Christmas: Still Celebrating

Allen McGregor's photo of a window display, Bay department store, Downtown Toronto, Ontario. (24 November 24, 2007) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.

Christmas comes but once a year. It’s a time for exchanging gifts, family get-togethers and awkward office parties.

December is a time for joyous preparation, frazzled shopping and holiday-themed music. It’s “Santa’s big scene.”

Children see their first Christmas window display. Parents remember when the windows seemed higher and displays more dazzling.

Seasonal traditions

Faucher-Gudin's drawing, hand-enhancing a damaged bas-relief found in Nineveh.Some of our Christmas traditions are new, some are anything but. We’ve lost track of when and where some started.

Some, like holly and mistletoe, almost certainly predate Europe’s Christianization.

I’m pretty sure celebrating Christmas near the winter solstice has even older roots.

Attitudes and Questions

Joy? No Problem

I’m no fan of maxed-out credit cards and vapid holiday specials.

But on the whole, I like the glitz and glitter. In moderation.

Not everyone feels that way. For some, Christmas is the season for deploring.

Traditional targets include rampant commercialism and Christmas specials.

I see echoes of America’s Puritan past in “rampant commercialism” rants, and that’s another topic. (June 1, 2018)

“The Obferation of Christmas having been deemed a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings, dreffing in Fine Clothing, Feafting and similar Satanical Practices are hereby FORBIDDEN”
(Public notice deeming Christmas illegal, Boston (1659))

New England Puritans apparently saw Christmas celebrations as unbiblical, pagan, idolatrous and Catholic.

They had a point. Sort of. I know of no Biblical reference to holly, mistletoe or Yule logs.

And Catholics do have a long history of commemorating our Lord’s birth by celebrating.

I don’t see a problem with acting as if the Messiah’s birth was a joyful occasion. I’m also not bothered by holiday traditions with roots in pre-Christian Europe. Or troubled that a Holy Day of Obligation falls so close to the winter solstice.1

Oddly enough, Puritans didn’t seem to mind that December 25 — or thereabouts — is Christmas Day. And has been since Roman times.

Why December 25th?

Why we celebrate Christmas on the 25th day of the 12th month day depends on who’s talking.

Maybe it’s because Christians hijacked Emperor Aurelian’s Sol Invictus festival.

Sol Invictus was Rome’s Sol, a sun god. Or maybe Elagabal, a Syrian import. Or something else.

Sextus Julius Africanus said Christmas is December 25th because Jesus of Nazareth was conceived on March 25th.

The current Western calendar started back when Rome had kings. Somewhere along the line, December — the 10th month — became the 12th month. Probably.

That’s what the Romans said. But their accounts don’t quite add up, and records got lost. Including Licinius Macer’s history.2

If that’s not enough to give the jittery demographic conniptions, here’s a winter solstice celebration, Mesopotamian style.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Zagmuk

Merry Zagmuk?

Faucher-Gudin's drawing, hand-enhancing a damaged bas-relief found in Nineveh. From 'Monuments of Nineveh, Second Series' plate 5, London, J. Murray (1853) It showed either a chaos monster and sun god, Tiamat and Markduk, Anzu and Ninurta, some monster and a king, or something else.
(From L. Gruner, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Bas relief from Nineveh: sun god attacking chaos monster.)

Backing up a little, Sargon of Akkad ruthlessly crushed the sovereign rights of Sumerian city-states. Or brought them a measure of peace and stability. Again, it would depend on who’s talking.

His Akkadian Empire lasted a couple centuries, and started a cycle that’s lasted four millennia. I think we may be developing a viable alternative to the empire-collapse-rebuild tradition, and that’s yet another topic. (December 24, 2018)

Babylon was a small town on the Euphrates during the Akkadian Empire’s heyday. It endured the Gutian dynasty of Sumer and what we call the 4.2 kiloyear event. Babylon grew, occasionally prospered and is currently an archaeological site south of Baghdad.

Where was I? Christmas specials, Puritans, Elagabal, Sargon of Akkad and Babylon. Right.

Folks living in Mesopotamia’s ‘good old days’ celebrated Zagmuk this time of year.

In Babylon, the festivities include a reenactment of Marduk’s 12-day battle with Chaos. The king played Marduk’s part, winning each year.

That, and what we euphemistically call a sacred marriage, sounds like fun for the king. Getting killed after the 12 days, so he could battle at Marduk’s side? Not so much. I gather that the king often had a stand-in for the 12 days of Zagmuk.

Zagmuk sounds a lot like Christmas: a mid-winter festival celebrating light and life’s triumph over chaos — and, arguably, evil — lasting 12 days.

What we know about Zagmuk comes partly from documents like Enûma Eliš. Copies of Enûma Eliš, more precisely.

The original text was probably written around Hammurabi’s day, give or take a few centuries. A particularly famous copy of Enûma Eliš was found in a royal library built a thousand years after Hammurabi enacted his law code.3

Ashurbanipal, Assyria and Epic Sibling Rivalry

(From Austen Henry Layard, James Fergusson; via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Austen Henry Layard and James Fergusson’s “The Palaces at Nimrud Restored.” (1853))

Ashurbanipal ruled the world’s largest empire, Assyria, from the world’s largest city, Nineveh.

He and his older brother, Shamash-shum-ukin, jointly inherited the Assyrian throne.

Before long, Ashurbanipal was running Assyria. His brother was king of Babylon.

Ashurbanipal? Shamash-shum-ukin? Don’t bother trying to remember these names. There won’t be a test on this.

Anyway, being a king of Babylon meant playing second fiddle to the Assyrian empire’s ruler. The one we call the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Shamash-shum-ukin’s dissatisfaction started a three-year civil war.

He’d assembled an impressive coalition of anti-Assyria rulers, including Elamites. When the dust settled, Ashurbanipal was still running Assyria, Shamash-shum-ukin was dead and Elam was an unpopulated wasteland.

If Ashurbanipal had lived today, he’d probably have faced charges of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

But the International Criminal Court was 26½ centuries in his future.

We’re learning, slowly, to see foreigners as neighbors. And that war is far from an ideal method for resolving conflicts. (January 1, 2019)

Ashurbanipal wasn’t just a hard-nosed military commander who knew the value of a reputation for cruelty.4

The Library of Ashurbanipal

While an apprentice scribe, Ashurbanipal mastered Akkadian and Sumerian.

As a ruler, he sent scribes throughout his empire, looking for ancient texts. “Ancient” from his viewpoint.

Collecting them was probably facilitated by his reputation for cruelty above and beyond his era’s norm.

The Library of Ashurbanipal was the world’s first systematically organized library. First that we know of, that is.

I gather that Ashurbanipal saw the library as his greatest accomplishment.

I think he may have been right.

About 19 years after Ashurbanipal died, a coalition of Babylonians, Scythians and Medes reached Nineveh and torched the palace.

Including the library. Or, maybe, libraries. The anti-Assyria forces were very thorough.

On the other hand, some scholars say the Library of Ashurbanipal was in use in Alexander the Great’s day. Maybe someone extracted part of the collection before or during the fire.

I’m assuming that the anti-Assyrians incinerated the palace, library or libraries included.

The fire obliterated anything written on wood, wax, leather or papyri. But the intense heat partly baked the library’s clay tables. That may have helped preserve them.

Centuries and millennia passed. Empires rose and fell. Then, about a century and a half back, someone found what was left of the Library of Ashurbanipal.

Fitting bits of broken clay tablets together took time. So did translating them.5

Enûma Eliš, the Epic of Gilgamesh and Assumptions

Enûma Eliš and the Epic of Gilgamesh may be the best-known documents from the Library of Ashurbanipal.

I suspect that the documents upset many 19th century folks.

The era was a bit like ours. Some Europeans and Euro-Americans were studying this world’s processes and evidence we’ve left as millennia passed.

What they learned didn’t always match their culture’s “Biblical” assumptions.

I suspect that politics fuels zealots on all sides of the ongoing science-religion-evolution-education brouhaha. (February 9, 2018; September 22, 2017)

“Truth Cannot Contradict Truth”

Scholars had known about ancient parallels to the Bible’s creation and flood stories. But the extra-Biblical parallels often postdated their Biblical equivalent.

Enûma Eliš and the Epic of Gilgamesh’s creation stories and flood myth looked like their Biblical counterparts.

And were probably written before Hebrews finalized Genesis. Worse, from one viewpoint, it looked like they were likely based on even older documents.6

Brooding because the Bible wasn’t the source of ancient stories was definitely an option. So was accepting what we’ve been learning, and thinking.

I think Pope Leo XIII was right.

“…God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is also the Author of the Scriptures – and that therefore nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures. … Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth…”
(“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893))

Celebrating Hope and Light

A Light for Revelation to the Gentiles

I figure winter solstice celebrations are so common in non-equatorial cultures because it’s when the sun starts returning.7

It’s a time to celebrate the visible hope that light and life will go on, that winter won’t last forever.

And for two millennia, it’s been a time to celebrate “good news of great joy:” the moment in history when “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” was born.

“The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
“For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord….'”
(Luke 2:10)

“‘Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word,
“for my eyes have seen your salvation,
“which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,
“light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.'”
(Luke 2: 2932)

The Light Still Shines

(From Silar, Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Nativity scene at the Christ the King Church in Sanok, Poland, 2010.)

You know what happened after the angel told shepherds to “not be afraid….”

They hightailed it to Bethlehem, found the promised Messiah in a feeding trough, with his mother, father and livestock. (Luke 2:1520)

Make that foster-father. I’ve talked about Joseph, Mary and their awkward circumstances before. (December 18, 2016)

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
“He was in the beginning with God.”
“the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
“And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”
(John 1:12, 5, 14)

Reactions to our Lord’s arrival was mixed.

The shepherds and Magi saw our Lord’s arrival as good news.

Herod saw a threat, which is why Joseph, Mary and Jesus took off for Egypt and stayed there until Herod died.

Jesus grew up, worked miracles, made sense: and reactions were mixed again.

The Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t agree on much, but they both saw Jesus as a threat. Grass roots sentiment turned from making our Lord’s arrival in Jerusalem into a parade to shouting “Crucify him!”

Which is what happened.

A few days later, Jesus stopped being dead. We’re still celebrating, two millennia later. And that’s yet again another topic.

Christmas and Advent posts:

1 Christmassy traditions:

Holy Days of Obligation?

HOLY DAYS OF OBLIGATION: Principle feast days on which, in addition to Sundays, Catholics are obliged by Church law to participate in the Eucharist; a precept of the Church. (2043, 2180)
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary)

2 A matter of time:

3 Four millennia, briefly:

4 An empire’s best years:

5 Ashurbanipal’s legacy:

6 History, archaeology and attitudes:

7 Winter solstice celebrations:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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4 Responses to Christmas: Still Celebrating

  1. Wishing you and your family a Blessed Christmas filled with joy, peace, happiness, hope and good health always.

    God bless.

  2. Peggy Haslar says:

    Thanks for this piece…so much to know and I always appreciate the fruit of your research. Merry Christmas. The light still shines in the darkness…

Thanks for taking time to comment!