Friday, December 26, 2008

Happy Boxing Day, Yuletide and Twelfth Night

Good Morning Bloggers - I hope you all had a great Christmas. I know I did. It was strange not going home to visit my wonderful family, but I decided I wanted to try to create new holiday customs, and I did.

Christmas Eve was spent with cousins in Laguna Beach, which was fantastic and fun despite a need to channel my inner dog whisperer and an inordinate amount of teenage angst and texting, while Christmas Day was spent with good friends here at home, and a potluck brunch that turned out to be pretty fantastic. Overall, I would say that my effort at forming new traditions was met with pretty good success.

So, this post is about the holiday traditions at this time of the year. How did they start? Did they begin with Jesus? Interestingly, no.

Let's begin with today's celebration. It's the day after, what they call Boxing Day in the lands with the quirky accents - it's a public holiday in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Hong Kong and countries in the Commonwealth of Nations with a mainly Christian population. For trivia sake, in South Africa it's known as the Day of Goodwill.

Boxing Day is a noble holiday based on the tradition of giving gifts to the less fortunate members of society. Unfortunately, the majority of people now look at it as a "shopping holiday" associated with after-Christmas sales. Therefore, it's very much akin to Black Friday here in America after Thanksgiving.

I find Boxing Day fascinating because it's all part of the wonderful world of weird traditions that came together to form our modern Christmas, or holiday celebrations. Even though I focus on Jesus, which I believe should be the focus, Christmas is actually an incredible amalgamation of cultural and tribal customs and beliefs. It's one of the few worldwide holidays, offering something for everyone, everywhere.

There are too many historical references to cite for this brief post, so it's easier just to point to the larger examples. Christmas grew out of a wealth of winter festivals that were popular with civilizations, cultures, and the occasional tribe across the northern hemisphere (since it's tied to winter).

The reasons for the various festivals were many, but the underlying reason involved temperature and light. It was too cold to work the fields, or grow anything, and the shorter days made it hard to see what you were doing. People were bored, so the smarter ones decided to find reasons to celebrate, which mostly meant to eat, drink and snog.

So, the winter "holidays" were invented by multiple tribes dragging in various traditions, making it the mutt of the holiday world. It's a fast mover too. Our traditional winter holiday season evolves quickly, if you watch carefully. We even see it changing today, in countries across the globe. Modern variations were even coined recently here in America, such as "Festivus" and "Chrismukkah."

The oldest Christmas tradition of gift-giving and merrymaking stems from Roman Saturnalia. That's also where a lot of the greenery (tree decorations), lights, and charity arose. It was a big part of the Roman New Year celebrations.

It later took bits and pieces from the Scandinavian pagans, who celebrated the winter festivals of Yule, or Yuletide, where kids would leave their shoes outside filled with straw for Odin to leave them gifts - if you call cheese a gift. Those same yule traditions explain the origins of elves and flying reindeer, which many claim are a result of a very early party culture.

You see, according to some, early tribes ate the yellow snow after the reindeer metabolized a poisonous berry providing a powerful hallucinogenic cocktail. They saw little people, glowing trees, and flying reindeer. Wow, they must have been wild, and fun. It must also explain why they bore so many more babies during the summer months.

Believe it or not, it gets weirder. Saint Nicholas, or Santa Claus himself, wasn't even from the north. He was from Turkey, where snow was rare. He was actually Nicholas of Myra, a saint and Bishop in Lycia who celebrated his faith in the 4th Century after Christ by putting coins in the shoes of children. I doubt he'd be allowed to get near children today. He was "Nicholas the Wonderworker," and his reputation for secret gift-giving became the model for Santa Claus.

Okay, so Christmas is the GUMBO of holidays. That brings us back to Boxing Day. It, like Roman Saturnalia, is about giving to those less fortunate. Unfortunately, it has a bit of the predictable English, snobbish, upper-class crap associated with it. In past centuries Boxing Day was about the aristocracy giving gifts to their employees.

So, in some respects, Boxing Day is the model for the modern office party. The only difference is that household servants and other service personnel were lucky to get a few shillings or guineas after working their butts off on Christmas Day. It is true, Republicans did run the world back then. So, HAPPY BOXING DAY everybody.

Incredibly, it's not the last of the Christmas folk holidays. There are a few more minor ones after today, wrapping up around Twelfth Night in January marking the coming of the Epiphany, or the adoration of the Magi. Some cultures continue to exchange gifts up until that day.

Oh what a tangled web we weave my fellow man, but this time the web is beautiful and spun across the entire modern world. The Christmas holiday season is an amazing thing wrapping ancient and modern traditions into a wonderful festival of global celebration.

It is uniquely human, since it wouldn't exist today unless it adapted, unless it evolved. It is so powerful that it spread to modern Asia, where people pick and choose their own parts of the holiday - most important is Santa Claus. They strive to create their own, unique winter festivals. It's grown so large even the Southern Hemisphere has joined the party.

So, as a cousin of the Commonwealth, I now plan to go shopping, and then give to the poor. Before it's all over, I will worship Jesus, celebrate Saturnalia, drink to Yule, thank Olin, praise Nicholas of Myra, and finally adore the Magi. Damn, what a holiday. Enjoy!

Friday's Holiday Rave - Michael

PS - I don't wish to beat up on Boxing Day, but this London Guardian article shows us just how "evolved" a holiday can become. Hunting on Boxing Day? It seems contradictory to me.

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