anxiety music as a complement.

Toss Your Hoard

This piece of advice is the most unique and possibly most helpful one on the whole list.  The holidays can be a time of massive clutter in your home or apartment, especially if you are hosting guests.  Family luggage, discarded wrapping paper, more food than you know what to do with – general clutter can lead to increased stress.  Take the time each day to ask yourself “Do I still need this?”  If the answer is no, throw it away and it will feel like you’ve thrown a bit of your stress away with it.

If you commit to following these tips, you’re sure to have a peaceful holiday season.  You’ll be able to lose your stress in favor of what really matters: spending quality time with friends and family.

Winter Solstice: A Time of Reflection

Winter Solstice

The Winter Solstice has long held astrological significance and continues to influence our holiday traditions today.

Technically, The Winter Solstice is the time when the noon sun is at its lowest possible point above the horizon.  It generally falls on the 21st or the 22nd of December and is notable for bringing the shortest period of sunlight during a calendar year.  But what does the Winter Solstice mean?  For thousands of years it has meant much more than a long night and a short day.

Long before Christmas was celebrated, this time of year had special astrological significance.  There is something about this time during December that encourages human beings to celebrate with friends, enjoy a period of rest and relaxation before the coming New Year, and to turn to inward reflection.

The Romans spent the Winter Solstice celebrating the festival of Bromalia which was known as a time to search for portends of the year to come.  Some historians believe that early Christian converts adopted features of the Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti which were also celebrations of the Winter Solstice.

The festival of Saturnalia reflected many of the ideas we associate with the holiday season even today.  Saturnalia was celebrated to exalt Saturn, the head of the Roman pantheon of gods.  However, it was also a time when long standing arguments and entrenched grudges were thrown by the wayside.  Public offices such as courts and schools were often on hiatus.  Slaves and masters symbolically reversed roles, with masters waiting on their slaves during the festival.  Even wars were suspended.  If this sounds a lot like the holiday season we know today, it’s because many of our traditions are drawn from these and other ancient festivals.  The promotion of peace and unity, focus on caring for the poor, and closure of government and businesses in favor of rest are all interpretations of customs that have been passed down for generations.

Incorporating ancient traditions made it easier for the Roman people to understand and accept the new religion of Christianity.  Regardless of how much these Roman festivals influenced Christmas traditions, the idea that the Winter Solstice is an important time spiritually is thousands of years old.

If you are searching for answers as the Winter Solstice approaches, it may be the right time for you to schedule a psychic reading to help you chart a path for a happy and healthy 2014!

The Immeasurable Energy of Chi

Ball of Chi

The idea of Chi has been around in Eastern thought for thousands of years.

A fascinating example of a type of unmeasurable energy is Chi.    Believed to be life force or the energy flow that exists between everyone and everything, Chi has been a respected idea that has existed in the eastern world for ages.

The biggest argument made against the existence of Chi is that it is nearly unmeasurable in a scientific or physical sense, and since Chi is a very personal experience it is almost unexplainable to people who have not felt it for themselves. However, it is a phenomenon that is experienced by thousands. Experienced martial artists often speak of chi and manipulating this energy to tactfully maneuver, strike and block their way through a fight, with a hopefully worthy opponent. When sparring in certain styles it is possible to feel ones chi against your own like learning a new side to a personality. Chi is believed to be cultivated from a person’s chakras which are energy fields that exist in our bodies. Running along the spine and in the palms, chakras have been felt by millions, and have been known about and studied for thousands of years.

Anyone can learn to feel and become aware of these areas and exercise them much like a muscle. Chi also travels through our bodies meridians, which are a system of pressure points that run throughout our whole body. People have long been self healing, practicing acupressure and acupuncture through the stimulation of meridians. Exercising these points properly promotes circulation and can heal certain ailments and injuries. The phenomenon of Chi is a mysterious one and imaginably an exciting journey of discoveries for anyone to venture towards.

To learn more about Chi, check out this Energy Arts article with more details about the eastern concept of Chi.

A General Idea of Spirituality

Energies

Can spiritual experiences be explained as a manifestation of our collective energy?

The idea of a higher power is easier to wrap your head around when thinking of it as the energy that exists in everything and everyone of us.  A recent Freethought Nation article discusses the possibility that spirituality can be explained as energy.

This notion doesn’t seem so far fetched especially when you compare the characteristics of our concept of a spiritual being and energy.

  • A force that cannot be seen, only felt
  • Cannot be created or destroyed
  • Always was and always will be

Energy is convertible and transferable. It can be harnessed and utilized through solar, hydro, wind, combustion and electrical means.  One can also call upon energy through meditation or prayer. Many ask for strength, focus and the answers to conquer situations that they are facing, and many receive it.

You may have noticed being more energized than normal for unknown reasons. Maybe it was food that you ate or being out in fresh air and sunlight. People have noted feeling a substantial and almost palpable energy when visiting very old buildings, temples or cathedrals. It has been suggested that these feelings may be the result of a strong history of this universal energy being present.

Perhaps spiritual figures such as Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed etc. are simply conduits that this loving, life-giving energy can flow through more easily.  Certain people seem to be born with a higher universal understanding or enlightenment than others.  Some even possess unexplained gifts such as a heightened sense of intuition, clairvoyance, telepathy, and the ability to heal through touch.

Can it be a coincidence that stories of these pinnacle spiritual figures possessing one or more of these abilities have been passed down for thousands of years?

You may know certain people with one of these abilities or have even experienced one within yourself.  We are all more spiritual beings than we realize. It’s time to open up our eyes.  With the awareness and ability to utilize this consciousness collectively, what can we achieve?

The sky is the limit.