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Archive for the tag “Christmas”

Julian, Gregorian, Mammonian: thoughts on the Festive Season

There was the Julian (Old) Calendar, then there was the Gregorian (New Calendar).

When those on the New Calendar (NC) are celebrating Christmas, those on the Old Calendar (OC) still have 13 days to wait. When those on the New Calendar are celebrating Theophany/Epiphany, those on the Old Calendar are celebrating Christmas Eve. But whichever calendar you are on, there are the Twelve Days of Christmas between the celebration of Christmas and Theophany.

Except that there is a still newer calendar, the ultramodern calendar, which I shall call the Mammonian Calendar (MC), which wants to move the Twelve Days of Christmas earlier still. As for example here:


If 14th December is the 4th day of Christmas, that means that Christmas day itself must be on the 11 December (Gregorian). That would put New Year on 18th December.

Such numbering gets even more confusing than the Julian/Gregorian one, so why not go the whole hog?

Make New Year’s Day the 1st December, and in the interests of the economy make all the days between Black Friday and New Year compulsory retail shopping days, on which all retail businesses must be open 24/7, and all non-retail businesses must close, to allow their employees  time to shop. The months could be given more appropriate names too. How about calling December Steinhoff, January Gupta, February Jooste and so on. Name them after all the heroes of Monopoly Capital. Even Cecil Rhodes could make a comeback.

But seriously, there’s a lot of confusion.

Think of all the places the 4th day of Christmas can be:

  • 14th December in the Mammonian calendar
  • 28th December in the Gregorian Calendar
  • 10 January in the Julian Calendar (with Gregorian notation)

Lots of my Western friends seem to think we keep Christmas on 7th January (Gregorian), but no, we don’t. Most Orthodox Christians in Africa follow the Gregorian calendar for the fixed feasts, of which the Nativity of Christ is one. Two parishes in our diocese follow the old calendar, St Sergius in Midrand and St Thomas’s in Sunninghill. Most of the rest are new calendar.

But business threatens to impose yet another layer of confusion.

My blogging friend Fr Andrew Stephen Damick has made a valiant attempt to chart a safe course through the muddied waters here How Many Days is Orthodox Christmas? — Roads from Emmaus.

And I’ve been doing my bit by posting “It’s the 5th day of Christmas” (that’s today, Gregorian) on Facebook, and hoping some of my friends might pass it on as a reminder to the confused which day it actually is. I don’t think many of my friends are on the Mammonian calendar yet, though Black Friday arrived on these shores a couple of years ago, and is probably here to stay.

The High Priests of Monopoly Capital also like to call the time preceding Christmas “the Festive Season”.

Not for Orthodox Christians it isn’t. For us the Festive Season begins on 25 December and lasts until 4 January. From 15 November till 24 December is the Fastive Season. No meat, eggs, or dairy products. On some days fish is allowed (it’s the main time of the year when we eat fish).

Hot Cross Buns are a relic of the fasting season in the Western Church. If they fasted on no other day, they did so on Good Friday (I don’t know what they do now), and so hot cross buns, if made properly, should be fasting food — no eggs, butter or other dairy produce. But on Boxing Day (the Second Day of Christmas) — no way!

On Christmas day this year we went to the Divine Liturgy at St Nicholas of Japan Church in Brixton, Johannesburg, 91.4 km at 91.4 degrees Fahrenheit, with no aircon in the car. We took Charles Nkosi down to be baptised (full story, with pictures, here). On the way home one of our number, Artemius Mangena, got a phone call from his brother, inviting him to a Christmas dinner…. a vegetarian Christmas dinner! So much for the Festive Season. I said he should at least try to eat some cheese.

 

 

Christmas and XMas

A useful reminder.

Again and Again

XMasHAPPY XMAS – X is the abbreviation of the name Christ and has been in use since early Christian times. Many people nowadays are mistakenly of the opinion that the use of “Xmas” is a recent invention or a secular attempt to remove the religious tradition from Christmas by taking the “Christ” out of “Christmas. The practice of using contractions for divine or sacred names (nomina sacrum) started sometime in the 1st Century AD although the exact date remains unknown.

‘X’ is an ancient abbreviation for the word ‘Christ’ which comes to us from ancient Greek and is written in the Greek alphabet ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (cristos) The first two letters are called Chi and Rho and were used to form one of the earliest Christograms, which is a monogram or combination of letters that forms an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ. Known as the Chi-Rho it is traditionally used…

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Cider mystery

Today was our second Christmas. Yesterday I went to St Nicholas of Japan Church in Brixton for Theophany (Epiphany), and today we went to St Thomas’s in Sunninghill, which is on the old calendar, for Christmas. So Christmas comes twice a year. Afterwards we went to do some shopping and went to the Queens Coffee Bar and restaurant at the shopping centre for brunch. Being thirsty after the service, we ordered some cider.

As we usually do, Val ordered Savannah Light and I ordered Hunters Gold. These are probably the two most popular brands of cider in South Africa.

And as usually happens, the glass they brought for Val with the Savannah Light had half a slice of memon in it.

The waiter asked if we wanted ice, and we said no. At least he asked. At some restaurants they don’t ask, and bring you a glass full of ice cubes. I’ve sometimes wondered if they’d do that if I ordered beer.

But he didn’t ask about the lemon.

They never do.

And almost invariably, in just about every restaurant we’ve ordered cider in, Savannah Light comes with a slice of lemon, and Hunter’s Gold comes without.

Has anyone else noticed this custom, and does anyone know its origin?

Does it happen anywhere else in the world, or with other brands of cider?

In Brooklyn Mall

Yesterday I went to the bank to send some money to someone overseas. My own branch couldn’t do it, so they sent me to another branch and when I was leaving to come home the road had been altered so I could only turn in the opposite direction and I drifted up to Brooklyn Mall, and thought I’d go to the bookshop and see if Michael Cardo’s new biography of Peter Brown was out.

When I got to the mall the floors were covered with cardboard boxes of Christmas decorations — plastic pine needles and tinsel etc, which they were putting up. I got to the bookshop, and the Peter Brown biography was there, but in the end I didn’t buy it. The Christmas decorations put me off. They made me think that perhaps someone will buy it for me as a Christmas prezzie.

The Second Day of Christmas

It’s 5:30 am on the second Day of Christmas, and I’ve been up since 3:15 am, with the dogs, or one of them, barking, but our street lights are not working, so I can’t see what he is barking at. But it disturbs me, so I can’t do much constructive at this quiet hour.

In the Orthodox Church the second day of Christmas is the Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos, and we remember her whose womb was more spacious than the heavens, and contained the Uncontainable One. In our diocese most parishes celebrate Christmas according to the Gregorian Calendar, but a couple of parishes that follow Slavic traditions are still in the fast, and will be celebrating “Old Christmas” on 7 January Gregorian.

On 23 December I met Prof Germanos Marani of the Gregorian University in Rome, who came with a proposal for a missiological symposium, and I spent the whole day discussing it with him (there’s more about this on my other blog, for those who are interested). On Christmas Eve he joined us for the Vigil Service at the Church of St Nicholas of Japan in Brixton, Johannesburg. We had Great Compline followed by Matins. Though our choir director was conscious of many mistakes, I don’t think many other people noticed them, and it was very pleasant.

On Christmas morning I took a couple of families from the Klipfontein View congregation we were involved with last year to the Divine Liturgy at St Nicholas. They had been part of the Tembisa congregation, and we used to take them to the services there, but the priest who is now in charge there doesn’t have a big enough car to take them. Someone sometimes gives them a lift to St Thomas’s Serbian Church in Sunninghill, but the services there are all in Slavonic or Serbian, so it was nice for them to have an English service for a change. There were several other visitors, including old parishioners who have moved away, like the Kilner family, now living in England, but who came home to visit family for Christmas. A new visitor was Reader John Burnett, originally from the USA, but who has been working in East Africa, and who has now come to work in our diocese. I’ve been in contact with him by e-mail before, and through reading his blog, and look forward to getting to know him and possibly working with him.

We came home and had Christmas dinner — roast turkey, gem squash, cauliflour cheese and roast potatoes — a nice way to break the fast.

Come, let us greatly rejoice in the Lord,
as we sing of this present mystery:
the wall which divided God from man has been destroyed;
the flaming sword withdraws from Eden’s gate;
the Cherubim withdraw from the Tree of Life;
and I, who had been cast out through my disobedience,
now feast on the delights of Paradise:
for today the Father’s perfect Image,
marked with the stamp of His eternity,
has taken the form of a servant.
Without undergoing change He is born from an unwedded mother;
He was true God, and He remains the same,
but through His love for mankind,
He has become what He never was: true man.
Come, O faithful, let us cry to Him:
“O God, born of the Virgin, have mercy on us!”

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One,
And the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One!
Angels with shepherds glorify Him!
The wise men journey with a star!
Since for our sake the Eternal God was born as a Little Child!

Political correctness left and right

A conservative blog for peace:

A young Canadian libertarian thinks about social conservatism. If a Muslim can’t handle hearing a Christian word then he does not belong in a country of (supposed) free speech. Not all social conservatives want the government to control speech to fit the Canadian heritage mold. I would argue that most, like me, would probably prefer everyone to be culturally Canadian and value traditions but would rarely want the government involved.

I haven’t heard of Muslims objecting to Christian words like “Christmas” — the word mentioned in the original article The Shotgun: My brush with conservatism:

On one side of that line, there is ‘being politically correct’; on the other, free speech. Using the term Holiday instead of Christmas is fine when used to include all religions and ethnicities, but telling someone that they can’t use the word Christmas because it is discriminating against non-Christians is ridiculous.

“Social conservatives” seem to attribute “political correctness” to the left, but it’s equally common on the right.

I’ve heard of some “socially conservative” Christians who have objected to having “Halaal” printed on food for sale, so this is not simply a “left” political correctness — it affects the whole political spectrum except the liberals, who believe in live and let live.

And “live and let live” means that Christians can have Christmas (though we prefer to call it “The Nativity of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ”, but “Christmas” is fine as shorthand) and Muslims can have Ramadan without it being called “the holidays”, and can have food marked as “Halaal” if it makes shopping easier for them. It would be nice if food were also labelled “Nistisimou” for Orthodox Christians, though. Would Muslims object to that? I doubt it. And matzos is “nistisimou”, even if it is labelled “kosher”.

My objection to “Christmas socials” is that they usually take place during the pre-Christmas fast, and not during the Christmas festive season season itself.

But don’t come with all that guff about left “political correctness” — it comes just as much from the socially conservative “religious right” as it does from the left, if not more so.

Christmas eggs

You’ll probably find lots written on the web about Easter eggs, but Christmas eggs are just as important. For Orthodox Christians the Nativity Fast begins on 15 November, and lasts until Christmas Eve. That means no meat, no eggs or dairy, and on most days no fish, wine or oil as well.

And now that the Nativity Fast is over and the Festive Season has begun, one of the things we have is Christmas eggs. And so we went to the Dros for steak, egg and chips. We sometimes go to the Dros just before or just after the main fasts, like the Nativity Fast or on Meatfare Sunday (carnival) that precedes Great Lent.

Dros is a restaurant chain (franchise), which probably falls into the category of Stuff White People Like. Actually, it’s more likely to be Stuff Model-Cs Like. It’s very bourgeois, very middle-class. But it’s a good place to go if the main reason for going is to eat meat, because they do meat and do it well. And so we go there 2-3 times a year for their steak, egg and chips and related dishes. Christmas eggs (and Easter eggs, too, for that matter) taste best fried.


Today being Boxing Day, or the Day of Goodwill as it is now called, and the middle of a long weekend, the restaurant was almost empty.


The pictures show the Dros in Hatfield, Pretoria, but if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. They are all designed with the same architecture, and the food tastes much the same in all of them. And it is a cut above MacDonalds.

Urban legends about Christmas

Recently someone posted a few items about Christmas on an interfaith discussion forum. The problem was that each item began with or contained statements about Christmas that were manifestly untrue.

Here’s one:

Oh, no — more hysteria over Christmas from Bill O’Reilly, joined now by Gretchen Carlson, the blinkered bigot host of some other Fox program. The dialog is hilariously stupid. Billo blows it early, claiming that Christmas marks “the birth of Jesus Christ, which is what the holiday is based on”, which is simply not true (Source: Pharyngula).

Now I don’t know who Bill O’Reilly or Gretchen Carlson are, but claiming that the statement that Christmas marks the birth of Jesus Christ is “untrue” (and implying that it is “hysteria”) is, well, untrue.

That’s like saying that it is untrue to say that your birthday party commemorates the anniversary of your birth (and hysterical to boot).

As we approach Christmas, urban legends about Christmas proliferate, but that has to be the most ridiculous one I’ve seen yet.

Here’s another, from the same poster:

Early in its history, the Catholic Church proclaimed December 25th as Christmas. Several centuries later Pope Gregory corrected the calendar. 12 days were displaced from the Julian calendar. What had been December 25 was now January 6. The Eastern Church refused to go aloing with the calendar change and continued to observe Christmas on the OLD December 25 which was now January 6 in the West. The Western Church still wanted to give some sort of holiness to the original December 25 so they proclaimed it a new holiday, Epiphany. Thus were born the 12 days of Christmas.

He doesn’t give a source for that one. Unlike the first one, it doesn’t make glaring errors of logic. But it strings together a series of historical “facts”, most of which are wrong, or have wrong inferences drawn from them, or both.

So what really happened?

Until about the 4th century, Christians celebrated the birth of Christ along with his baptism on 6 January (as the Armenians still do today).

Some time in early 4th century a separate commemoration of the birth of Christ began to be observed on 25 December, probably beginning in Rome. It spread throughout the Christian world (with the exception of Armenia, as noted above).

When the Gregorian calendar was first introduced in the 16th century it was 10 days ahead of the Julian Calendar. The gap grows by a day a century, except when the end of century year is divisible by 400 — so it did not increase in 1600 and 2000. The gap is now 13 days, and in the 22nd century it will be 14 days.

This means that “Old Christmas” (which is still kept by some Orthodox Churches) is on Gregorian 7 January, not 6 January. In the Old (Julian) Calendar Theophany (Epiphany) is on 19 January Gregorian.

So the story, as posted, gets the whole thing backwards. But that is typical of the urban legends about Christmas.

And here’s a third one, also from the same poster (no source quoted):

Christmas has a difficult history. Until recently, Christmas was not a major celebration. When the Protestants had their reformation, Christmas came under attack, specifically in England. It was called a Catholic holiday and many employers would fire their workers if they did not show up for work on December 25.

I suppose that one depends on what you think “recently” means. For Christians, Christmas has been a major celebration for at least 1000 years, and probably a lot longer than that.

In the Orthodox Church the Nativity of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ (Christmas for short) is preceded by a 40-day fast. The only other feast preceded by a fast of that length is Pascha. That makes it major.

Nativity3Now I’m sure the poster (who isn’t a Christian) was not being malicious when he posted these in the discussion forum. He maybe thought that with Christmas approaching they were timely and had interesting information. The problem is that most of the information was wrong. I suggested that he might do better to post information about festivals of his own religion, where he could be more discerning to check that the information was accurate before posting it.

But I give these three examples of a common phenomenon, especially at this time of year. The urban legends about Christmas are often spread by the media, and people pick them up by the way. The recipes columns of the newspaper will publish a page of traditional Christmas recipes, and the writer of the column, who may know something about cookery, but little or nothing about the history of religious festivals, might preface it with a couple of half-digested paragraphs compiled from an encyclopaedia article or two. And so these weird and wonderful urban legends about Christmas (and other things) spread.

So here’s a tip for any journalist who has been told by their editor to produce a column on Christmas and its origin, and the folk customs associated with it, and their origin. The book to read is The stations of the sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain by Ronald Hutton. Even if you aren’t in Britain, Hutton’s book will do for the English-speaking world. Hutton is a careful and competent historian, and knows what he’s talking about.

There also the stories one also sees around Christmas time to the effect that Christmas was “originally” Yuletide, which was celebrated at about the same time. This too is an urban legend, and a moment’s thought will show how ridiculous it is.

It’s a bit like saying that the Feast of the Annunciation on 25 March was “originally” Greek independence day, and that that was why the date was chosen.

The fact is that there are only 365 days in a year, and that if you look at a particular day when a religious or other group has a particular celebration, you will probably find another group that celebrates something else on the same day. It may be that two groups that have different celebrations on the same day may encounter each other, and each may borrow some aspects of the other group’s celebration. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the meaning changes.

Among Orthodox Christians who follow the Gregorian calendar, for example, the following are commemorated on the same day:

  • St Andrew, Archbishop of Crete (712)
  • St Martha, mother of St Simeon Stylites the Younger (554)
  • St Andrew Rublev, Iconographer (c 1447)
  • Burial of St Andrew, Prince of Bogoliubsk (1174)
  • St Finbar, Abbot of Innis Doimlile (6th)
  • St Andrew the Russian of Cairo (1174)
  • St Donatus of Libya, Bishop
  • Martyrs Theodotus and Theodota at Caesarea in Cappadocia (108)

The day is 4 July.

This does not mean that all those commemorations are derived from US independence day.

See also The real origins of Christmas.

Spend! Save! Don’t spend! Don’t save!

As the economic recession gets closer to a full-blown depression, the conflicting messages from economic fundis and would be fundis become more and more confusing, leading to reports like this: Spend less this Christmas, says the Church of England, as retailers head for bankruptcy :: Damian Thompson:

Every year the Church of England tries to underline ‘the real meaning of Christmas’ with a publicity campaign and every year it makes a hash of it. Indeed the sound of a Christian PR stunt backfiring has become a much-loved feature of the festive season. This year s headline the Bishop of Reading the Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell calls on the public to spend less in the shops just as the recession is biting and shopkeepers are searching anxiously for customers. Nice one bish.

Hat-tip to A conservative blog for peace.
And then there’s this.
TitusOneNine – Joe Nocera–The Worst Is Yet To Come: An Anonymous Banker Weighs In On The Credit Card Debacle:

Over my career, I have seen thousands of consumers that have credit card lines in excess of their annual salaries. Some are sinking under their burden. Some have been fiscally responsible and have minimal amounts outstanding. My 21-year-old daughter, who’s in college, gets pre-approved offers all the time. She has no ability to repay debt, yet the offers flow in just the same. We all know how these lines are accumulated. The banks, in their infinite stupidity, keep upping credit lines because the customer pays the minimum payments on time. My daughter’s credit line started at $1,000 and has been increased over the last two years to $4,400. She has no increased earnings to support this. But the banks do it without asking. And without being asked. The banks reel in the consumer, charge interest rates higher than those charged by the mob, increase lines without the consumer asking and without their consent, and lure them into overextending. And we can count on the banks to act surprised when they aren’t paid back. Shame on them.

You swipes your credit card and you takes your pick.

The real origins of Christmas

At this time of the year one finds all sorts of fluff pieces in newspapers and in the blogosphere and on the web about the origins of Christmas. Most of them are not worth the effort to read, because they are so full of vague speculations and over generalisations as to be almost completely worthless.

Adventus evidently feels the same way as I do about them, and writes:

If you wade through that (as you should, if you want to know something verifiable about history), you reach this conclusion:

The present writer in inclined to think that, be the origin of the feast in East or West, and though the abundance of analogous midwinter festivals may indefinitely have helped the choice of the December date, the same instinct which set Natalis Invicti at the winter solstice will have sufficed, apart from deliberate adaptation or curious calculation, to set the Christian feast there too.

Some years ago I had the job of marking some student assignments on this very topic. The assignment was part of a missiology course at the University of South Africa. It had not been set by me, so I had to read everything on the reading list to make sure I knew where the students would be coming from. Most of the reading was articles in various respectable (peer-reviewed) theological journals. I was rather surprised to see how many unsubstantiated assertions there were in these articles, and decided to do a bit of research on my own and tried to find out when Christians began to observe the Feast of the Nativity of Christ from contemporary sources, and why they did so. And what struck me was the remarkable absence of contemporary sources.

nativitySome of the assertions were based on wild assumptions and speculations made by 19th century scholars. Or, more often, some historian had made a tentative hypothesis, and those who cited him did so as if it had become and absolute certainty.

Eventually, in marking the assignment, I found that most of my comments to students were simply urging the students to use their sources critically. It appeared that many missiologists are given to speculation, and are not familiar with church history, or even secular history. And church historians are very often not aware of the missiological implications of the matter they deal with. In the matter of Christmas, many of the assertions are based on huge anachronisms, which even an elementary knowledge of history would enable people to see through.

Anyway, Adventus also seems to have got sick of these muddled speculations and has taken some pains to set the record straight, or at least straighter. It’s worth reading.

And, since everyone seems happy to put forward their own speculations on the origins of Christmas, here are mine: The origin of Christmas. In that article I put forward the hypothesis that the popularity of the celebration of Christmas grew in the 4th century as a means to counter Arianism. I think that is as as valid as most of the other speculations.

See also: Urban legends about Christmas.

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