Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Winter Time Celebrations

Boka Tov:
Since I was a wee one, I have always been full of questions.
My mother says that's because I not only read, but thought too much.
That's another story.
And many of my questions centered around Christmas.
I grew up in a Baptist home and for the most part I loved it. It gave me not only grounding, but a knowing that there was a place and a purpose for me in the world, that I didn't just exist and take up space.
I often asked the following questions: if we are celebrating the birth of the Messiah, why isn't He recieving the gifts? The Scriptures say the sheperds watched their flocks by night, yet why do we say Messiah was born in December? How did we come to pick this date? Etc.
My mother, like many didn't know the answer. But I would later learn that she left it up to me to find them on my own. If I really wanted to know, I would search out the answers for myself.
A wonderful way to learn.
It was in  Junior High School I found the founding:
It seems that Winter celebrations are nothing new, predating Christianity by thousends of years. The Norse folk after the harvest was brought in would settle in for the long, often brutal winters in their homes. The men would fell long trees and bring in the logs that were known to burn a good 12 days or so (yule log). Most of the anmials were slaughted and used for food because there was really no way to house them during the long winter months. Families often visit each other as the winter permitted and shared games, gifts and feast. Between the scent of many humans and animals filling the house air, pine branches were often brought in, not only with the reminder of Spring, but to freshen the air. There were also cults such as the Druids and Asherah that the evergreen tree, mistletoe, holly and the Yule log were part of their worship traditions. 
 The night rider who has since be come to know as Santa Claus came from a Norse myth as well. So the Winter Solstice was a wonderful time to gather with the community and celebrate the harvest. A large feast of fresh foods served as a send off to the fruitful autumn months, as people hunkered down for the stored food that would sustain them through the winter, telling stories of the night rider and other ghostly tales.
Just as we do now during Christmas and Hanukkah.
The celebrations took many different forms in different cultures around the then known world, most  celebrating the lengthening days and the return of  Spring and the return of the sun.
So how did these celebrations become what we know as Christmas?
Well, the first 300 hundred, there was no celebrating of Messiah's birth. In fact, the central message was the death, burial and resurrection of Messiah. Not His birth. No where in the scriptures do you find the Apostles including the birth of Messiah in their message.
But then came the Council of Nicea.
Christians faced a trouble from within:  the Arian controversy began and threatened to divide the church. The problem began in Alexandria, it started as a debate between the bishop Alexander and Pastor Arius. Arius proposed that if the Father begat the Son, the latter must have had a beginning, that there was a time when he was not, and that his substance was from nothing like the rest of creation. The Council of Nicea, a gathering similar to the one described in Acts 15:4-22, condemned the beliefs of Arius and wrote the first version of the now famous creed proclaiming that the Son was "one in being with the Father" by use of the Greek word "homoousius."
Thus the Nicene Creed, that which was to untiy the believers.
"Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate, was made man, was born perfectly of the Holy Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit."
Since the Messiah was now seen as both Human and Divine,  it was decided by church leaderes that His birth must be celebrated.
 At the same time, the church was having a hard time getting pagans to accept Messiah and decided to use their celebrations as a way to teach about Messiah. Some call this redeeming the pagan holidays or using for teaching spiritual truths. Others call it borrowing, bait and switch, tricking or stealing.
Take your pick.
So the evergreen began the Tree of Life or the Christmas tree. Holly  and wealths reminds one of the crown of thorns Messiah had pressed upon His head, etc.
 25th is also the birthday of the Persian sun-god Mithras. While in Iraq, Mark met a family who celebrate this day with the same abandment Christmas is here in the States and one is hard press to see the difference. Around 350, Pope Julius decree that the church would celebrate Messiah's birth on this date, to replace the false sun-god and worship G-d the Son.
Yule is the Chaldean name for 'infant' or 'little child.' In ancient Babylon, the 25th of December was known as Yule day or the birth of the promised child day. This was the day of the birth of the incarnate sun, who appeared as a baby child to redeem a world bound in darkness. It was an essential belief of the Babylonian religious system, that the sun god, also known as Baal, was the chief god in a polytheistic system. Tammuz was also worshipped as the god incarnate, or promised baby son of Baal, who was to be the Savior of the world.

Many believers did not buy this reasoning, seeing it as the mixing of the holy and the unholy. Many Jewish believers saw this as the worship of another g-d and wanted nothing to do with it. Sadly, the holiday that was meant to make all believers one became a divider between the Greek believer and the Hebrew beleivers.
 In fact, this began the acid test of belief in Messiah: those who did not celebrate Christmas were considered non-believers.
There was even a time when England (1644), New England and other places where Christmas was forbidden by law because of the drunkness and volence connected with the day. Religious folk rejected the celebration because it was regarded as a pagan holiday. The English Puritan even regarded the day as the work of satan. Even Martin Luther and John Calvin rejected the Day.
It wasn't until the 1800's that in fact that Christmas became a national holiday and soon after started to be in embraced as a Religious celebration.
Today's Christmas is thanks in part to the Victorian era and Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol.
And then there is the date itself.
In my twenties, I did the math:
Yeshua was 33 and half when He was put to death passover. Late March, early April. If you count back or forward six months, that would make His birth in later September, early October, during the Feast of Booths. Hanukkah would be the time Miriam (Mary) would have recieved Him in her womb. Not December.
So I found my answers.
I still love this time of the year. While Mark and I do not celebrate Christmas, we still can find joy in the seaason.  G-d use both nature and culture to teach us about Himself and others. The winters winds indeed slow down our pace, and we can use these to draw us closer to friends and family, to tell stories, share our goods with others,  for fun and fellowship.
I still have fond memories of days gone by, but find myself truly enjoying the Feast of the L-rd, Shabbat and the lovely scents and sounds of Hanukkah
We as Jews are commanded not to learn the way of the heathen. So that we do not fall away from the G-d of Abraham.  To redeem means to return someone or something to its origianl state, not change its meaning to suit ourselves.
But I don't believe that means we are to cut ourselves off from others. Nor look down on how others chose to celebrate or not celebrate this time of the year. G-d shines the truth in our lives as we can handle it.
Nor is there anything wrong with tradition; as long as it doesn't counter Torah. And again, that is a truth each of us must come to.

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