The Pagan Roots of Christmas

Christmas tree F_Krüger_Vorweihnacht
1857 painting of a Christmas tree being harvested in the forest, by Franz Krüger

Recollections

As a child growing up in the Anglican church in the East Coast of America, I distinctly remember my father, the pastor, explaining how Christmas came to be a Christian holiday, for over the ages this important festival was more closely related to the Winter Solstice than it was to the birth of Christ. First of all, evidence from the bible, places the birth of Christ around September  not December. The selection of December 25 for Christ’s birthday was done to usurp the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which does occur for a week that ends on December 25.

Also inherent in his monologue was the difference in the solar and lunar calendar; which according to my father created (for the pagans of northern Europe a twelve day period when the world was plunged into darkness). To compensate for this uncertainty, people built huge bonfires to light up the night and purify the soul. These practices eventually evolved into the 12 days of Christmas and various celebrations of light, such as burning a yule log. So now many years later, this Christmas holiday has me wondering how much of this is really true.

471px-Ivan_Akimov_Saturn_
Saturn Cutting Off the Wings of Cupid, 1802 painting by Ivan Akimov

Romans

The Roman part holds together fairly well, for the Roman God of agriculture, called Saturn, was celebrated in late December with feasts, partying and mischief. This is well documented via many sources and seems instrumental in the selection of December 25th as the Christmas holiday.

Johansen_Viggo_-_Radosne_Boże_Narodzenie
Happy Christmas, painted by Johansen Viggo in 1891

Northern Europe

However, sorting out the pagan traditions of Northern Europe and how they relate to our modern-day Christmas is much more complex, mainly because so many different traditions co-exist. From the cutting of greens, the use of symbolic evergreens, the burning of yuletide logs to the making gingerbread men and special Christmas cookies, the traditions are wide and varied. However, nowhere in my research could I find any mention of the difference in the solar and lunar calendar resulting in the twelve days of Christmas.

Merry Christmas by H. Koppdelaney
Merry Christmas by H. Koppdelaney

Merry Christmas

So how does all this research affect our current holiday. Very little I hope. The shortest days of the year are a wonderful time to celebrate the accomplishments of the past year and express hopes for the future, no matter what our particular religious beliefs actually are. It is also a fine opportunity for Christians to rejoice in the birth and life of Christ, even if the historical facts are not a perfect fit. After all, Life is full of imperfections.

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Another Rock Star, Another Memoir

Arp 188 and the Tadpole's Tail
Arp 188 and the Tadpole’s Tail
Image Credit: Hubble Legacy Archive, ESA, NASA;

The Literary Man

Pete Townshend has long been associated with the rock band, The Who. In fact, along with Roger Daltry, Keith Moon and John Entwistle, he helped form the band way back in 1964, when the quartet first started playing British nightclubs. Today, The Who is generally recognized as one of the holy trinity of British Rock bands. The other two would be of course the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The Who were one of the top rock bands of the sixties and seventies until two tragic events signaled the beginning of the end for this musical quartet. These were the death of Keith Moon in 1978 and a Cincinnati concert in 1979, where eleven fans were killed. As a result, by the early eighties, the band called, The Who, was breaking up. In July of 1983, Pete Townshend took on a job at Faber and Faber Books as an editor, thus completing the breakup of The Who.

Pete Townshend performing in Hamburg in 1972
Pete Townshend performing in Hamburg in 1972

Townshend’s Literary Accomplishments

As major songwriter and wordsmith, for one of the most popular live bands, ever to come onto the rock scene, Pete Townshend has earned his place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and also in the general popular culture of the sixties and seventies. Nowhere are his literary talents more evident than with the rock opera, “Tommy”, a musical creation in which Townshend had the dominant roll.

On a strictly literary note, Townshend should  be noted for a series of three articles that he wrote for Rolling Stone Magazine. These appeared between 1970 and 1977; and were mostly about The Who. Also in 1977 Townshend started Eel Pie Publishing, which featured children’s books, music books and a London bookstore called The Magic Bus. Townshend has also published a book of his own short stories, called Horses Neck (19850) along with several scripts for short films and plays.

The Who in Chicago in 1975
The Who, original line up, performing in Chicago. Left to right: Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Keith Moon, Pete Townshend. from Wikipedia, photo by Jim Summaria

Who I Am

Just this fall (October 2012) Pete Townshend has released yet another memoir/autobiography by yet another wealthy and over-sexed Rock & Roll superstar. Is it worth reading? I can’t tell you because I haven’t read the book. but is has been on the NY Times Bestseller list for at least several weeks, since its release.  However, given Townshend’s longtime association with writing and his stint as an acquisitions editor, this book might dig deeper into the mindset of one of the world’s premier rock musicians. Early reviews, such as this one at LitKicks, tend to indicate that Pete Townshend has penned a first-rate intra-perspective book on his own personal journey through life.

Pete Townshend Today
Pete Townshend playing in Philadelphia in 2008 with the Who, from Wikipedia, photo by Kubackeck

Coming Soon

Movie theater in australia
Movie theater in Australia, photo by Fernando de Sousa courtesy of Wikipedia

Description

Sometime in the next week I am going to be publishing a collection of some of my travel essays about traveling in Europe. The way things go for me the actual collection won’t be available till the beginning of next week and then the writing will only be available as an e-book on Smashwords and Amazon. Even though most of the material has already been published on the internet, I am spending more time editing and collating the articles than I originally planned. I have yet to put together a cover, for the book, so that will probably happen at the last minute. Nonetheless, putting together the old material has required more work than imagined, mainly because I can’t run through an old essay without making at least a few editorial changes.

Old and new towers in Berlin
Old and new towers in Berlin, including the bombed William Kaiser church

Title

The title for this collection  goes back to President John Kennedy’s famous speech inside Berlin during his term of office. While speaking to the German audience he made the wonderfully comical statement, “Ich bin ein Berliner”, which can be translated to mean, – you guessed it, “I am a jelly doughnut”. This is just one of the many interesting things, readers will discover, while digesting these traveler’s tales.

The shore of the Mediterranean Sea at Finale Marina, Italy
The shore of the Mediterranean Sea as scene from the youth hostel/castle at Finale Marina, Italy

Inspiration

The inspiration comes from two journeys I made to Europe in the new century. My first overseas voyage took place during October 2003, when I visited  Denmark, Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria. Three years later, I made a six week journey that included repeat visits to Denmark, Germany and Austria, as well as new explorations into Slovenia, Italy, France and Switzerland. Who knows when I will return again (hopefully soon), but my initial experience did open me up as a writer.

Rainbow over Lake Geneva on the French-Swiss border
Rainbow over Lake Geneva on the French-Swiss border

Leaving Las Vegas

Las Vegas bail bonds ad
Las Vegas abounds with bail bondsmen. Fortunately, I escaped without need of any of their services.

Extended Stay

I never expected that my three-day visit to Las Vegas, NV would turn into a three week overnight stay, where most of waking hours were devoted to my job search. Overall, Las Vegas is a pretty strange city, at least to someone there on his/her first visit. My initial impression was how large the place is and then there was the ever-present desert, which on this part of the planet, was very dry and quite extensive. The population of Las Vegas is almost two million and overall the city is described as being the driest county in the driest state of the union. In fact, why I was there, it barely rained, with much of that moisture being re-evaporated into the air by means of walking rain. During my visit I was fascinated by the city, but this was often negated by the emotional stress involved in trying to find a job in a state with 12% unemployment.

Mission Church in New Mexico
Mission Church in New Mexico

Out of the Mission

As time went on and my job searches continued to yield no fruit, I had to shift my living quarters from a hostel to a Christian Rescue Mission. The price was right and contrary to my expectations, the required religious services were quite enjoyable, due to the outstanding musical contributions from a dozen or so of inspired and very talented musicians. However my love of music and by easy going nature could not prevent me from being kicked out of the place, for arriving late to check-in on my last night. This merely meant that my planned departure got bumped forward by 24 hours.

Supermoon
Supermoon

Night of the Super Moon

My eviction came at 4:15 on Saturday afternoon, so I picked up my bags and took a local bus to Boulder City, a Nevada city located just a few miles from the Arizona border, where hitchhiking was legal. The bus contained only a few passengers, but one adventurous soul had brought his mountain bike with him, so he could observe the rare astronomical event from a desert mountain. The “supermoon” arose 9p.m. and true to its name lit of the desert countryside like a Fourth of July flare. From the side of the highway, the night landscape came alive under the reflected sunlight from orbiting sphere. The light from the full moon made my nocturnal hike to Boulder Dam, all the more stunning, as the moon cast its glare on the rough mountain terrain. Finally around midnight, I set up my tent and crawled inside. However, the intense lunar glare made it hard to sleep. Still, I had  a lot to be grateful for: I had left Las Vegas without incident.


Bus Trip To Las Vegas

Restored Neon sign on Central Ave. (Route 66) in Albuquerque

Leaving New Mexico

Since my winter employment at a popular New Mexico ski resort has no come to an end, I have decided on a road trip to the West Coast to find employment until next winter. First stop on my journey was Albuquerque, where I spent a night in a motel on old Route 66. This is not the motel, but it is located right next to the El Don, where I spent the night. Both places have classic neon signs, which have been restored with the aid of federal funds. El Don rents rooms to smokers and is considerably cheaper than the recently renovated Monterey Motel.

Route 66 in Albuquerque
Route 66 in Albuquerque (daytime)

April Snowstorm

My real journey began with a bus ride west from Albuquerque to Las Vegas, NM another western locale that excels in its lighted night time roadside displays. However, the big story was the mid-April snowstorm that descended on Flagstaff and the nearby Four Corners region. As my bus ride traversed the beautiful mesa of western NM, temperatures plummeted and snow filled the skies. It did not stick to the road, but quickly covered the desert landscape making for a very unusual April landscape. And once the bus arrived in Flagstaff, AZ just short of midnight, everyone was in for a bigger surprise – more snow. For here, it had been snowing all day with the white stuff covering the roads (and everything else) with a good six inches of wet snow.

View of Nevada from a Greyhound  bus
View of Nevada from a Greyhound bus

Down from Flagstaff

I fell right to sleep as the bus left, the high altitude mountain town. At that point in time it was still snowing, but when I awoke at sunrise in Bullhead City, the temperatures were quite warm and there was not a snowflake in sight. Not until the end of my journey in Las Vegas did I see any signs of snow and that was only on a few mountain tops visible in the far distance. Today, I walked around Las Vegas with temperatures being in the 60s and 70s and quite pleasant. Such is life for travelers in the western mountains.

View of the Las Vegas Strip on a busy April Sunday.
View (from a walkway) of the Las Vegas Strip on a busy April Sunday.

 

When Things Fall Apart

 
 
Winnipeg sunrise
August Sunrise east of Winnipeg

My Dilemma

The dismissal caught me very much by surprise. One day I was a slave to the computer working long hours to make enough money to support my sojourn through Canada; and then without much notice I was minus my main source of income. Without any substantial resources at my disposal,  I had to use my wits to get throught the crisis. The fact that my financial difficulties were a result of my failing to  heed a whole bunch of warning signs was now immaterial; I had to resort to a different strategy in order to survive.

The Long  Walk

The first thing to go was my 30 dollar a night bed in the Winnipeg hostel. I felt kind of strange, when I left my place-to-stay at 5 pm and started walking without any solid destination. Fortunately, it was a warm August night so I walked out of the city and found a place to sleep east of the city. Here, is the scene that greeted me the next morning as the sun rose across the Manitoba prairie. In some ways my misfortune had a silver lining, for I was now able to make pictures that I would have ever have attempted. I learned that being in the right place at the right time is often essential to a good photographic image.

Roadside butterfly
Colorful butterfly left along the side of the highway nby high-speed traffic

The Way Back Home

My first day on the road, I walked all day long. I was total oblivious about trying to obtain a ride, I just wanted to figure a way out of this mess; and the best way to do that was by walking. Even despite my solitary frame of mind, two kind souls stopped their vehicles. In both cases, I accepted the offer; and in the second situation, I obtained a ride to a nearby town, where I could acquire some much-needed water, as the prairie sun had turned the day into a real scorcher.

Observations 

Walking along the side of the road gave me ample time to observe things I would never have noticed – like this roadside butterfly. It is also gave me a chance to ponder my situation. Eventually, my walking decreased and I started to stick out my thumb in order to hasten my journey south. I learned about the kindness of strangers, as I occassionally received gits in the form of food, supplies and on one occasion – money. My journey eventually took me across the border and into Minnesota, where I found temporary shelter for several weeks and work.

Second View
Another view of the Manitoba prairie

Tainted Cup of Tea

K2 is a mountain on the China-Pakistan border, from Wkikpedia
K2 is a mountain on the China-Pakistan border, from Wikipedia

Fiction Or Non-fiction

As of late, 60 minutes is becoming a regular visitor on the literary scene. Their latest excursion into the literary world occurred this Sunday night and concerned one of the best-selling non-fiction writers in the English language.  The writer of concern is Greg Mortenson who has written the best-seller, Three Cups of Tea. If just some of the things that Mortenson’s critics claim are true, Mortenson might have to re-classify his popular travel and humanitarian story as fiction. Does anybody remember James Fry and the controversy that erupted over A Million Little Pieces? Seems that Greg Mortenson might have problems of a similar nature.

Add Fraud

Unfortunately, Mortenson’s problem may not be limited to telling a few tall tales in a non-fiction venue. You see Mortenson has developed a whole network of schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan that are operated from funds provided by philanthropists from around the world. Some of the more notable benefactors include Jon Krakauer and Barrack Obama, both of whom are successful authors in their own right. According to the reporters at CBS 60 minutes, Mortenson has participated in several questionable practices with his fundraising activities. These include misuse of non-profit status to promote a private enterprise, funding schools that don’t exist or are no longer in service and fabricating facts.

Deeper Problems

Just for stretching the facts in his memoir,  James Fry in conjunction with his publisher had to refund dissatisfied customers, plus give large sums of money to several deserving charities. Still, Fry was able to complete and sell a follow-up novel that has enjoyed good sales. So when all is said and done, the inaccuracies in “Million Pieces” may boil down to some very expensive advertising for the next novel. Events may not turn out so well for the author of “Three Cups of Tea”.For even if only half of what 60 Minutes reports is true, Mortenson could be in much deeper trouble.