Friday, December 23, 2005

The Pagan Origins of Christmas

The word yule means wheel (from Anglo-Saxon hweol), as in the Great Wheel of the Year or the Wheel of the Sun. It symbolizes a pagan nativity of life as a cycle of death and rebirth, with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus replaced by Mother Nature, Father Time, and the New Sun (read: son). This was used throughout history as a symbol of Nordic divination, Celtic fertility rites, and Roman Mithraism (a solar religion). The most familiar symbol of Yule is the Yule log, which is lit on the eve of the solstice and burned for 12 hours for good luck, a Druidic tradition. The ashes of the year’s Yule log are saved and used to ignite the next year’s. The Yule tree later replaced the log in Germany and other places, with candles set upon it. Catholics later said that St. Boniface invented this custom, but it actually goes back to the Roman Saturnalia, and possibly further than that, to Ancient Egyptian festivals. The Christmas lights are the last remnants of this, but its symbolism is important--light overcoming the darkness and foreshadowing the spring. After all, who doesn’t feel secure and warmed in the dark by the presence of soft Christmas lights?

The Tree
The evergreen tree is of great importance to pagans, more so than to Christians. Roman Mithraists used to decorate their temples with evergreen trees specifically for the feast.

Mistletoe comes from the Druids, who believed it to be an aphrodisiac (symbolically, of course--it’s actually quite toxic). Celts believed it was the Golden Bough when it dried, a door to the underworld (Norsemen called it guidhel, the guide to Hel). When alive, it represented the genitalia of the oak god, usually Dianus of Dodona, the sacred oak grove where the consort of the moon mother lived. A key entering a lock is a mystical symbol of the phallus entering the womb, another reason mistletoe was the key to the feminine underworld, where all true knowledge was held. Cutting the mistletoe was the symbolic castration of the old king to make way for the new, reflected best in the legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or the Norse Balder, who was slain with mistletoe. Kissing under the mistletoe is a faint remnant of the sexual orgies that used to accompany the rites of the oak god, or Green Man. When converted to Christianity, the Saxons equated mistletoe with the Tree of Knowledge from the garden of Eden.

Holly symbolizes death and regeneration and was sacred to the Norse goddess of death, Hel. Germanic witches favored holly wood for magic wands. The two berries are mixed together in a symbol of rebirth--the white mistletoe berries standing for male semen, and the red holly berries standing for the female menstrual blood. They are joined at Yule, the rebirth of the year. These are where the red and green colors of Christmas originated. Dinoysian cults substituted ivy for mistletoe, which is still heard in the Christmas carol "The Holly and the Ivy."

We Three Kings
The story of the three wise men is reflected in an Irish legend. In the time of Alexander, the land of Persia was called Carmania, "Car the Moon." According to the Irish legend, three powerful magicians came from this land bearing their bride, which was actually an idol of the Great Goddess under the name Car or Kore. The magicians were found as charlatans and fled, leaving their idol behind. The worship of Kore, the Holy Virgin, was widespread in the ancient world, from Karnak, Egypt, to Carnac, Brittany (the word itself is Greek, meaning girl). She was worshipped in France at Kerlescan, Kercado, and Kermario, and by the Carnutes who lived in pre-Roman Italy. The Roman alphabet was said to have originated with Carmenta, "the mind of Car." Mount Carmel was a shrine to the goddess, and her Coptic cult in Egypt--which has once performed mass sacrifice at Kerma in Nubia--flourished in Alexandria until the 4th century AD. She was worshipped for twelve nights (now the Twelve Days of Christmas), and the twelfth night (now the Feast of Epiphany) was the Koreion, the birth of the New Year God. The British still take the Koreion, after a fashion, as the Kirn, or Festival of Intergathering, later changed to the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy.

Santa Claus
When he isn’t pitching Coca-Cola (whose ads, incidentally, popularized the "traditional" look of Santa), Claus is a wonderful amalgamation of many different figures. The god of Yule to many Druids was Kriss Kringle, whose name literally means "Christ of the Orb" or "Christ-child" (Christkindl in German), the anointed King of the Sun. French Celts associated the year with Cernunnos, the horned god of the wood. The Norse gave the festival first to Frey, and then to Odin, the usurper of women’s power. The Saxons and Franks called him Woden; the Goths called him Godan or Father Goth. In Germany, legends tell of the Erlkonig, or Elf King, who leads the Wild Hunt every year at Halloween. Somehow, this legend was moved to Christmas and became Santa’s sleigh ride. The elves of Santa Claus are right out of these Teutonic legends, because elves were men and women who belonged to the cult of the dead--i.e. they were helpers of the god of death, Woden.

It is in Odin that the tree and Claus get especially combined. Odin hanged himself upside down from the World Tree with a spear for nine nights, a symbol of the nine-month childbirth period the Celts called noinden, or "nine-night." This was how Odin learned the secrets of the Earth Mother’s "wise blood," kept in her uterine cauldron (the cauldron itself is a symbol of regeneration and rebirth). This tree of martyrdom, called the Tau Cross or Cross of St. Anthony, allowed Odin to create his own son and reincarnation, Balder; similar to the myths of Attis, Adonis, and Jesus. Odin, the All Father (though not a creator), is older than the Teutons, originating with the Aryans who came west out of Asia, and is descended himself from Vata, the Vedic Lord of the Winds. Odin and Vata share the same title that the Christian bible gives Satan: Prince of the Power of the Air. In later centuries, fetishes and figures were attached to sacred trees to represent a pantheon of pagan deities. We continue the tradition today by placing our important symbols, including Santa Claus and Jesus Christ, and even pop culture symbols (I myself have the Superman and Kermit the Frog on my tree).

The Dutch called him Sinte Klaas, which is how the name Santa Claus gets over here in the first place. A similar Danish god, Hold Nikar, became "Old Nick" to the English, and was spuriously canonized as St. Nicholas, a benevolent giver of gifts. Hold Nikar was a sea god, sometimes equated with Poseidon, which is why St. Nicholas is said to be the patron saint of sailors. His preposterous saint’s biography says he regenerated the dead from a cauldron; how this remained in a Catholic world I cannot begin to speculate. A Gnostic sect of Nicoliates worshipped his cauldron and believed that salvation lay through frequent intercourse with both sexes! We are left with a kindly giver of gifts, which is Odin in his kindest aspect, who once a year traveled over towns and bestowed boons to his worthiest followers (those who believed in him, as we tell children of Santa).

Yule is, most importantly, the time to awake to new goals and leave old regrets behind. The star, now placed atop the Christmas tree, represents the five elements of the world: earth, air, fire, water, and wood. It has been overtaken by Christmas, but its spirit can never die. Martin Luther and John Calvin recognized the pagan origins of the holiday, and absolutely abhorred Christmas. The winter solstice, the longest night of the year, is associated with the birth of many solar gods that predated Jesus: Dionysos, Apollo, Herakles, Mithras, Horus, Adonis, Arthur. This is the night when the Great Mother gives birth to the new Sun King and the new year itself, proving the eternal victory of light over dark. This message, that the light will prevail, is the most important aspect of this holiday under any name, and connects us all in good blessings and good company. The pagan origins of Christmas are not to be abhorred or scoffed at, because the similarity of Christmas, Yule, and all the other versions unite us in our innate goodness, and bring us all closer together.

Historical Throwdown II: Holiday Boogaloo

Well, it's Christmas this weekend, and even though I'm not (overly) a sentimentalist, I just can't bring myself to care about any political or pop cultural or entertainment business news today. So, once again, I'm doing away with the Throwdown this week and instead giving up 10 facts I find interesting about the winter holidays themselves. Then, I'm going to curl up with my favorite Christmas movie of all time (the 1999 Patrick Stewart version of A Christmas Carol, seen above), and feel the season. Here goes.

1. Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo may not know, but the term wassail comes from the Old Norse ves heill ("to be of good health"). To wassail is to drink to the health of your neighbors on Christmas Eve. Doesn't anyone do this anymore? Wassailing somehow morphed into caroling.

2. The first US state to designate Christmas an official holiday was Alabama (1836). The last was Oklahoma (1911).

3. Pope Julius I designated 25 December the official date of Christmas in the year 440. The date was chosen in an attempt to replace the Mithraic Festival of the Return of the Sun. Many scholars think Jesus was born in the spring (assuming he existed at all). Those who never adopted the Gregorian calendar and are still on the Orthodox (Julian) calendar celebrate Christmas on 7 January.

4. Visa cards are used 5,340 times every minute during the Christmas shopping season.

5. From 1647 to 1660, Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas in England. He considered feasting and revelry on a holy day to be immoral.

6. In Jewish communities, if a family is too poor to buy candles for Hanukkah, the rest of the community is obligated to provide for them. If the candles are not completely burned by the end of the eight days, it is not permitted to used them for any other purpose and they must be destroyed.

7. Unlike Christmas, Hanukkah is based on an actual historical event; the cleansing of the Great Temple of Jerusalem after the Maccabeean revolt in 165 BC.

8. Kwanzaa was invented in 1966 as a pan-African celebration based on several African harvest festivals. Most websites about Kwanzaa only mention how to teach it to children. It is only celebrated by 1.6% of Americans.

9. Festivus is actually an obscure Scandinavian holiday celebrating the day before the Future (on Wikipedia, they compare it to Fat Tuesday).

10. Sorry faux-O.C. hipsters, but Chrismukkah has been around since the seventies. It isn't really cool, it just kind of waters down both holidays. Don't embarrass yourself celebrating its twenty days of tragic fake hipness. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Good Morning, Good Morning

I thought, for no good reason, I'd start the day with Scarlett Johansson's beautiful Golden Globes. Or as Becca once called them, luscious lovecups.

I have to say it again: "Luscious lovecups." Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

No More Intelligent Design

Finally, a rare American victory for smart people today, as a judge in Pennsylvania rules that the teaching of "intelligent design" is unconstitutional. Thankfully, someone recognized it as the purely religious agenda which it is, and kicked it out of the system. "Intelligent design" is the stupidest euphemism for creationism I've heard in some time, and I was offended by the mere notion of it being taught in American schools because, after all, evolution is "only a theory."

Well, that's science. Everything's a theory, until it's proven. Proof... Some of the debates I've heard over this issue go over into the truly stupid, especially on the area of proof. "There has never been a recorded case of visibly recognizable evolution," someone at my school said. "You can't see it happen, so where's the proof?" He seemed to think that was the definitive answer: if you can't watch a million-year process happen as it happens, it must not exist. My answer was to ask if he had ever seen a case of spontaneous creation, and he couldn't answer. I'm sorry, but the burden of proof is still on God: he has to prove he exists; I don't have to prove that he doesn't. Someone else in my school said both sides should be heard, but I have to agree with Bill Maher and say that you don't have to teach both sides of a debate, especially if one side is total bullshit. Should we stop teaching physics? I mean, gravity is only a theory, right?

If religion keeps trying to infest our schools and our politics and our public policy, shouldn't we be able to force religions to pay taxes? I mean, that's the price of admission in politics, isn't it? And shouldn't I be able to say that, since the existence of God cannot be proven, I should be allowed to speak before congregations have service and tell them that God is only "a theory, not a fact" with "unexplained gaps" in it? No, of course not. And they shouldn't be trying to confuse our children with the same thing during school. Church and state were separated in this country for a reason.

I'm so glad about this. I'm sure that someone in Washington will get all pissy about it, just like the gay marriage civil rights issue, and whine about how we don't need judges interpreting the law, even though that's pretty much the definition of their job. But for now, we can all relax a little with the knowledge that the fanatics are once again pulling their hair out over the fact that not everyone thinks exactly the same way as they do, and that the Inquisitors still don't have complete control over our daily lives. This is a great day for intelligence and reason.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Christmas in the Stars

I like so much crap, so of course I was thrilled yesterday when, through the expertise and wilfulness of Becca, I was suddenly presented with a CDR copy of Christmas in the Stars, the official Star Wars Christmas album. Oh, man, am I a dork. I love this stupid, stupid record. Yes, it's lame, and part of it is that I like it on an ironic level--I do relish everything that refutes the ludicrous fan claim that "Star Wars isn't just for children!"--but I genuinely enjoy some of it, too. So, it'll go right on my shelf with other novelty albums, such as the Best of Meco album (with the famous Star Wars electronic disco music), my science fiction novelty albums, my Dr. Demento CDs, and every single "Weird Al" Yankovic original album.

But Becca bought The Transformed Man by William Shatner. So maybe I came out ahead. Just barely. Posted by Picasa

When the Hell Is "Life Day"?

Well, now I'm in the mood to point out how Star Wars has, in fact, always been children's entertainment, and I came across this picture of the Chewbacca Family from The Star Wars Holiday Special. We could go on and on about how incredibly lame this thing is, or how lame George Lucas is for burying it for nearly 30 years because he finds it so embarrassing (the same thing that drives him to keep "fixing" the trilogy to make it look as modern and new as possible so that it will always, ALWAYS be the best), but so many others have gone into it that it seems redundant. So, here we have Chewbacca and his forgotten wife, Malla, along with their son Lumpy and good ol' pervy Uncle Itchy, who watches a human girl dance in a holo-cube while celebrating the Wookie equivalent of Christmas, Life Day. Okay...

Don't you just look at this picture and think it should have been a sitcom? All in the Family, with Wookies.

And, of course, Han Solo has to awkwardly greet the Wookie family. I guess, on the sitcom version, he could have been like a more prominent Stretch Cunningham (remember Archie Bunker's friend from work who was always joking around and was played by James Cromwell?). Harrison Ford looking damn uncomfortable, is what it is. You think he's stoned on something? He always looks stoned to me in the seventies, or drunk, and then suddenly in the eighties he becomes Mr. Professional. As opposed to now, when he's Mr. Hardass-Trying-to-Seem-Cool.

They even did a storybook about Chewie's family, man. I remember discovering this book in the library at my elementary school; for some reason, it was in the non-fiction 700s with other movie stuff, rather than in fiction. Does that make it some kind of anthropological study, or something? Anyway, this introduced the Wookie planet of Kashyyk (however the hell you spell it) and how it looked into the Star Wars continuity, but Lumpy and the rest got lost, for some reason. Maybe they thought children would be upset that Chewie didn't go home more often. Or maybe it was because Lucas used the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi instead. Either way, I almost feel sorry for Lumpy, even though he's creepy. On this cover, though, he looks delicious. If I were hunting and saw a rabbit that fat, I'd shoot it and eat for a week.

Look at this crap: they even had action figures planned; here are the prototypes. For some reason, Lumpy can't resist touching himself. Maybe it itches. And what do you suppose his real name was? Lumpbacca?

Lumpy kind of looks crazed and dangerous to me. Did you ever go to someone's house, and they have a cute little dog--something small, like a Lhasa Apso or some kind of faggy dog like that--and it looks harmless but it keeps growling and baring its teeth at you? That's Lumpy. Man, when Han comes over for dinner, I hope he doesn't turn his back on this thing.

If you've made it this far, here's a little reward for bearing with me. Yes, it's scenes from the Star Wars Holiday Special.

First, here's the opening, Wookie language and all. Wonder if they'll show this on Harrison Ford's AFI tribute.

The Cantina scene, featuring the comic genius of Bea Arthur.

A very badly animated cartoon segment.

And lastly, Princess Leia sings! Happy Life Day, everyone!

Also related:
Christmas in the Stars
Plif the Hoojib

Plif the Hoojib

While we're at it, does anyone else remember Plif the Hoojib? I thought he was neat when I was a kid. I think there were some storybooks with Plif, but he was mainly a character in the Star Wars series from Marvel Comics that were so weird. The Hoojibs were some kind of rabbit-like race (they were pink, too) that were Force sensitive and, if I remember right, ate energy or electricity or crystals or something. I don't know, they were kind of cool, even though they aren't serious enough for today's breed of "only Boba Fett is cool and I hate everything else about the kids' movies I've devoted myself to" Star Wars fan. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, December 18, 2005

My Gay Pick Up: A Tale from the Video Store

It's a relatively calm Wednesday night, and there's only myself and Tyler working. No customers at all. So, as the only supervisor on the premises, I am, of course, doing my best not to work, when a guy comes into the store; he must be about 30 or so (at the time, I'm 24). I greet him, as is my job, and he heads off to look through the family section. After a while, I'm too bored not to work, so I go over and ask, in my best "I really want to help you" voice: "Is there anything I can help you find, sir?"

He starts asking me about Disney tapes--where certain cartoons can be found, checking the names of certain titles, etc. Well, this is an area of expertise with me, so we strike up a conversation about Disney and cartoons and Mickey Mouse and why the Disney Channel doesn't show the old cartoons anymore. I tell him about The Ink and Paint Club, a show Disney used to run which featured several cartoons gathered around a loose theme (it's actually how I first saw a lot of the Silly Symphonies). He actually brought up some of the old Disney's Wonderful World of Color movies, like The Biscuit Eater, and we talked about Victory Through Air Power. At first he thought I was glad-handing him, but after a while he would pepper the conversation with exclamations of "Wow, you really know all this stuff," or "Gee, you're not just pretending to know what I'm talking about." No, I explained, I reallly was a fanatic for Disney.

After a conversation that lasted about forty or fifty minutes, Tyler calls me over and asks: "What's that all about?" Before I can answer, though, the phone rings and I have to take a call from someone looking for a movie that hasn't even been released yet. When I finish, the guy is coming up to leave. He stops at the door, then turns to me and shakes my hand and introduces himself. "Thanks for the help. I'm not going to get anything tonight, though. Look, since you and I are both such Disney fans, if you ever want to get together and hang out or just call and talk some more, give me a call. Here's my card." Then he hands me a business card.

I know I'm probably never going to call the guy, but I politely thank him and tell him to have a good night. After the guy leaves, I see Tyler smirking at me.

ME: What?

TYLER: What was that all about?

ME: What do you mean? He and I were just both into Disney.

TYLER: Dude, don't you get it?

ME: What?

TYLER: He was trying to pick you up.

ME: Really?

TYLER: Yeah. Come on, you saw him. Neat hair, sweater-jacket, loafers.

ME: That doesn't mean anything.

TYLER: He gave you his phone number...

ME: So?

TYLER: Look at the card; what does he do for a living?

I look at the card. He's a piano tuner.

ME: Oh...

Men, women, whomever--I'm just too dumb to know when you're hitting on me. But it's pretty cool and flattering that a gay man thought I was nice enough to try and pick up. Must have been one of my rare clean-shaven days...