Before examining in detail the zany antics of the god of the Judeo-Christian Bible, it might be beneficial to establish a little perspective by taking at least a cursory glance at other gods that Man has created for Himself, though not always in His own image.
Before the reader smirks at the obviously ridiculous claims of these various antiquated beliefs, it should be realized that each was as real to the believer of the time as those you may well hold today. Possibly even more so, as you have the benefit of modern science ready and willing to demonstrate the impossibility of many of the claims made by whatever religion you currently practice, whereas those ancient peoples did not.
The Early Greek poets envisioned various cosmogonies. The best preserved of these is Hessiod’s Theogony, in which hymn, out of primordial chaos came the earliest divinities, including Mother Earth herself: Gaia. If one were an Early Greek, one may well have said: “In the beginning, Gaia….”
Gaia created Uranus, the sky, to cover herself, and their sexual union spawned a bizarre menagerie of gods and monsters, including the Hecatonchires – monsters with fifty heads and a hundred hands (which must have made a Macaulay Culkin, Home Alone impression quite a complex endeavor) – and the one-eyed Cyclops, whose faulty depth perception made it extremely difficult for him to find his mouth with an ice cream cone.
Next came the gods known as the Titans, six sons and six daughters. Not having learned that kids will be kids, Uranus despised his children and imprisoned them in Tartarus, the earth’s bowels. Enraged, Gaia made an enormous sickle and gave it to her youngest son, Cronus – with instructions. When Uranus next appeared to copulate with Gaia, Cronus sprang out and hacked off his papa’s genitals! Where Uranus’ blood and assorted sausage fell, there sprang forth more monsters, the Giants and the Furies. From the sea foam churned up by the holy juevos, came the goddess Aphrodite. Cronus later fathered the next generation of gods, Zeus and his fellow Olympians.
The Romans were great architects and builders, which is no mean accomplishment of itself, but other than that, they borrowed nearly everything from other cultures, including the recipe for spaghetti. As for deities, they plagiarized shamelessly from the earlier Greeks. Cronus (aka, ‘sickle-boy’) became the Roman god, Saturn. Zeus, father of the third tier of Greek gods (after the Titans, then Zeus and his siblings), was known as Zeus-pater, or Zeus, the Father, in the Greek, which the Romans corrupted into Jupiter (try saying Jupiter, using a soft “J” or “zh” sound, to see the similarity). The other Greek gods and godlings underwent a similar transmutation.
All roads may have led to Rome, but originality was rarely a passenger.
In 45 B.C.E., the 25th of December was established in the Julian calendar as the winter solstice of Europe, centering upon the night of December 24th, leading into December 25th. From Roman times, in memory of the Golden Age of Man – a mythical age when Saturn was said to have ruled – a great Roman feast commemorating the dedication of the temple of the god Saturn was celebrated as the time of Saturnalia. During Saturnalia, roles of master and slave were reversed, moral restrictions loosened, and the rules of etiquette ignored, much like any given weekend at my place.
The celebration was originally only one day long, taking place on December 17th, but over time, it was expanded to one week, culminating on what Western culture now knows as Christmas Eve.
The Saturnalia, however, was influenced by an even earlier tradition, having taken place in Rome’s pre-empire era, while Rome was still a mere kingdom and also including drinking and merriment. Influenced by the ancient Greek Lenaia festival, Brumalia (the name is derived from the Latin word bruma, meaning “shortest day”) ceremonies continued for a month, ending December 25th.
Many believe that Christians in the fourth century assigned December 25th as the birthday of their religion’s namesake because pagans already observed this day as special, thus sidestepping the problem of eliminating an already popular holiday, while more easily Christianizing the “pagan” population.
It’s certainly no coincidence that many religious groups set aside this time as being special, with Christmas for the Christians, Chanuka, for the Jews, and Al-Hijra, the Islamic new year, for the Muslims, all occurring on or around the time of the Winter Solstice in December.
One can see how Early Man, likely fearing that the shrinking sun might continue to dwindle and never return, took a simple cosmological event – the earth turning in it’s orbit, allowing the northern hemisphere to receive a greater percentage of direct sunlight – filtered that through His fear and imagination, and buried the intellectual pursuit of the actual cause beneath impenetrable layers of superstition and religious dogma.
So always remember – the return of the sun to the northern hemisphere is the reason for the season! (That’s sun, not son –)
And if you want your December greeting to be as valid as anyone else’s, feel free to wish everyone a “Swingin’ Saturnalia!” – it’s certainly more appropriate than “Merry Christmas,” and it easily beats, “Bah! Humbug!”