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The Winter Festivals

The headlong rush into the Winter Festivals is always something of a panic, but this year as well as numerous projects which need reaching a suitable state before I can take a week off, my wife has fallen sick with a stomach virus (picked up from one of her friends, visiting the UK from Atlanta) which I stand an excellent chance of catching myself. Therefore, some reduced blog service is to be expected.

I just thought I'd take a moment to talk about why I choose to talk about The Winter Festivals, rather than single out one in particular. Please note that when I talk about the Winter Festivals, I do not include festivals that generally land in November such as The Wheel of Fortune and Diwali (the Hindi Festival of Lights) - nor drifting festivals such as Ramadan that land at a different point each year.

I'm just taking about festivals that congregate near the end of December.

Winter Solstice (Yule)

This is, as far as I know, the oldest of the Winter Festivals, and responsible for a number of the traditions associated with this time of year, such as the burning of a yule log, having a winter feast and the hanging of boughs (holly and mistletoe in particular).

Hanukkah

The Jewish Festival of Lights. This one actually sometimes hits late November, but it pretty much corresponds with the timing of the madness of the season and therefore fits. At its heart, Hanukkah is celebrating the re-dedication of the temple in Jerusalem when it was liberated around 200 BC. It is a nice touch that rather than expressly celebrating military victory (Jews do not, generally speaking, glorify war), the festival celebrates a miracle told in the Torah of sacred oil burning for eight nights when there was only enough for one.

Christmas

The celebration of the birth of Jesus is a religious festival which historically may have less to do with the birth of the Christian saviour (which almost certainly did not happen at this time) and more to do with organised religion trying to exert excessive cultural influence in the past. Although the origins of Christmas are disputed, it looks likely that it is positioned here in order to absorb and take over Yule and similar non-Christian Winter Festivals. Although I feel Christians have every right to celebrate the birth of Jesus whenever they wish, I would like to note that excessive focus on the Nicene creed - which chooses to focus on the fantastical birth and gruesome death of Jesus instead of his central message which was that we should love one another - is one of the principle blights affecting modern Christianity and separating it from its spiritual and religious roots.

Kwanzaa

A cultural rather than religious festival that runs in the week up to Gregorian New Year. Founded in 1966 it is one of two Winter Festivals aimed at opposing the growing commercialism of the Winter Festivals. It is principally concerned with celebrating African-American heritage and is therefore only widely practiced in the United States.

Swik

Swik is the name some people use to describe the cultural festival of Greed and Commercialism which descends at this time of year. Swik is at its heart a pressure valve for the many people who are not enjoying this time of year, that they might feel free to say 'Merry Swik!' with a certain bitterness and cynicism, thus relieving their own tensions. Some people observe that more people celebrate Swik (i.e. Greed and Commercialism) than Christmas (i.e. the Birth of Jesus), although they do not necessarily call their activities 'Swik'. This year is Swik 16.0.

Gregorian New Year

It's the day we celebrate the Catholic Church's calender rolling over. Perhaps we should see this as a thank you to all the monks and similarly dedicated individuals who have developed and maintained the calendar many of us use from day to day. Since we clearly are using their calender, I have never really understood the need to introduce phrases like BCE (Before Common Era) instead of BC (Before Christ). I presume such measures reduce cognitive dissonance in people who don't like to thank religion for anything.

Other New Years include Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year; first two days of Tishrei/between September and October Gregorian), Chinese New Year (between January 21st and February 21st Gregorian), Tet Nguyen Dan (Vietnamese New Year - same range of dates as Chinese New Year), Losar (Tibetan New Year - occurs between January and March Gregorian), Naw-Rúz (Baha'i New Year; on the Vernal Equinox/21st March Gregorian), Norouz (Iranian New Year; also on the Vernal Equinox), Teluga New Year (between March and April Gregorian), Thai New Year (13-15 April Gregorian), Cambodian New Year (same dates as Thai), Poila Baisakh (Bengali New Year; 14-15 April Gregorian), Enkutatash (Ethiopian New Year; 11 September Gregorian), Havvoth Nar (1 The Fool/5 May Gregorian), Hindu New Year (usually two days after Diwali i.e. in Gregorian November), and Sunni Muslim New Year (on 1 Muharram in the Islamic calender).

For anyone who wonders why I slavishly refer to January 1st as Gregorian New Year, it is in part a recognition that it is not "The" New Year but "A" New Year, but also because it is my birthday and not when I choose to celebrate new year at all.

Happy Winter Festival of your choice to everyone!

Comments

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Hope you have an enjoyable season of Winter Festivals, whichever you deign to observe :) Thanks for a stimulating little rundown of many of the traditions of the season. I think your comments on the Gregorian calender and the BC - BCE business are very well stated.

I was intrigued by your comment on the Nicene Creed. While the Creed does more or less codify most of the major points of Christian belief, I think it's important to recall the specific circumstances in which that particular creed was adopted.

All Christians, no matter how varied in particular belief structures and doctrines, all profess to believe in Jesus Christ and that his greatest commandment, to love God and each other. The Council of Nicaea was convened as a response to Arius's claim that Jesus wasn't really God, not as Christianity believes him to be, co-equal with the rest of the Trinity.

As with all the major councils and much that happened in the church's history in those early years, it was really about ironing out a lot of the fine points of belief and addressing pertinent issues of the age, and the Nicene Creed reflects that. It's a run down of the specifics of what Christians believe (almost in handy bullet-point format!) formulated in response to contended points. It is our creed, but in a sort of legalistic way... it kind of takes for granted that a Christian should/would emphasize Christian virtues in daily life... and perhaps therein lies your critique :) Oh well... we can all hope for a greater degree of Orthopraxy (right practice) alongside Orthodoxy (right belief).

While I was checking up on this history for this reply as well as for my own edification, it's interesting to note that Arianism, the view that the Nicene Creed was adopted as a response to, is one of the first of more modern formulations such as the Watchtower Society--Jehovah's Witnesses. A very stimulating post, bravo!

Thanks once again for a valuable commentary, Jack. My 'attack' on the Nicene creed was inspired by something I read last year about how certain politicians seem to favour a Christianity which focuses on the cute baby Jesus and the details of his execution, and conveniently overlook all of his ministry in between - with all that inconvenient anti-establishment anarchist love that is such a pain if you want to support an aggressive foreign policy that (I believe) would anger Jesus almost as much as the money changers in the temple.

I managed to find a link to the article, which was from the Guardian, December 24th 2004:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,12271,1379470,00.html#article_continue

ahaha, yes, that puts your comment about the Nicene Creed into proper perspective. Yes. If we're talking about the "neo-con"/fundamentalist America, there is indeed a truly woeful lack of emphasis on the centrality of love and yes, even tolerance (Jesus breaking bread with tax collectors and prostitutes--talk about your universal and timeless archetypes!) that is so central to the Gospel. That's well written article.

Hi Chris,
thanks for all your interesting articles, I discovered your blog a week or two ago and backtracked through, reading every entry you wrote (I'll admit I was a bit bored at work :)).

Re: Your comments on Christmas (I know it's what everyone talks about when it comes up), I recently read this article ( http://www.faithfusion.net/index.php?itemid=154 ) regarding the myth that Christmas was positioned to over-ride pagan winter festivals. I couldn't follow the link referenced to the original work (site was down at the time), but it looks like it may actually be a myth regarding that belief.

Why they celebrated on December 25 I don't know, as Jesus would most likely have been born in the spring time.

Also, thanks for adding some context to your comment about the Nicene creed, I agree with you that many Christians put the focus on Jesus' birth, death and resurrection (rightly, as they are the main focus in Christianity) while ignoring many of Christ's teachings.

He did eat with "sinners", but while accepting them, he did not accept their sins, his primary message throughout the gospels being "repent (turn around) and believe". Loving each other is actually the second of the great commandments (the first being to love God with all your self).

Thanks for actually being polite when people post things that disagree with you, I appreciate it (espescially when I post something in disagreeance with you now) :)

Keep up the posts.

Thanks for your comments, RodeoClown. There is evidence that pagans had been celebrating the winter solstice for thousands of years prior to the birth of Jesus, so I find the contrary argument somewhat unlikely. That said, 'pagan' covers many different faiths, and not a single faith, so it's perfectly possible for it to cut both ways. It's interesting to hear this alternative perspective, either way! :) If I get time, I'll look into this some more.

I'm not sure about this idea that Jesus valued repentence over love... I think this is an area where individuals have to come to their own conclusions. The parables, a centre point of Jesus' ministry, focus on love without prejudice or limitation... If his core focus had been repentance, I would have expected the parables to reflect this.

Repentence is an element that many of the organised Christian religions like to focus upon; it reflects the nature of religions that there is capacity for the central teachings or ideas to be expressed with different focuses, though.

Thanks for sharing your views!

Hi again Chris,
I was listening to a talk this morning, when I was reminded of this post and the repentance focus of many Christians.

This is what I was listening to: http://www.sydneyanglicans.net/indepth/mp3_library/the_preaching_of_jesus_matthew_412_17/
(typepad won't let me post a neater link, sorry).

It's about 30 minutes long or so, but it basically sums up the thoughts I had on repentance being a focus of Jesus' teachings. I read over all the parables over the Christmas break and I saw there was actually a fair few that talked about repentance - one of these days I'll write a summary up on my blog, when I get some time.

Let me know if you post the summary; I'd be interested in reading your perspective on this!

Will do.

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