St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Tis the Season of Unsurprising Overlaps

Holiday overlaps come with increased regularity in some seasons of the year, like the time around and after Thanksgiving.  This year we had a complete overlap between Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, and American Thanksgiving.  Hanukkah commemorates freedom in ancient Israel through the symbol of a lamp that remained afire despite the absence of oil.  Overlaps make sense because from time immemorial, people sought ways to celebrate special seasons and turning points in the year.  We should find nothing unusual in this.

On the heels of both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah comes St Nicholas Day on the 6th December.  This remarkable saint lived in the 4th Century as bishop of Myra in Lycia, a seaport on the Mediterranean Sea in what is now Turkey.  He is noted for generosity and kindness, and hence he is the core of the legend that became Santa Claus.

Christmas overlaps with Yuletide, an ancient Pagan holiday to celebrate the return or rising of the light that happens from the Winter solstice forward.  The Romans celebrated a festival called Saturnalia from the 17th to the 23rd of December (in our calendar it would be from the 30th December to the 5th of January) in the midst of which was a special day called “the birth of the unconquerable sun,” which some people think influenced the date of Christian Christmas, but recent explorations have raised questions about that.

The festival also contained days on which role reversals and behavioral license were customary:  slaves upbraided their masters and received a feast at their hands.  In later Christian practice this became known as the Feast of Fools, which got so out of hand that it was finally condemned and forbidden in the western church at the end of the 15th century.

Christianity overhauled some of the previous traditions of earth religions, like the Yule log, the tree at the season which stems far back in time to the Romans and even the Egyptians who appear to have celebrated the return of the fertility of the earth with fronds of palms and other such things like laurel wreaths.  But then again Christianity’s parent religion Judaism did its own overhauling of previous harvest festivals that were inherited from the Canaanites.  Succoth, for example, which commemorates the ingathering of the harvest, became identified with the wanderings in the wilderness before the settlement in Canaan.  Even Passover has an agrarian background.

Kwanzaa is a celebration of recent invention.  It began in 1966 as a way for African Americans to celebrate their heritage in a special way with gifts.  The focus is on family and ethnic unity and purpose, and since 1997 it has been clear that Kwanzaa is not intended to replace other holidays people of faith might celebrate, like Christmas or Hanukkah.

Recently a Las Cruces Great Conversation hosted an evening on paganism.  People had the opportunity to say, in public, that they do not worship the devil, that they are engaged in charitable works in the community, that they share a spectrum of beliefs, and that they commemorate the wheel of the year in festivals like Yule, as did most of our ancestors.

Surprising juxtapositions continue.  We need not find them problematic as did the early Puritans, who were so austere as to prevent Christmas from being celebrated in any way in the colonies of New England – and they were Christians!

Throughout the year we need to extend generosity and understanding to those who follow different paths of the spirit.  Understanding does not require agreement with those paths, but only that you are willing to see how these paths bring meaning to other lives and to share how your path brings meaning to you.