In a time when electricity did not exist, when the sun had gone down for the day, and darkness had cast its blanket everywhere, it was very dark. So much that people feared to even go out in that darkness, which further added to their feelings of isolation and vulnerability. Today, we lose touch with how deep that darkness can get, with ready available light surrounding us, produced by man. However, if any of you readers have grown up on a farm, far away from the ambient street lights, signs and automobile headlights along the roads at night, then you may have experienced this kind of darkness in part, but still not to the degree these people would have. The darkness and cold, in the then known world, engulfed their lives for an entire season, each year. The limited light in this length of time would leave its effect in their hearts and minds as well, casting doubt on whether things would ever change. This is a spiritual darkness that many experience today in this season. So, to seek to affect that change, the people, of Greece in Hellenistic style worship, and then finally the Romans in theirs, would seek the intervention of their deities.
In the Hellenistic period, at this time of year, there was a celebration for their deity (Kronos), who, according to their convictions, was responsible for the effective sowing of their eventual harvest, and therefore for their security over the many shortening days and dark months of winter. Alone, cold and in the dark, it was easy to succumb to starvation.
So, out of thanks-giving in part, but more for a reason which would push people out of their cloistered existence, they celebrated what the conquering Romans called 'Saturnalia', around their deity (Saturn), which they embraced for many of the same reasons. This celebration was characterized by; the worship of their deity, feasts with friends and family; and in order of priority, the exchanging of gifts of provision like candles, statuettes and pottery.
I can't help but notice similarities in our celebration of Christmas today. We get together with friends and family, the obvious need of 'Thigmotaxis' (see Geoff Carpentier's column in this same issue-Walk Softly); we exchange gifts, many of which are figurines or trinkets, and practical things like pots and pans; all around a tree covered with light, just like the candles exchanged. The candles were a measure of defiance against the physical darkness and cold, the food shared was in defiance of the threat of starvation, the statuettes were a reminder of beauty and worship, and the pottery was an accommodation of the practical, the fact that, even more than today, things are temporary and need to be renewed, back then it was mostly due to breakage, today it is mostly due to our disposable lifestyle.
We treat things more casually today, but the things of the past have a way of holding on, even when we don't intend them to. To paraphrase from Socrates, this is kind of an axiom of mine “The un-examined life is the un-lived life and the un-lived life is accomplishing nothing.”
But hey, did I forget to mention the worship factor in Christmas? Well we'll have to dig into to that at a later date, to do it justice. Sufficeth to say, Christmas is not just a commercial holiday, if you pay attention to what it truly is, you will see a flow of cultural influence, in your life, reaching back farther than you knew. There is something to being in the moment, but if you miss it's true content, than you've missed the moment altogether
So this year, why don't your enter in, and spend time on your gifts, so they will be a true provision for a need in someones life, reflect on and treasure the time that will come with family and friends as an opportunity to bring the security of touching each others lives, assurance through provision, and reminders of what life is about. Then, during this season of diminished light, colder weather and sometimes colder people, and concern for provision because of fickle job security, you may see better, the purpose of Christmas time being “the season of giving”.