Here are the full-text essays of posts that are abridged versions or supplemental reading:
September 11, 2001 is on America’s collective consciousness. A decade ago thousands lost their lives in a religiously motivated and misguided attack on what some see as a wicked culture. Those who hate America have never come to know it. What a sad commentary it is that religious belief lends its strength of conviction to those whom it has convinced that evil is righteousness and that terror is divine. It is somber to experience this tenth anniversary so close to New York City. When I ride in to work now every day I see the new World Trade Center rising, literally, from the ashes. It is a monument to what America tries to embody.
Our nation is not perfect. None is. Too easily we accept the casual relegation of various minority groups to poverty. Too easily we allow the obscenely wealthy to escape all sense of social obligation. Too easily we focus on our selves rather than our community. No, we cannot claim to be perfect. Nevertheless, we strive for an ideal that will not die.
Some have boldly claimed twentieth century notables as “the greatest generation.” I believe that praise, although deserved in a sense, to be misplaced. The greatest generation was that rag-tag group of colonial citizens who’d fled from cesspools of oppression to find freedom in a new world. They were not perfect. They oppressed and displaced Native Americans who still suffer under repressive policies that ensure the great embarrassment of their treatment will remain out of sight. The greatest generation I envision is those who, at the risk of their own lives, decreed that the world should, must contain a haven for those who cannot live without a free conscience. A place where religion, or even the very words you say or write, cannot be dictated by the government. A place where people could go on to become the putative “greatest generation”s of the future.
When I first heard about the attacks on 9/11 I was at Nashotah House. Those first moments of confusion were terrifying—our daughter had just started school and was not close enough to hold. My wife and I watched the television in sheer unbelief, tears on our faces, our lives being forever wrenched and twisted in new directions. In was a day that sobered up an entire country.
New York City bore the brunt of the attacks. I am relatively new to that environment, but it is a vibrant, ebullient culture. People from all over the world—every religion, nearly every language—mixing and mingling every day. It is a very cross-section of humanity. And when they are together there may be some tension, but there is also a constant, primal celebration of the fact that it feels good to be human. Difference is one of the greatest gifts we have. New York City has it in spades.
Some religions abhor human ingenuity. Especially prominent in some Christian and Muslim sects is the undercurrent that human enthusiasm is somehow evil. The idea that God created us with this wondrous ability to be creative and inventive only to discourage us from realizing it. Those who imbibe too deeply deserve to die. So we launch crusades, inquisitions, jihads, to bring everyone else down to our level. Freedom from religion seems downright saintly next to such thought.
As I pondered the significance of this day, my thoughts went to my small town in New Jersey. Here there is a monument to those from this county who died in the attacks. In the courthouse square there is a girder from the World Trade Center that stands like a Kubrickian monolith transmitting the message that we can be so much more. As I sat staring at its oxidized splendor, observing the water stains that make it appear as if the steel has been silently weeping, I knew the attack had not just been on New York. In the hallway outside my last class at Rutgers University was affixed a plague dedicated to an economics professor from the university who died in the attack. A part of all of us died that day.
Back at Nashotah House we had an administrators’ meeting that afternoon. Two of the evangelicals present railed against Islam, one declaring he wished he was young enough to climb back into his fighter and take out his fury on the Arab. My chest constricted. As hard as it was, as hellish as I felt, I knew it was wrong to take that anger out on others. Most Muslims did not condone the attack, nor had they anything to do with it. They were guilty only in the sense that all Christians were guilty for the auto de fés that took place in the Dark Ages. No, the guilty party in the dock was misused religion itself.
Some preached that God was punishing a sinful nation. In my first sermon after the attack I could not prevent the tears as I asked: when did God change his mind? Did not Jesus ask, “Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem?” according to Luke 13.4? No, the deity punishing us is our own psyche, our evolution in the primordial stew of self-preservation. Unevolved religion.
Our evangelical president said, “Strike them back!” His Lord said, “Turn the other cheek.”
Those who hate Americans without knowing us should not be hated without us getting to know them. Can we appreciate the wide-ranging economic distress that conspicuous consumption in our culture causes in other nations? Or even within our nation itself? Hatred responded to with hatred will only spiral faster and faster until all that we are capable of is consumed in a maelstrom of utter destruction. Unless we are all trapped in a bizarre, diabolical twilight zone of biological self-annihilation, we must attempt to live up to the principles of the true “greatest generation.” America is a haven for those who crave freedom. No true religion would ever strike first or even strike back.
When you think of Thanksgiving you may see visions of a big turkey dinner and a four-day weekend. If you’re like me (I hope not!) you probably think that ever since the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621, Americans have had a big November feast every year since. This popular cozy image may be heartwarming, but it is wrong. Thanksgiving in history is a custom that goes back to the Puritan settlers. Puritans came to America so that they could practice their religion freely. They were religious people (not a great sense of humor); things had been pretty tough for them – crossing the stormy Atlantic in small ships, not knowing what to expect when they arrived, lots of people dying on the way – not an easy thing to do! Once they got here, there were no grocery stores and they hadn’t planted crops earlier in the year, they didn’t even know what would grow here. Many didn’t survive, they weren’t America-tolerant you might say.
What we think of as the first Thanksgiving involved English colonists (Pilgrims) in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans. One of the Wampanoag, Squanto, served as an interpreter – pretty big of him, considering he’d learned English from being a slave. He taught the settlers how to grow corn, which was unknown in Europe. (What the English called “corn” is what we call “wheat.” The more correct word for what we call “corn” is “maize.”) Squanto also taught the Pilgrims how to catch eels to eat – maybe he found a way to pay them back after all! The first Thanksgiving meal in 1621 followed the Pilgrims’ first successful harvest. They ate deer and some wild birds – enter the turkey! – along with their crops.
You see, both the Wampanoag and the English had traditional harvest festivals – many peoples do. “Thanksgiving,” however, has to do with, well, giving thanks. Did I mention that the Pilgrims were religious? They believed that God had successfully brought them here, so they thanked God. Not every early harvest was so great. In a bad year they had a day of mourning rather than a Thanksgiving feast. Some historians place the first “Thanksgiving” in 1923. The Pilgrims had experienced a drought. Frantically they prayed for rain, and, Flanders-like, it came. So they held a Thanksgiving. These Massachusetts Puritans held Thanksgivings in church rather than around a banquet table. For them, these irregular days of giving thanks marked the survival of difficult times, not fancy food. So they held occasional Thanksgivings, not watching football after a big meal, but praying in church. By the middle of the 1600s settlers began to have a harvest-day Thanksgiving pretty much every year, but not always on the same day. They had not set a specific date to give thanks and feast.
Puritans, you must realize, gave thanks at the proverbial drop of a buckled hat. They prayed before meals as a regular practice – something many families continue to do. To set aside a day for special prayers, like Thanksgiving, was as natural for them as women wearing bonnets. The practice of having an annual (yearly) day of giving thanks got underway in Massachusetts around 1630. Other colonies joined in, but not always at the same time. Remember, harvests come at different times in different places.
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Fast forward to the Revolutionary War. Many of our “Founding Fathers:” George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, etc., were Deists. This is a fancy way of saying that they believed in God but they didn’t think God spent any time making miracles. Really they thought of God as a kind of clock-maker, where the clock stood for the world. God made it, started it ticking, then left. For the Deists, God didn’t interfere with the world any more. Now, that didn’t mean you couldn’t pray; pray they did, but they didn’t believe in miracles. (For example, the “Jefferson Bible” which was given to every new member of Congress, is Jefferson’s own version of the New Testament. He simply took all of the miracles out of it!) Still, these founders believed in returning thanks for good fortune. During the Revolutionary War the Continental Congress set one or more thanksgiving days every year. There was, after all, a war going on. For example, as leader of the army, George Washington declared a thanksgiving in December 1777 after defeating the British at Saratoga. The Continental Congress had December Thanksgivings after that until 1783.
The first national Thanksgiving was declared by President Washington in 1789. It was set for November 26 and it was to be thankful for the establishment of a new government. Where’s the turkey? (Or the Pilgrims for that matter?) After that, national days of Thanksgiving were up to the President. Presidents John Adams (president 2) and James Madison (president 4) each declared a couple. Madison was giving thanks for the end of the war of 1812, but not in the fall. In case you’re getting hungry, some states celebrated a Pilgrim-like Thanksgiving before it became a national Turkey Day. New York began an annual Thanksgiving in 1817 and by 1858 twenty-five states were holding Thanksgiving as a holiday.
It may be ironic, but Thanksgiving Day, as we know it, was established during the Civil War, a very dark time for the United States. President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving Day in 1863. The reason? Basically, even though America was at war with itself, it hadn’t fallen apart. Lincoln was a bit more religious than some of the early founders of the country, and proclaimed that God had been good to the United States. So, since 1863 there has been a yearly November Thanksgiving. Eventually the November Thanksgiving merged with the fall harvest festival – you can’t take too many days off! You see, by setting Thanksgiving on a Thursday, Lincoln had inadvertently established the first official four-day weekend. The 1930s found America suffering through the Depression. The president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, thought that it would help the economy (anybody listening?) if there were more shopping days for Christmas, so he wanted to move Thanksgiving Day to the second-to-last Thursday in November. Not everyone agreed on this, so it was decided that Thanksgiving would be the fourth Thursday of November – sometimes the last, sometimes the second-to-last Thursday of the month.
Turkey has become a kind of national symbol for Thanksgiving. Being a bird native to North America, it is appropriate, if a bit hard on the turkeys. Turkey, along with potatoes, corn, sweet potatoes, cranberries, and pumpkin, make up a “traditional” Thanksgiving dinner. All of these foods are from North America and were new foods for the Pilgrims. And, I would be unAmerican if I didn’t mention that the official start of the Christmas shopping season is marked by Thanksgiving. Now called “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving is one of the biggest shopping days of the entire year. After that, practically all of December becomes the “holiday shopping season.” The triumph of capitalism; be thankful.
Perhaps the most misunderstood of holidays, Halloween has grown into a major commercial holiday. Outsold only by Christmas in the United States, Halloween now supports its own seasonal stores that cash in on the massive public interest. A few years ago a wrote a book explaining the holidays for teens/tweens. The book was never published, and I’ve been putting excerpts on this blog on appropriate occasions. For the full story of Halloween, please check out the Full Essays page (link above).
Accusations of a demonic origin may fit in with the popular creatures of the holiday, but they are far from the truth of the matter. A cross-quarter day, Halloween comes in the opposite side of the year from May Day (remember Walpurgis Night) when spirits make their way back into the mortal world. It represents the passing of fall into winter and the shades of death that accompany it. How much more religious can you get?
From ancient times people have been aware of how weak our control over our lives really is. We depend on the sun and the weather to cooperate for our crops. We fear the darkness when our eyes can’t compete with those of our predators. As the year descends into longer and longer nights, we secretly fear that eventually night will not end. The dark time of the year belonged to the spirits.
Just as all ancient people celebrated the vernal equinox (if you missed it, check out the Passover-Easter Complex for more), they marked the autumnal equinox with festivals. Although Halloween is six weeks after the equinox, it seems to have inherited some of the ancient associations of that season. One of the ancient feasts of the equinox was for Pomona, the Roman goddess associated with fruits and seeds. There is more of Thanksgiving than Halloween in this festival, however.
Halloween, as we have come to know it, is usually traced to the same people who gave us St. Patrick’s Day – the Celts. The Irish calendar was divided into four quarters, marked between the solstices and equinoxes by the cross-quarter days. The fall cross-quarter day was Samhain (in case you don’t speak Gaelic, this is pronounced “sow-win”). Samhain can be understood as “summer’s end” and it was the traditional marking of the onset of winter; it actually comes just a month before meteorological winter.
The Celts, as well as other ancient peoples, believed that spirits of the dead were active as the trees lost their leaves, the grass began to dry and, and the world itself seemed to be dying. Huge bonfires were lit to ward off evil spirits, and perhaps bloody sacrifices were made to ensure the safety of the living.
No matter what modern Halloween critics may say, the Celts did not worship Satan and the origins of the holiday are not satanic. Pagan, maybe, but who isn’t somebody else’s pagan? The idea was to fend off evil, not worship it. The shamans, or “medicine men” of the Celts were a class of priests called Druids. Samhain would have been one of the festivals overseen by the Druids. These guys were priests of a religion that focused on nature, not the Devil. They did play a little rough though. They seem to have practiced human sacrifice once in a while, but Samhain was more often about killing off livestock before the winter. Either you can keep your animals alive and they will eat the little food you have, or you can butcher them and add to the little food you have. After all, not much grows in winter.
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Our current Halloween, however, is not the direct result of Druid celebrations. These historic shamans of the Celts died out many centuries ago and left behind no writings. When Christianity came to the Celts, pieces of Samhain appear to have been mixed in with Christian celebrations.
Long after the Roman Empire fell, in the eighth century, Pope Gregory III named November 1 All Saints Day. Around 1000 November 2 was designated All Souls Day, a church observance that had been held on May 1, perhaps to counter Beltane. Part of the choice for these two days seems to have been the belief that souls were restless in the dark part of the year. All Souls Day was when all the “faithful departed” – i.e. potential ghosts – were remembered. Together they formed a mini-series of holidays that were a Christian alternative to Samhain.
This collection of late fall holidays gave Halloween its name. In the Middle Ages it was still the custom that a day starts not with sunrise, but with sunset. Another name for All Saints Day, when the church celebrated the A+ students of church school, was All Hallows (see where this is going?). Since the day started the evening before, October 31 was All Hallows Eve (or Evening). If you shorten All Hallows Evening you get Halloween.
At that time, about a thousand years ago, Christianity was still all Catholic in Europe. Popular tradition held that spirits of the dead were freed from purgatory (a place between Heaven and Hell) on all Hallows, and so the church agreed with the Druids about the dead on the move this night. By the end of the Middle Ages, Hallowtide (that’s what these holidays together were called) had become an important part of the church year.
Halloween, believe it or not, wasn’t celebrated in America until the 1800s. Well, not even Christmas was celebrated much before then. Why not? Remember, the early settlers were largely from the Puritan variety of Christianity. Puritans didn’t celebrate what they considered ritualistic or Catholic holidays. After all, All Hallows was a Catholic day, and Christmas even had the word “mass” hidden in it!
Ireland and Scotland were the countries that brought Halloween to America. Settlers from these countries had traditions that came from a mix of All Hallows and Samhain. The jack-o-lantern, for example, came from the Emerald Isle. The historical reason that children carved vegetable lanterns is not known, although it likely had to do with frightening off spirits. The tradition in Ireland deals with a character called Stingy Jack, a greedy, drunken farmer. After Christianity came to the Celts, the Devil became a favorite character in their stories, and so it was that Stingy Jack encountered the Devil, tricked him into climbing a tree then trapped him there by making a cross on the trunk of the tree. The Devil cursed Jack (of jack-o-lantern) to forever wander the earth by night, and so to keep him away children carved Jack’s face on their lanterns.
This story, which was used to explain the custom, isn’t history. Vegetable face carving was an old custom in Celtic tradition. Problem was, pumpkins didn’t grow in Ireland or Britain. Irish and Scottish kids carved turnips instead. Now, if you’ve ever looked at a turnip that your Mom or Dad brought home, you might wonder how this is possible. In the British Isles, however, turnips grow quite large. You do have to hollow it out, though, after the face is carved. A candle was placed inside and lit, and the jack-o-lantern was born.
In America, where pumpkins naturally grow, the jack-o-lantern took on its present form. After all, once you’ve scooped out the gooey seeds, they are already hollow. Carving veggie lanterns seems to have been a harvest ritual rather than a Halloween practice. You see, the Celts didn’t even have a Devil before the Christians introduced the idea, and the jack-o-lantern may be even older than that. Jack-o-lanterns were brought together with Halloween in the United States in about the middle of the 1800s when many Irish immigrants arrived.
If you’re reading all the way through this book (brave soul!) you might remember the Irish potato famine of the 1840s (see St. Patrick’s Day for more). When these thousands of Irish came to America, they brought the custom of Halloween with them, but like most things in the States, it got mixed with traditions from other countries as well.
Trick-or-treating, for example, has its origins in the English practice of “begging” (not out of necessity), something that they considered inappropriate but kids did it anyway. Since Halloween represented a topsy-turvy night when normal was not normal, even the disapproving English allowed kids to beg. It meant going from door to door asking for something from the house owners.
Wearing disguises, or “guising” goes far back in human history, when people wished to take on the features of certain animals. How can you be strong like a wild ox? Dress like one! Well, that’s the basic idea. Wearing simple costumes was a part of various occasions in Europe including Guy Fawkes Day and the art of mummery.
Whoa! Using lots of unfamiliar words there professor! Okay, well, we’ll need a little history then (groan). Let’s start with Guy Fawkes. Guy was a guy, an English guy, who tried to blow up the Parliament (the British government), literally. He arranged for 36 barrels of gunpowder to be placed under the Parliament buildings in 1605. This “gunpowder plot” was discovered and foiled, and Guy Fawkes was hanged and drawn and quartered (ask your history teacher) on November 5. In England Guy Fawkes Day has been celebrated with bonfires, parades, and mask-wearing dummies (effigies) of Guy Fawkes being burned. So here we have masks and mischief just days away from Halloween.
Mummery was a Medieval type of play. Often the mummers, wearing disguises (mummers were also called guisers) would go house-to-house performing. Although this looks like a Halloween idea, it was a tradition in English-speaking Europe that was usually part of the Christmas Complex. Some of the ideas, it seems, slipped back to Halloween in America.
Well, now we have costumes, begging, and vegetable carving. Bringing them all together at the same time was an American invention. The original season seems to go once again across the ocean to the British Isles. On occasions of reversals (“opposite days” if you wish) children, especially teens, were allowed to get away with pranks. If you went begging and did not get a little something, you might play a trick on the stingy householder. Nights are long as November nears, and rowdy kids could get away with stuff and not get caught in the dark.
A favorite character of Irish folklore is the “little person.” Leprechauns are what are known as tricksters, somewhat supernatural beings who are mischievous and sometimes downright bad. Belief in the “little people” ran high in Ireland and Scotland, and we find a mix of ideas whirling around involving naughty sprites and long nights. It’s hard to get blamed for something when there are unseen, supernatural tricksters running around!
In the late 1800s in the United States lots of these originally separate ideas were brought together into Halloween. Costumes were pretty simple in those days (they only became elaborate in the middle of the 1900s when stores found out that parents would actually pay money for one-time-use costumes!). Around 1940 rowdy groups of older kids started to get out of hand and vandalism was becoming a problem, just like in Britain. One way to deal with the problem was to bring all these elements together into a ritual called “trick or treating.” The idea was that older kids who made trouble would shy away from wearing a custom, and the idea of free treats naturally appealed to the younger crowd. So Halloween was tamed into “trick or treating.”
Soon stores caught onto the idea – you could sell treats and costumes specifically for Halloween. What was once a spooky night of approaching winter and long, cold nights was now a way to make big bucks!
One further tradition has long been associated with Halloween, and it too deals with food. Bobbing for apples was long part of Halloween celebrations, since apples were available at that time of year. Apples in a basin of water are almost impossible to catch without using your hands. Sometimes apples were hung from a piece of string, and you had to try to catch one without using your hands. In this case the trick was the treat.
A tradition among some apple-bobbers was that once the apple was won it should be peeled. The letter formed by the discard peel would indicate a future mate, or the length of the peel would predict the length of the winner’s life. Even with apples the supernatural crept in.
The ghouls and goblins of Halloween have been there from the beginning with the Celtic belief in fairies and other creatures of the night, since the ending of the light time of the year allowed those from the other world to break into this one. Although it is in the spirit of Samhain, Halloween as a scare-fest with trick-or-treating is a modern American holiday.
Also connected with Halloween are the Latin American Días de los Muertos, the Days of the Dead. These days are observed on November 1 and 2, no doubt because many Spanish Americans are of Catholic background – remember All Saints and All Souls were originally Catholic alternatives to festivals like Samhain!
Still, the Days of the Dead predate Catholicism. It is likely that the celebration of the dead goes back to the Aztecs. Their rituals, still not well understood, often involved death. In Días de los Muertos the lives of the dead are celebrated, and although it sounds creepy, it is a joyous occasion. People give gifts of skulls made of sugar, bright clothes are worn, and offerings are left for the dead.
Since the Días de los Muertos follow immediately Halloween, in many parts of the United States the festivals have begun to “bleed” into one another.
Although Halloween has become a time when stores coax money out of buyers, it still bears an important message. It is an ancient way of showing that it is alright to be afraid, and that when darkness falls it is good to fight back.
Halloween’s traditional colors have been orange and black, what with all the pumpkins and black cats, it is no surprise. Purple, symbolizing mystery, has made recent inroads to the holiday as well. Green, of the glowing variety, has also become attached to the season. After the loss of the colorful leaves, color briefly comes back on Halloween.
The Chosen Peoples
My thanks go to Simon & Schuster for sending me a review copy of Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz’s new book, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election (2010). Briefly, the book traces the origins of the concept of being a chosen people in both Israel and the United States. This concept is then shown in relief with those who are “unchosen.” The authors conclude by highlighting the national sense of mutual goodwill between Israel and the United States.
I read this book wearing multiple hats. Since the first chapter traces Israel’s sense of chosenness from Biblical times to the present, I began by wearing my Biblical Scholar hat. Many of the questions asked and raised about the Bible reveal a naivety about traditional claims of biblical authorship. Although certainty cannot be achieved, biblical scholars have applied textual and literary techniques to the text for well over a century now, and many of the claims simply accepted by Gitlin and Leibovitz simply do not stand up. This may seem a minor flaw, but since Abraham is foundational to this outlook, it is essential to at least consider his lack of historical attestation. Gitlin and Leibovitz assume that Genesis, with its stories of Abraham, predates the books that follow. This is not a safe assumption to make, and using this background as a foundation for further analysis might well lead to structural problems with the argument later on.
Wearing the hat of an historian, I noticed how much of the force of the argument of the book is interwoven with the idea that God has actually chosen Israel. I have told my students for many years now that historians do not make claims on God or God’s alleged activities. Texts that narrate God’s actions tend to be classified as myths rather than history. The concept of chosenness, which Gitlin and Leibovitz are reluctant to relinquish, is based on the premise that God has indeed done the choosing. An historian would be extremely reticent to make such a claim. Having noted this concern, the authors do a fine job of providing a brief, readable history of the founding of modern Israel without recourse to what God was doing in the twentieth century. When the authority of the Bible is needed, it is quoted here in King James English, hardly the most accurate translation available.
Gitlin and Leibovitz suggest that chosenness is more a curse, at times, than a blessing. The reasoning seems to be that the concept of chosenness leads inexorably to Zionism. The ideas interact on a much more subtle level than that, although certainly the Zionist movement has owed and continues to owe quite a heavy debt to the concept. The generalizations here are a bit broad – political motivations may not receive their full due. Toward the end of the chapter the ideology of messianism is engaged and brought into the discussion. It is not clear that messianism is the same as chosenness; the two ideas both emerge in Judaism, but do not always overlap. When the authors state that Zionism has always been messianic at heart (p. 57), that may be correct, but it does not necessarily reflect chosenness. Gitlin and Leibovitz are very good at pointing out the inconsistent application of the idea of messianism in the formative stages of the modern state of Israel.
I switched hats to that of a typical American citizen for the second chapter on America’s chosen status. Although reared in a very religious household, I was never taught that the United States had been a specially chosen nation. Clearly the authors are correct that this notion was and is widespread, but it is hardly as foundational for the United States as it was for historical Israel. To make their pastiche of an argument, they must draw on a wide variety of writings from a wide range of politicians and social commentators. These rhetoricians, however, seldom speak for the common citizen. The United States has no Abraham or Moses. Indeed, many of our founders were Deists, a fact that the authors acknowledge. When a Deist refers to chosenness, how can it be other than a metaphor? The Bible is a compact document compared to the voluminous material from early America. If all the “sacred texts” of the early United States were examined would chosenness emerge as the orthodoxy of the day? This chapter suffers from lack of strong evidence that the chosenness concept was ever more that a rhetorical device.
As in the previous chapter Gitlin and Leibovitz substitute other concepts for direct references to chosenness – ideas such as manifest destiny and providence – ideas that have differing nuances and implications. In such instances the rubric “chosen people” feels like eisegesis rather than exegesis. The authors do an admirable job of showing the vague religious cast thrown over American politics by many leaders of society and government. This cast, widely welcomed by many, does not, however, function as a national standard of a chosen people. Although Gitlin and Leibovitz acknowledge the fact, when modern politicians are quoted the fact that their speeches are frequently written by professional spin-meisters raises the question of whether it is disingenuous to cite these speeches as actual outlooks. Like much in American society, they are often only so much plastic.
Wearing the hat as a citizen of the world, I felt that the third chapter, concerning those not chosen, was the most poignant. Gitlin and Leibovitz suggest that chosenness is a concept that retains a broad usefulness. It is chosenness to improve the lot of the world, not one’s own place in it. Yet, when the outsiders are brought into the picture, do they feel the same way? In fact, it is likely impossible for those who live with the biblically affirmed notion of chosenness to truly empathize with those who are not considered chosen. As the authors acknowledge: how could a just God do this to a diverse world? Choose one nation (or maybe two) and leave the rest to their own devices? This implicates God as either a poor or a cruel planner since everyone ends up hurting in the end. An intriguing suggestion is made concerning this point: “To suggest that Jews might dare to reject their divinely scripted calling and partake of simple pleasures – alongside Palestinians – was a subversive act of imagination” (p. 171, regarding of poem by Mahmoud Darwish). In the context of a world so badly wounded by notions of chosenness, the real solution might just be the renunciation of special favors for a human and humane approach to world problems.
The final, and briefest chapter deals with the special friendship between the United States and Israel, the two eponymous chosen peoples. The reasons for this friendship are explored and are found to lie deep in the collective psyches of the two peoples. There was, however, a jarring breakdown in logic here. If God has chosen anyone (not a safe assumption for any historian), and if that chosen people is Israel, how can the United States be uniquely chosen as well? If God has chosen the United States (not a safe assumption), then how can Israel remain truly chosen? There is not enough room on the bed for all these people. Exclusivity is the core of chosenness. If peoples can be one of several chosen varieties than the specialness is tawdry.
Perhaps a subtext suggests that it is through this union that the old chosen people, Israel, and the new chosen people, the United States, that Israel has once again acquired chosenness. A deficiency in the idea will, however, remain. The belief that Israel and/or the United States is/are chosen remains just that – a belief. The only proof offered is problematic in that it derives from the Bible, not a book upon which to base science or national policy. Like any book the Bible is interpreted and herein lies the crux. The same dilemma arises behind ridiculous claims of Creationists and others who take metaphor as literal, empirically justified reality. When the Bible becomes a justification to claim a special, exclusive relationship with the only God in the entire cosmos it is going to lead to trouble. For a special relationship, chosenness, to have teeth there must be second-class earthlings that God has not chosen.
As I remove my hats and put the book down, I am profoundly disturbed. The overview of the history is generally sound and the tone appropriately irenic. The authors, who cannot relinquish the idea of chosenness are chained to an idea that holds the seeds of its own destruction. What is perhaps most obvious with Israel is not absent elsewhere. Every nation has foundation myths. Many of those myths involve some sense of chosenness. The problem is if we come to a consensus that the God of the Bible is the only god, then all other myths are no longer valid. Perhaps a better subject for exploration that might bring similar conclusions to the fore would be “why people believe they are special.” There could be a separate section for the Religious Right and others who still claim that God speaks to them directly in King James English and assures them that all is well with the world as long as they have power over all others. Chosenness is indeed a burden, but it is a burden that may be unshouldered by those who have the will to join all people together and give true equity a chance.
This is an important book, and as the voice on one side of a debate over which much blood has already been shed, it should be read and seriously pondered by anyone interested in peace. Peace may only be truly achieved when all the voices have been heard.
The Passover-Easter Complex
No doubt the most complicated set of holidays are those that surround the changing of the seasons – the solstices and equinoxes. Among even those holidays, the Passover (Jewish) and Easter (Christian) complexes are especially complex. Like most major holidays these celebrations have very interesting roots. Problem is, it is hard to know where to begin! We’ve already started with Mardi Gras, but that is kind of a festival on its own. To really get started, we have to turn back to the calendar (again?).
Easter, like Passover, is a “moveable feast.” That doesn’t mean playing musical chairs while you eat! It means that the dates change depending on the moon, so to figure out the date you have to (you guessed it) look at the sky. (Actually, these days you can look on the web or in many books used by churches to figure it out. But work with me here, let’s pretend it is, gasp, before these things were invented!) Two days of the year have an equal amount of day and night all around the world, when the earth stands up straight on its axis. Marking the beginning of spring and fall they are called the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. (“Equinox” means “equal-night,” “vernal” means “green” or spring, and “autumnal,” duh, “in autumn.”) Back when people had no TV, this was a big thing! Not only was it cool to have equal day and night, in the spring it meant days were finally getting longer and warmer. For ancient people it meant that light was winning the struggle with darkness.
The people who lived in Israel had a big spring holiday – remember, their New Year was in the fall. Although the spring holiday was celebrated with joy, it was a solemn occasion. You see, even in ancient times people treated each other poorly. For example, Jewish tradition has long believed that the Israelites were held as slaves in Egypt for 400 years! That’s a long time not to be free! The story comes from the Bible, or if you grew up watching The Prince of Egypt that’ll do for now. The Bible tells how God sent Moses to rescue the Israelites from slavery, but nothing seemed to work. He tried bugs, frogs, even turning the water to blood, but still the Pharaoh (king of Egypt) wouldn’t let go. Here comes the solemn part, God sent an angel to kill all the firstborn Egyptian kids. I told you it was solemn!
After all the plagues were sent onto Egypt, God told Moses to get the Israelites ready to leave for their own country. Now, there were no fast-food joints along the way in those days, so you ate before you left on a long trip. Since it was a hurried departure, God told Moses to make it a quick meal. As the Egyptian kids were dying, the angel “passed over” the houses of the Israelites, which had been marked with blood on the doorposts (blood of a lamb, don’t let your imagination run too wild!). So the commemoration was called Passover.
The Bible has the menu for this hurried meal: flat bread (no time for the yeast to rise), lamb (whose blood was on the doorposts), and bitter herbs (they tasted like slavery). Over the years, other foods were added to the meal, symbolizing other aspects of the day.
The origins of Passover reach far back into prehistory. It coincides with an agricultural festival that goes back before the Israelites, and people have always felt free to borrow from the traditions of others (that should be very clear by now!). The Bible’s version of how the observance began is certainly the best known. Even in ancient times Passover came to be combined with a festival of Unleavened (flat) Bread, and the whole complex lasted for eight days.
Many centuries later Jesus was on the scene. He was Jewish and lived in what had been Israel, so he celebrated Passover like his fellow Israelites (or Jews). Jesus was killed by the Roman authorities – they were pretty serious about keeping people under control, and people seemed to lose their heads when Jesus was around. The Bible tells the story of how Jesus ate Passover with his friends the night before his trial, and since the Passover meal came on a Thursday we can figure it was on Friday that he was executed. Easter celebrates the Christian belief in Jesus’ victory over death, and its timetable depends on Passover.
To find Passover’s date, you’d think you could look it up in the Bible. That works, as long as you know the Jewish calendar. Like most ancient peoples, the Jews had a lunar calendar, so the date of Passover changes on the solar calendar. So back to sky-watching! For Christians that meant that Easter didn’t come on the same date every year. Everyone agreed that it had to be on a Sunday, but even without the Gregorian calendar, debate broke out over which Sunday it should be. Even today not all Christian believers observe Easter on the same day!
For the majority of people in the United States it goes like this: Easter is on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. If the full moon occurs on the vernal equinox, the next Sunday is Easter. If the full moon occurs on the vernal equinox and it is a Sunday, then that is Easter. (Got that? Clearly it is one of those days that falls into the seasonal change holidays). That means Easter can be anywhere from March 22 to April 25, a span of 35 days. All the rest of the Christian parts of the Passover-Easter Complex take their cue from Easter.
Following Mardi Gras, the first of the other special days that takes its date from Easter is Ash Wednesday. This doleful day traces its origins to the 500s C.E. when Christians are first recorded to have observed Lent. Once you know the date of Easter, count back 40 days and it will be Ash Wednesday, and those 40 days will be Lent. Ash Wednesday is when some Christians go to church and have ashes smudged on their foreheads in the shape of a cross. This might well seem strange until you realize that people have put dust and ashes on their heads for centuries as a sign of mourning. On Ash Wednesday the point is to remind people that they don’t last forever, so they should be sorry for their wrongs. The practice of using ashes is generally credited to Pope Gregory the Great (590-604).
Lent means “spring” in Teutonic and the 40 days are based on the tradition that Jesus spent 40 without eating before he first came out and began his preaching career. For many people Lent is a serious time of giving up things they like. It comes at the end of winter when the weather is often dreary in many temperate regions, so try not to annoy people too much in Lent! The tradition of observing Lent seems to be older than Ash Wednesday, since there are records of people observing Lent in the 300s C.E.
The week coming up to Easter has lots of serious holidays. Although these are holy days they generally don’t involve fun. Almost nobody gets these days off from work since they are not federal holidays.
The Sunday before Easter is called Palm Sunday. It is named after the sub-tropical trees whose branches make up part of the ritual for that day. According to the Bible, Jesus went to Jerusalem (the capital of Israel) for Passover the year he died. Since Passover began the evening after the Sabbath (Saturday night), he came to the city on Sunday.
Now, it might look weird to us that everyone was out and about on a Sunday, but, believe it or not, the two-day weekend had not yet been invented! Jewish folks didn’t work on Saturday (Friday evening through Saturday sunset), but Sunday was the first day of the work week. Well, this was a holiday week, and people didn’t have to work, so they were in a party mood. Many people thought Jesus had come to Jerusalem to boot the Romans out.
Jesus came to the city riding on a donkey and people cut palm leaves (thus Palm Sunday) to put in front of the donkey ¬– kind of like when you had to sprinkle flower petals in front of your auntie on her wedding day, if you ever had to do that. They also laid clothes in the path, but they draw the line at undressing in church! So today on Palm Sunday, if you go to some churches they will give you palm leaves and you get to go on a mini-parade around the church, or sometimes around the block. This is to symbolize Jesus’ entry into the city. The week beginning on Palm Sunday is called “Holy Week” in Christian tradition.
The holidays then skip ahead a few days. Thursday of that week is called Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday. (Maundy means “beg,” and its origin is obscure; it doesn’t mean “Monday.”) Some churches have special services that day because of the tradition that when Jesus at the Passover meal with his disciples it was “the last supper.” And hey, if you saw The DaVinci Code, Leonardo wasn’t even there that day! He was about 1400 years too late! The last supper was also the first (grab your dictionary) Eucharist. The Eucharist (means “thanksgiving”) is the Christian tradition of sharing bread and wine (or grape juice) either every week or every once in a while. When it is once in a while it is usually called Communion instead. The last supper was originally a Passover meal – you see why I call it a complex?
Jesus was arrested after supper that night and he was killed the next day. In an unexpected move, Christians call this day “Good Friday.” Well, from the point of view that Jesus came back to life and conquered death itself, I guess you could call it good. Still, treated as a criminal, Jesus was beaten and nailed on a cross to die. Many churches have special services on Good Friday, often in the afternoon, the time Jesus traditionally died. Some of these services can last for three hours (the length of time the Bible says Jesus was on the cross).
Now, after all this waiting, comes Easter! Easter always come on a Sunday; in fact Easter is the reason Christian churches tend to meet on Sunday instead of Saturday. You see, for the Jews Saturday is the Sabbath, when God told them not to work. The Christians obeyed this rule and added Sunday too because of the belief that Jesus was resurrected (came back to life) three days after he died. So it is that the most repeated holiday of them all, the weekend, was born! Before this, unless you were Jewish, every day was a work day – harsh! Can you imagine having school seven days a week? Scary, isn’t it?
Remember, Easter, whose timing is based on Passover, is the reason for the whole complex of Christian holy days in this season. Think back for a moment to our pre-Christian, pre-Jewish sky-watchers. These guys had a lot riding on spring, especially in northern Europe. Spring is the time of year for planting crops (your folks may still plant flowers or vegetables in the spring). If you need crops to live (and who doesn’t?) this season is going to be important to you.
If you can remember all the way back to New Year’s Day from here (peeking is allowed), you will know that many cultures treat spring as the beginning of the year. Makes sense – the life seems to be coming back to nature after “dying” in winter. Spring was the time of year that pre-Christian people celebrated life’s victory over death – it fits like no other time of year.
All of this makes some people think that Easter is the Christian version of a life-returning-in-spring kind of celebration. Since many Christian believers take Easter very seriously, it is maybe best to walk around this on tippy-toes. The fact is, nobody knows the exact relationship between Easter and pre-Christian springtime festivals.
Historians (oh no! Snooze alert!) know that people have been celebrating the vernal equinox (remember?) for a long time. Even before Christianity or before Judaism people had springtime parties. Some times these parties focused on the gods early people believed in. For Christians Easter is the most important holiday of them all. On Easter, according to the Bible, Jesus came back to life after being executed on the Friday two days before. Easter, for Christian believers, assures them of life after death with Jesus.
Easter is actually a pretty complicated holiday. In different parts of the world it is called different names. Many languages use a word that sounds something like Pascha (pass-kah), the European version of the Hebrew word for Passover. Our English word “Easter” may come from the German word for “dawn” (Ostern). A famous English monk called the Venerable Bede thought Easter was named after the month name April – the unpronounceable Eostremonat, and its goddess Eostre.
Here is where we have to introduce Cybele: reader, this is Cybele. She was a Phrygian goddess – Phrygia was what the central part of ancient Turkey was called (still awake?). In Greek mythology she became the mother of Zeus. She seems to have been a symbol of the earth’s fertility (so it comes back to that again!) The Romans also adopted Cybele, so here we go to Rome again. Some people think that the celebration of Cybele’s fertility suggests itself as an origin for Easter, especially since in Greek mythology she had a son who died and came back to life. The Romans had a festival to Cybele – you guessed it – at the vernal equinox.
Fact is, most ancient people celebrated the spring equinox, and some of them did so with gods who died and came back. A more familiar example is the Greek myth of Pesephone, the daughter of Demeter who was abducted by Hades and had to live with him only to reemerge in spring. These ancient myths show that Easter was right at home in the springtime of the year. For most of the last 2000 years it has been a distinctly Christian holiday.
Easter today would be unrecognizable to our ancient friends. What about, for example, the Easter Bunny? That’s not in the Bible! Where’d it come from? First off, originally it was the Easter Hare, but that loses cuteness points compared to “Bunny.” People had long noticed hares (larger versions of “bunnies,” that is, rabbits) in the spring, long before Easter came along. That’s because they act strange during mating season (not unlike teenagers on a date!). Perhaps you’ve heard the expression “madder than a March hare.” More interesting than their antics is the fact that hares/bunnies can become pregnant again before they even give birth to a litter they are already carrying. That means bunnies in abundance in the spring – lots and lots of bunnies.
So rabbits were a symbol of fertility in the spring. In western European folklore the bunny got connected to Easter. The earliest written record of an “Easter Bunny” character come from Germany in the 1500s. In the 1700s Pennsylvania Dutch settlers brought the idea of the Osterhase to America. This “Easter hare” was an egg-laying rabbit! Only good girls and boys would get the gift of colored eggs. Today, of course, Easter has become a kind of mini-Christmas with small gifties as well as eggs and candy.
Speaking of eggs, the Easter Egg has a separate history (not that word again!) from the Easter Bunny. Eggs have been, for a very long time, an obvious symbol of fertility. They often are laid in large bunches, and all birds reproduce this way. Long before the Christian Easter, people had decorated eggs. No one seems to know why, other than the fact that they look nice in different colors. Remember the Romans? They seem to have eaten eggs as part of their annual spring celebrations – “Hey, here’s new life! Let’s cook it and eat it!”
Over time the Jewish Passover incorporated hard-boiled eggs. When they were sliced lengthwise they represented God’s eyes. During Lent, many Christians gave up eating meat, and that meant eggs. So on Easter, when Lent was finally over, they’d give each other red eggs. Red symbolized the death of Jesus, but the egg symbolized renewed life, so you have the Easter story all in one little tasty package.
In Christianity a religious legend sprung up to explain colored eggs. Aware that non-Christians also celebrated renewed life in spring with eggs, a story arose. The legend said that Mary Magdalene (a personal friend of Jesus) was taken before the Emperor of Rome (again with the Romans!). She told the emperor about how Jesus came back from the dead, but he didn’t believe her. Using a miracle, so the story goes, she made eggs turn red before the emperor’s eyes. So, people said, Christians colored eggs at Easter.
When a holiday lasts a long time, traditions start sticking to it like a heated marshmallow to a graham cracker. For example, the Easter Basket is now a tradition of its own, but it goes back to the Osterhase tradition. Recall that good kids got left colored eggs by the Easter Hare, but they had to make a place for those eggs so they’d know where to find them. So the kids would make “nests” for the eggs, boys in their caps and girls in their bonnets, a place for the hare to lay its eggs. Now children get regular Easter baskets, together with a nest of fake grass to entice an imaginary bunny to leave them something.
Finding a dead bunny in your basket would be a bummer. So, in Germany in the 1800s the idea of a candy bunny was born. The chocolate bunny seems to be an American invention of the 1840s, based on the German practice. According to a recent survey, the preferred way to eat a chocolate bunny is ears first. (Huh? I can’t hear you!) Easter was becoming a holiday of sweets. Egg-shaped jelly beans were eventually added to the cavity aids (now I’m starting to sound like Willy Wonka’s dad). A fairly new Easter tradition, but a strongly felt one, is the marshmallow Peep. Invented in 1953, the 32 calorie Peeps were homemade, and each one took 27 hours to make. Today 4 million Peeps are made every day in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania – that’s 26 tons of marshmallows daily! Easter has become a huge candy-consuming holiday.
The Passover-Easter Complex is complex! Easter falls right around the ancient celebration of nature’s rebirth in spring. Many cultures celebrate New Year at this time. Today Easter, being a religious holiday, does not involve a day off work (it occurs on Sunday, so most people are off work anyway). Some kids get the days around Easter off school as “spring break.” Many people worldwide celebrate Easter without realizing that it was part of a “spring break” for many cultures long before Christianity imbued it with its present meaning.
St. Valentine’s Day
In keeping with my holiday series for young people, I present here my lighthearted essay on Valentine’s Day. This holiday was actually the starting point for the book project. My daughter had to do a school paper article on the holiday and had a difficult time finding information on the history of Valentine’s Day that was suitable for children. I starting writing this book at that time since there was nothing on the market. Still isn’t. In any case, here goes —
Hearts and cupids and tasty candy are a long way from the origins of this holiday! To get a grip on St. Valentine’s Day we have to go back to the Romans again. Remember that the Romans took over the known world in the first century B.C.E. Nobody has accused the Romans of having a great sense of humor! Like most empire-builders they had the serious business of looking out for their own best interests in mind.
Before Constantine (if you skipped New Year’s Day, there’s more there) the Romans worshipped lots of gods. Their religion didn’t really have a name, but it had plenty of gods, gods to spare even! So when they conquered the land where Jesus would show up, Judaea (aka “Israel”), they didn’t really need any more gods. There were so many religions around, in fact, that the Romans hated new religions.
One of the favorite Roman sports was killing Christians, because Christianity was a new and illegal religion. By a remarkable coincidence two guys by the name of Valentine were priests in the early days of the church. Although St. Valentine’s Day gets cootie points for some, the name actually means “valiant.” Well, these two Valentines were both traditionally killed on February 14 in the 200s (C.E.). So Valentine’s Day starts with blood and gore!
The first of these St. Valentines was bishop (a head priest) of Interamna. He was murdered when the Roman Emperor was a guy called Aurelian (before Constantine, obviously). The second St. Valentine was a priest in Rome, the city. He was killed around 269 C.E. These martyrs (as people who die for their religion are called) were remembered on February 14. So far, so good.
But, as so often happens with holidays, people began to look at it in a new way. Usually this is because, other, more fun, holidays come at the same time and they get mixed together. Germanic tribes reserved mid-January to mid-February for worship of Vali, an archer god (see where this is going?). Christians, wanting to divert this non-Christian devotion, suddenly recalled that St. Valentine was a skilled archer too.
The Romans had a holiday called Lupercalia that fell on February 15. If we dare look closely at this holiday we might see hints of St. Valentine’s Day. It seems some of the Romans did have a sense of humor after all. Some Roman men would run through the city streets on Lupercalia, but without bothering to get dressed! As they streaked along, as natural as can be, they would hit women with strips (so to speak) of animal hides. People believed that this would help the women to be fertile.
Also, on the day before Lupercalia young ladies would drop their names in a box to be drawn out by young men, making them couples for the next year. And that’s just the beginning of the mushy stuff! This may have been where valentine boxes got their start.
Pope Gelasuis I (492-496) canceled Lupercalia and declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day. It was not a day for lovers, but a typical saint’s day: special prayers were said during mass that day reciting the virtues of the saint. Still, people did not forget Lupercalia.
At a later time, in the Middle Ages, in northern France, the word for “lady lover” (they had such a word?) was galatin, but the “g” was pronounced more like a “v.” This sounded like “valentine” and so, some suggest, St. Valentine’s Day was confused with lover-boys. The Middle Ages in Europe were the times of knights in shining armor rescuing damsels in distress. It was in these Middle Ages that we get our first real clue that Valentine’s Day was for romantic lovers.
Geoffrey Chaucer, an English writer in the 1300s, wrote a poem that mentions that birds choose their mates on St. Valentine’s Day (the poem is called “Parlement of Fowles,” from 1382). In the 1400s Valentine’s Day seems to have been celebrated in England, where a French prisoner, Charles, Duke of Orlean, sent his sweetie a rhyming love letter from his prison cell in the Tower of London. This historic first valentine still survives. William Shakespeare, some time later, in his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream also notes the bird-mating-Valentine’s Day connection. In Hamlet Shakespeare has Ophelia mention Valentine’s Day and sing of being someone’s valentine.
When St. Valentine’s Day got too mushy the church stopped celebrating it, making February 14 the day of the less romantic saints Cyril and Methodius. Although the church stopped observing Valentine’s Day in 1969, it was growing into a popular non-religious holiday. The country that most influenced Valentine’s Day celebration in America was England. In the 1800s in the United States the first large amounts of factory-produced valentines were sold. Before that people made their own cards.
It is not clear when the Roman god associated with love, Cupid, began to be associated with Valentine’s Day. Given the Roman background to the holiday it is not too great a surprise that he shows up on valentine cards, although the Romans don’t seem to have linked him to Lupercalia. Paper cards in the 1800s made a convenient place to print cupids.
The United States postal service made mail affordable about this time, and that only fanned the flames of love on this romantic day. Only in the second half of the 1900s did people begin to give chocolates, roses, or even diamonds on Valentine’s Day. In that sense Valentine’s Day, as we know it, is a thoroughly American holiday.
New Year’s Day
As a kid, I never got what was so great about New Year’s Day. You don’t get any presents, it’s cold outside, and school starts again tomorrow. Little did I know that New Year’s Day was one of the oldest holidays in the world. You see, it is one of those days that keeps the calendar organized. You’ve got to start somewhere!
The thing about New Year’s is that not everyone celebrates it at the same time. The early people I talked about a couple of pages back lived in parts of the world where seasons weren’t as extreme as they are in northern Europe or the northern States. Changes were more subtle, but there were definite changes. Their New Year came either in the spring or the fall, and it depended on the growing season.
The Bible talks about New Year. The Jewish New Year, called Rosh Hashanah, “the head of the year,” comes in the fall. Celebrated by blowing ram’s horns (shofarim) to announce the occasion, we can see why people in Times Square blow on noise-makers. In ancient Israel this was nearing one of the harvest times, a logical time to start a year. Falling close to the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, it is a time of reflection and repentance (expressing sorrow for sins). Prayers are often recited near flowing water to wash the sins away, and apples and honey are eaten to give a sweet start to the year.
Chinese New Year is celebrated by lots of people in the United States. It falls on the first day (duh) of the first Chinese lunar month, Zheng Yue (usually late January to late February). This is an example of how a moon-based New Year works. Because it is based on the moon, it doesn’t come on the same calendar date each year. It is, however, a major Chinese holiday – since it lasts for two weeks, it had better be a major event! Chinese tradition associates the celebration with the frightening off of a man-(and woman-)eating beast called the nian. Loud noises and the color red frightened it, so it is no wonder that fireworks are part of the festivities. New Year is a time of family gatherings and a reunion dinner. Special foods are eaten on various of the special days.
Our own American New Year’s Day wasn’t always celebrated on January 1. When our western style of celebrating began, New Year’s day fell on March 1. This is when the Romans held their New Year. Much of what it means to be an American is based on ideas that the Romans had.
(Snooze alert – we need to talk a little about ancient history here. It’s really important to understand our holidays, though!) Based in Italy, the Roman Empire took over pretty much all of Europe and western Asia during the first century spanning the Common Era (C.E.). Speaking of calendars, this would be a good time to clear up this whole B.C. and A.D. thing. Calendars are pretty touchy to many people because they tell people when to observe their holy days (“holidays” – get it?). Lots of holidays that we have today started off as religious days and the calendar is , according to many religions, revealed by the gods.
Going back to the Romans: while they were ruling the world, one of the Roman Emperors, Constantine became a follower of the Christian religion. Since he was emperor that meant that Christian holidays would eventually become part of the Roman calendar. It is no wonder then that the calendar of the European and American worlds breaks down into a Christian “before and after.”
From the point of view of a Christian, the “before and after” obviously has to do with Jesus. Jesus was a Jewish man that some people believe to have been the son of God. That’s a matter of religious belief. We do know that he was a historical person. Some of the writers during the Roman Empire were believers in Christianity and they divided time at the appearance of Jesus in history.
Since many people gave Jesus the title “Christ” – the Greek word for messiah – they called the time before Jesus “Before Christ” or B.C. The time after B.C. came to be called “Anno Domini” or A.D. Anno Domini is Latin for “the year of our Lord” (that is, Jesus). When I was a kid I was told A.D. meant “After Death” (of Jesus). This is quite wrong and it would leave a 30 year gap in history.
As centuries passed, people began to realize that not everyone in Europe or the Americas was a follower of Christianity. It is a bit unfair to make these people use Christian divisions of history. Problem is, we don’t know when the world started, or even precisely when humans evolved, so we can’t start at year 1, period. We’ve been dividing history and writing our checks for so long based on the B.C./A.D. system that it would be a pain in the unmentionables to change it.
Most people are fairly reasonable about all of this. Why not keep the usual, or common division, but instead of Anno Domini call it the Common Era (C.E.). That way no one’s religion looks less important. The time before the Common Era is called B.C.E., well, Before the Common Era.
So, it was the Romans who decided that New Year’s Day (remember New Year’s?) would be January 1. They made the change in the year 153 B.C.E., so the modern New Year’s Day was invented before the first Christmas. Even though the idea of New Year’s on January 1 had been set, still, sometimes it slipped around the calendar. January 1 was nothing special to Christians in the Roman Empire, so for quite some time Christians in the Roman Empire celebrated New Year’s Day on March 25, the supposed date when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would bear Jesus. The story is in the Bible, but not the date. (Obviously this date was decided in conjunction with a December 25 Christmas, nine months later – more on this under the Christmas Complex.)
During that weird historical period called the Middle Ages (from about 500 C.E. to 1500 C.E.), different Christian dates were suggested for New Year’s, based on religious commemorations. People in the Middle Ages were very religious (and often superstitious). Also during the Middle Ages some monks realized that the Roman calendar was wonky. All the solutions for “leap year” still didn’t precisely mark the New Year, and the Roman calendar had begun its slow slide through the seasons, just like all other calendars.
Named after the Pope, the head of the Roman church, they came up with the Gregorian calendar. This is the calendar we still use today. The Roman calendar was called the Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar. Pope Gregory XIII fixed the calendar, Gregorian style, in 1582 when the day after October 4 was declared October 15. Some people weren’t too happy about losing ten days of their lives, and some even demanded to be paid for their work on those ten missing days!
Not all European countries decided to use the Gregorian calendar right away. Not everybody liked the Pope, and besides, it was a pain to change calendars. So, it was different dates in different countries at the same time. The United States did not start using the Gregorian calendar until 1752. New Year’s Day was observed on March 25 before that.
In Europe some countries used January 1 as New Year’s Day before using the Gregorian calendar. January 1 was known as Circumcision Style New Year. If you’re squeamish, you might want to skip the next paragraph –
The Jewish religion, like lots of ancient peoples, had a ritual called circumcision, where the front skin of baby boy’s private parts was cut off (Ouch!) eight days after they were born. Since Jesus was Jewish he had to have been circumcised. If he was born on December 25 (as they believed at the time), then his circumcision would have been on January 1.
The idea of a secular (that is, non-religious) holiday hadn’t really been invented yet, so people tried to make sure their holidays had religious significance. January 1 had been the Roman New Year, and to give it a religious significance, it was aligned with a Jewish custom associated with Jesus. Circumcisions are still the occasion for celebration in Judaism, but it is an odd choice for beginning a New Year for Christians.
So, in the 1700s New Year’s Day in America came to be January 1. Some northern European non-Christian religions held gift exchanges on their New Year’s celebrations, but, sadly, the custom died out before getting to the United States.
The Christmas Complex
Note: this essay was written for teenage readers. It is a portion of a book on the subject of holidays for kids.
Kids are Christmas experts. From a very young age they develop a kind of Christmas radar that beeps louder as they home in on the big day. But how much do you really know about Christmas? You might find some surprises here!
You probably know that Christmas is a season that sends the year off with lots of booty. But did you know that Christmas celebrations in America are fairly new (well, you knew if you read Halloween)? Before the 1800s Christmas was hardly noticed in the United States at all. But let’s begin at the beginning.
The Christmas season begins four Sundays before Christmas (which takes you almost back to Thanksgiving!). This time period is called “Advent” (that is, “coming”) and it originally was a church season of fasting (not eating) like Lent (see the Passover-Easter Complex). Over time the Advent season became one of anticipation, a countdown, if you will, to Christmas. Various ways of counting time are associated with Advent ¬– Advent wreaths and Advent Calendars are both popular ways of running down the clock.
Advent wreaths are rings usually about the diameter of a basketball around which four candles are set, and often one is also placed in the middle. If you read about Hanukkah, this next part will sound familiar: each Sunday of Advent a new candle is lit, starting off with one and ending with all four burning. One candle is lit the first Sunday, two the second, and, well, you get the point. When the countdown is done the middle candle, sometimes called the Christ candle, is lit on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
Where did this tradition start? Clearly, like Hanukkah, the progressive lighting of more candles as the days get darker is a way of fighting back against the night, and the tradition goes back to pre-Christian Germany. Remember, people in northern Europe had this thing about the sun going out or something like that, and many of our Christmas traditions come from Germany. Wreaths lit with candles were a hopeful sign that light would return. In Scandinavia the candles were put on a wheel to encourage the gods to turn the wheel of the earth back toward the sun. Sometime in the Middle Ages, Christians in Germany started using these wreaths or wheels to mark the coming of Christmas, but we’re not sure exactly when.
On Advent Wreaths the candles are usually purple, the church color for the season, although sometimes they’re blue. The third candle is sometimes pink, originally because you could take a break from giving stuff up that day. Both Catholics and Lutherans used them in Germany.
Advent Calendars also came from Germany. They first appeared in the 1800s, the earliest known Advent Calendar dates from 1851. Before that families often hung candles on calendars! Really! (The mind boggles at how they did this.) They would light a new candle each day as Christmas approached (sound familiar?). Credit for the earliest printed Advent Calendar goes to Gerhart Lang in Germany around 1900. The printed calendar had pieces of cardboard with pictures to mark the days down to Christmas. Eventually little doors were added to hide the pictures, or even little surprises like chocolates or trinkets. Usually Advent Calendars have windows or doors to open for the days of December 1 to 24.
Advent traditions are ways of counting down to Christmas, and they have some roots in church traditions. Christmas itself is also a season rather than a single day, and like Advent it has both Christian and pre-Christian elements.
Christmas is by far the largest commercial holiday in the country (that is, people spend more money for this holiday than any other), but its namesake was not a buy-and-spend supporter. Officially Christmas is a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus. We don’t know much about Jesus by way of biography. His birthday, for example, was never recorded. Working with the tiniest details in the Bible stories of Jesus’ birth (there are only two such stories, both very short), experts conclude that Jesus was probably actually born in April. So, why do we give presents in December?
First off, by the time Christmas was established, the actual date of Jesus’ birth had long been forgotten. Secondly, as Christianity grew it ran into older religions that celebrated the winter solstice. If you’ve been reading your way through this book, you already know that people long observed the four major season-changing days: the equinoxes and solstices. The longest day of the year, the summer solstice, is not marked by any holidays in the United States (probably because mid-summer is already seen as vacation time). The other changing days, however, have special celebrations. These celebrations go all the way back to our ancient sky-watchers.
The winter solstice, around Christmas time, is the shortest day of the year. People throughout the northern hemisphere eagerly awaited the lengthening days when more light could come. Christmas, as a holiday full of hope, falls right into this season.
Experts argue about how Christmas came to be part of the winter solstice mix of holidays. The early Christian church was all about leaving the world, not celebrating it. Here’s the bad news – you might even want to cover your eyes – early Christians thought it was inappropriate to celebrate birthdays at all! Why celebrate Jesus’ birthday, especially when nobody knew when it was?
If you’ve been bold enough to read this whole book, you’ve noticed a strong connection between the four major turning points of the year and holidays. Coming at three-month intervals, the solstices and equinoxes neatly divide the year into four basically equal parts. People in olden times gave a lot of significance to this fact. And Christianity adopted many of the traits of the seasonal calendar.
A tradition developed that Jesus’ birth had been announced on March 25. There is no better explanation than that this date was nearly the spring equinox. Nine months later, the usual term of pregnancy in people, is December 25. The earliest historical (not again!) reference to the celebration of Jesus’ birth comes in 354 C.E. in the Calendar of Filocalus. Now, a lot was happening in Christianity at this time.
First of all, Christianity began when the Romans ruled the known world. Remember the Romans? They are a big part of our culture, so they pop up at lots of our holidays. At first Romans killed Christians for sport (look at St. Valentine’s Day for more). Then, around 310 a Roman Emperor, Constantine, became a Christian believer himself. Constantine, however, had a hard time completely letting go of Roman religion. It is that religion that gives us some of our Christmas origins.
Many people trace Christmas to a pre-Christian Roman festival called Saturnalia. This Roman feast was dedicated to Saturn (duh), one of the ancient gods. Saturnalia was a kind of “opposite day” when slaves and masters traded places, gambling and public nudity were allowed, and people partied. Also, people gave each other gifts. Holly was a plant symbolic of Saturn. Now, Saturnalia did not directly give us Christmas. It ran from December 17 to 23, bringing it close in time but not making an exact match. Some of its traditions, however, worked their way into Christmas. For example, on this day people greeted each other by saying “Io, Saturnalia.” That is, “Ho, praise Saturn!” (See where this might lead? Ho, ho.)
Far more likely as an origin for a December 25 Christmas is the Roman festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or the birth of Sol Invictus. Sol Invictus was the undefeated sun. Constantine (remember Constantine?) was a devoted follower of Sol Invictus and blended much of the solar imagery with Christian traditions. The feast of the birth of Sol Invictus came on December 25, the Roman solstice date, and it eventually took the place of Saturnalia. The sun, apparently beaten on the shortest day, came back triumphantly, undefeated, as days slowly began to lengthen. The festival was started by Emperor Elagabulus (sounds painful) around 220 C.E., well before the earliest reference to Christmas. (Interestingly, the earliest possible reference to December 25 as Christmas may come from a book by Sextus Julius Africanus. The book, however, is lost and it cannot be confirmed. If this is correct, however, the book was written in 221 – well, do the math!) So the sun was “born” again on December 25, according to the Romans.
Now the Romans had lots of trouble with their Northwood neighbors. These were the Germanic folks living in northern Europe. Although they didn’t get along with the Romans, they had a winter holiday too. Based on a lunar calendar, the date shifted around a bit, but their festival was called “Yule.” When Christianity spread to these parts, Yule was fixed on December 25. Yule was a 12-day celebration, and it is the origin of the “twelve days of Christmas.” (It doesn’t take 12 days to be born!) In many parts of the world Christmas is still celebrated by burning a Yule log.
During the early Middle Ages, Christmas was not a major celebration. Part of the Christmas Complex is the twelfth day of Christmas (based on the 12 days), January 6. This day was an important Christian day called “Epiphany.” Epiphany commemorated Jesus’ baptism, something the Bible talks more about than his birthday. The name Epiphany means “revealing,” that is, Jesus was revealed as God’s son, according to Christian belief, at his baptism.
Although it might seem unbelievable to us, Epiphany was a bigger deal than Christmas. The day before Epiphany came to be called Twelfth Night, a holiday in its own way. Eventually Epiphany came to be connected with the visit of the Magi to young Jesus.
The Magi, or wise men, are mentioned in the Bible only in the Gospel of Matthew. It does not say that there were three of them, but only that they brought three gifts to young (not baby) Jesus – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Now, be sure to thank these guys, because they gave the justification for Christians to continue the Saturnalia custom of giving gifts!
It may seem impossible to believe, but a liturgy (church service) for Christmas, giving it the name “Christ” “mass,” did not come until about the 800s. Christmas had been called by its other European names “Nativity” (Navidad in Spain, Natale in Italy, Noel in France). So Christmas got off to a slow start.
Once it took off, Christmas really flew in Medieval Europe. Kings held great feasts, an early version of the Christmas dinner. Yule Boar became popular, even causing songs to be written about a dead pig (an interesting twist on Hanukkah!). Speaking of songs, the Middle Ages gave birth to the Christmas Carol. If you read about Halloween, you might recall the mummers. They danced and sang and put on plays, often door-to-door, and mainly around Christmas. Carolers would go around in groups and sing outside other’s houses, and were at first considered uncouth (grab the dictionary).
Also in Europe in the 1600s the custom arose of writing Christmas with the ancient symbol for Christ, the Greek letter chi. Chi is the first letter of the Greek word “Christ.” And since Chi looks exactly like our X, the popular abbreviation of X-mas became popular. It took a lot less time to write and meant the exact same thing!
So, if Christmas started to become so popular later in the Middle Ages, why didn’t early Americans celebrate it?
The answer lies in England. In England a group of very strict Protestants (non-Catholic Christians) took power and chopped off the head of King Charles I in 1649. Charles had been Catholic, and that’s how they settled things in those days. The Puritans (you would recognize them later as “Pilgrims”) hated anything Catholic, and that included Christmas. In 1647 they outlawed Christmas. These were the folks who started the colonization of America. While some states celebrated Christmas, it was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681.
The Revolutionary War brought more trouble to the holiday. The newly independent Americans thought that Christmas was too English and it was largely abandoned. In England an effort was made to revitalize the holiday in the 1800s, one of the results of which was a book by Charles Dickens called A Christmas Carol. This interest in kick-starting Christmas also caught on in the United States with the writings of Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore. Although Washington Irving is best remembered for the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, associated with Halloween, his writings on Christmas in New York helped to set some American ideas on the holiday. But perhaps more influential was an 1822 poem by Moore entitled “A Visit from St. Nicholas;” but you might better recognize it from its first line “Twas the night before Christmas…”
After the Civil War ended, a flood of German immigrants poured into America. The Germans, unlike the much earlier Puritans, had always loved Christmas. We’ve already seen that they brought Yule, the Advent Wreath and the Advent Calendar traditions to life. The Germans had a tradition of hanging an empty sock by the fireplace for St. Nicholas to fill with small gifts. But who is St. Nicholas? And why a sock?
Well, for starters, there really was a person called St. Nicholas, but during his life he was known as Nicholas of Myra. He lived in the 300s in what is now Turkey. He was a Christian bishop, but almost nothing else is known about him. One important thing – he was widely considered to be very kind and generous – not a claim made for all bishops!
The fictional image (gasp!) of St. Nicholas gains quite a few familiar characteristics by his being merged with an ancient Germanic god called Odin. Odin is well-known to lovers of Scandinavian mythology. During Yule (remember Yule, the Germanic holiday?) Odin would go on a hunting trip riding on his flying horse Sleipnir. Children would put boots filled with straw or carrots for Sleipnir by the chimney (he was a flying horse, going over the houses). Odin would repay their kindness by leaving gifts or candy in the boots.
Hmmm – anything familiar there? Leaving cookies and milk for Santa and the Christmas stocking both have their origins here. Germanic settlers appear to have brought the custom of leaving socks out for St. Nicholas to America. To make it a Christian custom, St. Nicholas had to replace the non-Christian Odin. Stories had circulated that St. Nicholas had once dropped three bags of gold down a man’s chimney so that he would not have to sell his three daughters off to slavery. What had been Odin’s midnight ride had become a Christian custom. In many parts of the world St. Nicholas is portrayed as a bishop, wearing church robes and a bishop’s hat (called a “mitre”). His saint’s day is actually December 6,
A further transformation took place in England. In the 1800s as Christmas was being revived, a character known as Father Christmas became popular. Portly (a polite way of saying “fat”) and bearded, he wore a long, green robe lined with fur. The morphing continued in America. Dutch settlers brought their character known as Sinterklaas (Sint Nikolaas) to America where Washington Irving restyled it as Santa Claus.
In parts of Europe St. Nicholas rode a horse, like Odin. In other parts he rode a goat. His using a reindeer (just one) appears for the first time in America in an 1821 poem entitled “The Christmas Friend.” Bringing it all together for us was Clement Clarke Moore. “A Visit from St. Nicholas” establishes the number of reindeer as eight and gave us their names. Moore may have been using other sources (Washington Irving, for example, wrote of Nicholas flying in a wagon), but 1822 marks the origin of many American Christmas classics. By the way, the original names of the reindeer were Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen (an odd name for a deer!), Comet and Cupid, Donder and Blitzem (later they became Donner and Blitzen, “thunder” and “lightning” in German). This poem for the first time calls Santa an elf.
Where’s Rudolph? Rudolph is a very recent addition. In a 1939 Christmas story by Robert L. May, who worked at Montgomery Ward, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was introduced. He has become so much a part of Santa’s team that some kids wonder why Moore forgot to mention him (he hadn’t been invented yet!). Robert May was also the first to use Donner and Blitzen rather than Donder and Blitzem for the final two reindeer. In 1949 Johnny Marks wrote the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” that gave Santa’s location as the North Pole.
Santa had been accompanied by a servant called Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”) in Dutch tradition. It was Zwarte Piet’s job to beat bad children! The idea of Santa having servants and being an elf led to his having elves for helpers. As industrialization rolled in, kids realized that Santa couldn’t be doing it all by himself! Elves were some of the “little people” of Old Europe and were taken very seriously by many people before the modern period. One of the sources for this connection is none other than L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Baum wrote The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus where, in true Baum style, we find lots of helpers, including elves. Santa, however, originally a bishop, remained a bachelor. Mrs. Claus had been invented before Baum’s 1902 story, back in 1889, by Katherine Lee Bates in her poem “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride.”
What about those poor Protestant kids? St. Nicholas, after all, was treated as a Catholic figure. In Germany in the 1500s, where and when Protestantism began, children were taught to await Christkindl (“Christ-child” – did you forget whose birthday Christmas is supposed to represent? I almost did!). Christkindl over time became Chris Kringle and he too was rolled into the overweight version of Santa Claus.
The popular image of Santa as bearded, gravity-challenged man wearing red trimmed with white, came to be fixed in the American mind only in the 1920s. The icon was further developed by Haddon Sundblom, an illustrator for Coca-Cola. Coke had learned what would become, in many respects, a driving force in the American economy (groan) – Santa sells!
Santa’s arch-enemy, the Grinch, was created by Theodore Geisel (Dr. Suess) in his 1957 book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Something Clement Clarke Moore didn’t mention in his book was a Christmas tree. Where did that come from? Well, trees had long been held as sacred (holy) by ancient peoples. Even today, trees are the longest-lived creatures on earth. Ancient peoples worshipped trees and the Romans (you knew they would come back!) portrayed their god Dionysus carrying a pine tree.
In Christianity the tree was always associated with Jesus’ death, not his birth. Like so many of our modern Christmas traditions, the Christmas tree can be traced to the pre-Christian Germanic tribes. These pre-Germans hung their sacrifice victims from the branches of trees (kids, don’t try this at home!) as part of their Yule celebrations. This idea, combined with the green that only conifer trees keep in winter, made the evergreen an important part of winter solstice celebrations. It is a sign of hope. When everything else dies, the conifer stays alive.
The modern use of Christmas trees can be traced directly back to Germany in the 1500s. The earliest written reference comes from 1570 when a fir tree was set up in guild houses (ask your history teacher) and decorated with apples, nuts, pretzels, and small things for kids. On Christmas Day the kids of the guild members could come and take the hanging gifts. The apples may go back to plays in the Middle Ages with Adam and Eve; sometimes plays of the Garden of Eden had apples hung on a fir tree. A tradition says that Martin Luther (not the same as Martin Luther King Jr. – see Martin Luther King Day), the monk who started the Protestant movement (the Reformation) was walking home one winter night when he saw the stars twinkling through the branches of the pines. He set a tree up in his house, the story goes, lit with candles, to try to recreate the effect.
We do know that the Christmas tree (originally Tannenbaum) was a German invention. Until the 1800s it was almost completely limited to Germany. Candles were used to light the trees – talk about your obvious fire hazard! Royalty from other European countries were presented with Christmas trees as a novelty in the 1800s. Soon other well-to-do families started to set them up. An engraving of Queen Victoria in England with a tree from her German husband Prince Albert captured the public imagination and Christmas trees became the rage in England.
In America there was no king or queen. German or Dutch settlers brought the idea with them and many places in New York and Pennsylvania claim to have had America’s first Christmas tree. Today prominent public Christmas trees are displayed in Washington, DC and Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan.
Before the days of Christmas loot, presents were small enough either to hang on a tree or fit into an old sock. How lucky we are these days – you can drive a Christmas tree home on the top of some Christmas presents!
Other plants came to be associated with Christmas from other cultures. Holly, as we have seen, was Saturn’s plant during Saturnalia, again because it remained green in winter. Mistletoe was used by the Druids before the first Christmas celebration, because it too stayed green in winter. Mistletoe strikes fear in the hearts of many, because of the tradition of kissing under it (major cootie alert!). Mistletoe, however, was considered special in ancient Europe because it grows on other plants, typically trees, and it does not touch the ground. Yet, while trees lose their leaves, mistletoe stays green all winter. It has white berries, it is poisonous to people, and it is classified as a parasite. So, who wants to smooch under a poisonous parasite?
The Scandinavians had a story explaining it. The most loved god was Balder, and his mother Frigga made all plants and animals swear that they would never hurt him. Loki, the trickster (see Halloween) god, discovered that mistletoe had not taken the oath (it didn’t act like other plants). So Loki made an arrow out of mistletoe (here you can see that it is a myth) and gave it to Balder’s blind brother (a bow and arrow, by the way, is a dangerous choice for a Christmas gift!). Why a blind god would want a bow and arrow set is unclear, but he accidentally shot Balder with it, killing him. Well, this was upsetting because everyone loved Balder, and in sadness for his death, winter came. The gods did bring Balder back to life and Frigga made mistletoe a plant of love and peace. It was a custom among the Norse that if you met an enemy under mistletoe, both of you would lay down your weapons and give each other a hug of peace. So the tradition of kissing under mistletoe began.
Now, back to the Druids. We saw some of the Druid traditions in Halloween, but they also believed that mistletoe was sacred. They would cut down mistletoe when they found it (it is fairly rare) and they used it in the winter solstice celebrations. If you hung a sprig of mistletoe over your door, they believed, it would ward off evil. Nobody knows quite when the tradition of mushy stuff under the mistletoe was added specifically to the Christmas complex, but it had nothing to do with Santa Claus!
Poinsettias are another Christmas plant, but from the New World rather than Old Europe. Poinsettias were used by Catholic missionaries in Mexico to celebrate Christmas in the 1800s. The star-shaped “flower” (actually, the red parts are the topmost leaves) suggested itself as a Christmas star, from the Bible, and it also had a nice, natural red and green Christmas color scheme. The plant was introduced to the United States in 1828 by Joel Poinsett (oh, so that’s where the name comes from!), the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico.
Take a deep breath – we’re almost through! Christmas, as celebrated in America, is a very complex Complex. A simple way of teaching children that this complicated holiday was about Jesus was the nativity set.
The origins of the nativity set or Christmas creche go back to one of the most interesting figures of the Middle Ages. Francis of Assisi was an ironic young man who began one of the most popular religious orders (types of monks, insofar as monks were ever popular) – the Franciscans. Even if you are not Catholic or even Christian, Francis’ life is very interesting to read about. In 1223 Francis was in Grecio for Christmas. Ever creative, he wanted to make the Christmas mass memorable, so he borrowed an ox and an ass and put them in a manger. He added statues of Joseph and Mary, and put in a baby doll for Jesus. From this dramatic touch to a Christmas service evolved the practice of setting up manger scenes or creches at Christmas time. Since it wouldn’t do to have sheep and cows running around in the house, most people went to using miniature sets, often made of wood or ceramics.
And what would Christmas be without music? It is the only major holiday that has generated its own full line of season-specific music. If you’ve ever stepped into a store after Thanksgiving, you know exactly what I mean. If I wrote about every Christmas song, you’d be sitting here until it was time to start college, and I’d be as old as Santa by the time I’d finished. So, I’ll just pick a couple of kid-friendly examples.
The Boar’s Head Carol dates from the 1600s in England. Yule was more popular than Christmas at the time, and part of Yule involved the sacrifice of a boar and the presentation of its head at a feast. (People still eat pigs’ heads, but they are disguised as other foods.) The earliest published copy of the Boar’s Head Carol dates from 1521 – before the first Christmas tree! What makes this carol kid-worthy is a story related in the 1860s by William Henry Husk. The story, which is hard to swallow, says that a Queen’s College student at Oxford was out for a walk while reading Aristotle. (Already the story is unbelievable – would a student be doing homework? On Christmas?) A wild boar attacked and the student crammed his Aristotle book down the pig’s throat saying “complements of the Greeks.” The boar, like so many students afterward, choked on Aristotle and the student brought its head to Queen’s College where it was eaten for Christmas dinner. I wonder: what shape was the book in after that?
The story of “Silent Night” is much more peaceful. An Austrian priest, Josef Mohr wrote the words to “Silent Night” in 1816. In 1818 he wanted to have the song sung at the Nicola Kirche (St. Nicholas’ Church) where he was priest in Oberndorf, Austria, but the organ was broken. Fr. Mohr approached the head master Franz Gruber to have him write the music for the song, to be used with guitar accompaniment. Gruber hesitated since guitar music in church was frowned upon, but he finally composed the piece. Together Mohr and Gruber captured what many consider to be the true essence of Christmas – a night of true and lasting peace.
Irving Berlin was an American song writer. During the Second World War, in 1940, he composed a song entitled “White Christmas.” Feeling the strain of the war, the public was introduced to the song in a 1942 movie Holiday Inn. As Bing Crosby warbled away, people thought how nice it would be to have the war over and everybody home for an old-fashioned Christmas. It may be incredible, but even all these years later “White Christmas” is the best-selling single of all time. The images of Christmas back home were very comforting to those families who had members off fighting in a terrible conflict.
Interestingly enough, the second best-selling single is “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” also written in the 1940s, but targeted at a younger crowd.
Another famous non-religious Christmas song was sung by Judy Garland (of Wonderful Wizard of Oz fame) in the 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis (pronounced “Louie,” at least for the title song). That Christmas song became one of her biggest hits: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. For those of you who are real holiday fans, Meet Me in St. Louis is a must-see. Not only does it give us this song, but it is also one of the best examples of an early 1900 Halloween celebration ever filmed. Long before slasher Halloween films, this movie brought that creepy holiday to the public eye.
One final aspect of Christmas that can’t be left out is the food. We’ve already seen that Christmas feasts were part of Medieval celebrations of the holiday, and that apples hung on trees were treats in Germany in the 1500s. Today Christmas is also associated with cookies and candy. This seems to be largely because of the childhood appeal of the holiday. Sweets are also associated with St. Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, and Halloween. During the Second World War sugar was rationed, which meant that you couldn’t just go out and buy it. After the war ended and sugar was freely available again, the candy market exploded.
Probably the candy most closely associated with Christmas is the simple candy cane. They are simply peppermint flavored stick candy. Stick candy had been around a long time already when in 1670 the choir master at Cologne Cathedral in Germany (it just wouldn’t be Christmas if it weren’t for the Germans!) had the idea to bend the candy sticks like a shepherd’s crook. He passed them out to keep the kids quiet during the long service. Since Christmas trees were becoming popular at the time, some people think the shape was so that candy could be hung on a tree. Just try getting a straight piece of candy to stick to a tree! Candy canes were all white until the 1900s when stripes (usually red) were added. Stories told about religious symbolism for the stripes and cane shape are interesting, but they have no historical backing.
Well, we could go on and on. This gives you a quick (right!) idea about where many of our Christmas traditions originated. As a holiday, it constantly acquires new symbols and styles, so you’ll have to wait and see what Christmas of the future might look like!
Ghosts of Nashotah House
A recent search for “Nashotah House” + ghost (not unsurprisingly) brought up my blog. Perhaps I was being bated, but I’ll bite anyway. Who can resist a good ghost story?
A wee history lesson will help to set the scene. Nashotah House is/was a seminary of the Episcopal Church nestled in the woods of what had been the frontier in Wisconsin. Established in 1842, it was originally conceived of as a monastery — an ethos it has tried to maintain ever since. It is a residential campus with both students and faculty required to live on the school grounds. I taught there from 1992 to 2005, long enough to see some strange things.
I admit up-front that I don’t know what to believe about ghosts. Very nearly ubiquitous as a cultural phenomenon (and firmly related to religion), ghosts permeate the human imagination. It is not at all unusual that ghost stories should thrive in a gothic setting like Nashotah; a simple web search will bring out the traditional hauntings of the place, especially those of the black monk. When I made my first visit to campus there were some distinctly creepy vibes that I wrote up as being non-priestly jitters amid the secretive life of the black-robed clergy. For my first two years I would be there for just part of the week, so instead of the usual faculty house to reside in, I was assigned to live in an apartment in Webb Hall. Known simply as “the Fort” for the solidity of its limestone block construction, Webb Hall had been built for a former dean, Rev. Dr. Azel Cole, as a grand three-story residence for the priest and his wife, Betsy. (Episcopal priests can marry, creating a steady siphoning of Roman Catholic priests who love both the liturgy and the ladies.) My apartment was on the third floor of the Fort, the highest point on campus. As the living dean showed me around, I had that oppressive, “something’s not right” feeling, despite the fact that the living room had been newly furnished and had a spectacular view across campus.
The dean pointed out the amenities of the spacious apartment, but when we reached the kitchen/dining area, we found something unusual. In the very center of the floor was a single dining plate, shattered. The dean muttered something about how the cleaning lady must have missed it on her rounds when she had prepared the apartment for my arrival. Otherwise the apartment was spotless. There was a door leading to a private chapel that Dean Cole had constructed. I was told it was no longer used since the only access was through the apartment, but the dean supposed I would be interested in seeing it. We stepped inside and it was coated with cobwebs and a thick layer of dead black-flies covered the floor, especially near the windows. The dean informed me that it was kept locked to prevent clandestine, unapproved Masses from being performed there by renegade priests on the faculty.
The creepiest room, however, was my bedroom. A spare room (for sleeping only, no doubt), furnished with only a new bed and side-table, it nevertheless felt crowded. When something finally did happen in that room it was after I had moved to a regular faculty residence.
I experienced odd events in that apartment, but nothing I could chalk up to hauntings. Besides, as a newly minted and supremely skeptical Ph.D., I didn’t believe in ghosts. I grew close to the librarian who was on campus at the time. He was a single man about my age who had an active and engaging mind. He wasn’t a priest, but he had majored in philosophy. One day he showed me the archives. The archives were always locked and accessed only with good cause. Nevertheless, the librarian told me that I could use them any time. Quite unexpectedly he said, “You want to see the ghost picture?” I was intrigued. Stories of ghosts were not uncommon on campus. He pulled down a black-and-white photo from decades past and showed me the picture of a priest standing near the on-campus cemetery with a backdrop of trees. He pointed to a shadowy figure that could have been a prime example of pareidolia or a disembodied priest. “That’s the ghost of Dean Cole,” he said. He told me there was a second ghost in the photo, but I just couldn’t make it out. It would have been nice symmetry, however, a priest between two holy spirits.
Libraries can be creepy places, and this one was no exception. Dark, underground stacks hid all kinds of shadows. With a combination-locked door, students and faculty had all night access. I never went in after dark.
Once my wife and I had moved to campus full-time, we were provided with a good-size house for a couple just starting out. Built in 1950, it was a newer limestone block house, and no one said it was haunted. I did not feel anything paranormal there in my dozen years’ residence other than the horrendous swarms of insects. In late spring mayflies by the thousands would coat the south wall of the house. The summer saw hundreds of black flies inside, followed by a period of intense earwig infestation, then asian beetles (like ladybugs, but with attitude) would turn the outside south wall into a moving, black mass. It felt like perpetually being on Moses’ bad side.
Eventually I was made Registrar because of my no-nonsense, ordered thinking. When this same affliction landed me a role as the Academic Dean (then called “Sub-Dean,” a title too exalted for a layman), I became the new Registrar’s supervisor. This Registrar was a former student, a mature woman that I knew well and trusted. (Nashotah House does not recognize the authority of women priests and does not allow them to function sacerdotally on campus. It will, however, take them as students.) During one of Nashotah’s summer sessions, the third floor of the Fort was rented out to a student. I won’t reveal his name since, a) I wish to protect his identity, and b) I am absolutely wretched at remembering names; as hard as I try I just can’t recall it. This young man was a solid, stable undergraduate student from Fordham University. I had many talks with him and considered him far more stable than standard Nashotah House fare. We’ll call him Bob, so that I don’t have to keep writing “x.”
One morning that summer while checking in, the Registrar told me, “We need to find another apartment for Bob.” This was disconcerting since many Nashotah House students lived there year-round and even though the student body was small, apartments were difficult to find during the summer term. I asked what was up, and this is the story I was told —
“Bob came to my apartment early this morning, visibly frightened. He told me that he needed a new place to stay. I asked him what was the matter. Bob said that last night as he was sleeping, he woke up to find an old man in his room. [This sent shivers down my spine, since I knew the corner of the room he would have shown up in, it was a noticeably eerie spot.] He sat up and asked the old man what he was doing and the old man replied ‘Where’s Betsy?’ and disappeared. Bob ran out of the apartment, spent the night in the library and refused to go back in even to get his things. He did not know that Dean Cole’s wife, Elizabeth, had been called Betsy by her husband, nor did Bob know that this had been Dean Cole’s house.”
I was seriously puzzled by this, and the next time I saw Bob, at a cookout, he had an especially solemn look on his face. I never talked to him about it, since I was skeptical and since there was no reason that I should have known the story. It was only after I was terminated from the seminary faculty with the advent of a new administration that I began to research the stories of the hauntings. Webb Hall is less than a hundred meters from the on-campus cemetery where the Rev. Dr. Cole is buried; the cemetery is, in fact, adjacent to the building. I have since learned that Dean Cole has frequently been reported as haunting the seminary, rather odd activity for a priest and professor. I can’t vouch for Bob’s actual experience, since I wasn’t there at the moment it allegedly happened, but I can attest to the uncanny feel of that apartment and to the fact that ghost stories regularly circulate on the campus. In my own fact-checking for this post I came across other stories on the web of Dean Cole and his continuing presence at the House.
Please, if you are inclined towards ghost-hunting, remember that Nashotah House is a privately owned academic institution. It still trains clergy for the church and it has courses throughout the year. Do not wander onto campus and disturb both the living and the dead. You wouldn’t want someone coming uninvited to your house and prowling around for the paranormal, would you?
What’s a Ugarit?
Self-knowledge for any society begins with a knowledge of its past. We identify ourselves with where we have come from and what we have experienced. As denizens of a highly technological world in which change occurs rapidly, it is easy to forget that in ancient times technology progressed at the rate of centuries, or even millennia. The rapidity of cultural change is closely linked with the efficiency of communication with large groups of people over great distances. Working together we build on the many stories already built below us, we begin on a higher level than those in the stories below us did.
When we think of the Middle East, named from the western penchant for placing itself at the geographic center, we think of it as a region of perpetual conflict. Looking beyond our accustomed frame of reference, this region of the world is also where western civilization itself began. It was here that written communication itself was conceived. Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia have often captured the western imagination. When enumerating the important archaeological discoveries of this region, most informed people would easily tick off the Rosetta Stone, King Tut’s tomb, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Missing from most rosters would be Ugarit, an ancient city of incomparable importance among the lower stories of the tower of our society.
The great founding nations of civilization grew along the banks of west Asian rivers. Apparently developing independently, Egypt flourished along the Nile and the nations of Mesopotamia along the Tigris and Euphrates. The Euphrates was the quintessential waterway of the ancient world, known by many as simply “the River,” just as the Mediterranean was “the Sea.” Early in human history the city-states of Mesopotamia coalesced into united ventures recognizable as nations. The same unification occurred in Egypt and among the Hittite peoples of what is now Turkey. The basic unit of civilization, however, tended to be the city-state.
Distant travel was relatively scarce when civilization was young. Most people were tied to the land as a source of food and security. When enemies threatened, strongholds became a necessity and walled cities evolved. Those whose lands were close enough might live within the city and walk to their subsistence farmlands each day. Settlements further out relied on the local city for protection as those who ran the cities relied on a kind of feudal tribute to compensate for their lack of cultivable land. Among the administrators of any successful city were its priests and other sacerdotal functionaries. Along with civic leaders they were responsible for many of the written documents produced. When a city was destroyed or abandoned, it was left to fall to ruins. After many years of neglect — sometimes centuries — the initial attraction of the location would again draw settlers who would build on the foundations of the detritus of the extinct city. Civilization continued to build itself upon these lower layers until, even in antiquity, they lived atop artificial mounds on the literal basis of their own civilization. Such mounds, or tels, speckled the ancient landscape wherever people had repeatedly found advantageous living conditions. Although distant travel was rare, the draw of imported goods was strong. Whether the commodity was a food unavailable locally, a metal not indigenous to a region, or a manufactured item indicative of social status, merchants set out to open lines of trade. Ships, keeping mostly within sight of shore, could ply the Mediterranean. Over land, however, long distance travel could be difficult in a region possessed both of mountains and arid wilderness. Despite images of Lawrencian journeys through desolate sand dunes, ancient merchants and armies were more practical. Even if it added a considerable distance, travel to a far city was plotted along reliable water sources such as the Euphrates. With demand for goods high and supply low and slow, merchants became quite wealthy.
The Levant, stretching from where Asia meets Africa, up the Mediterranean coast to Asia Minor, was a scantily affiliated conglomeration of city-states. The northern-most regions were once called Amarru, the home of the Amorites. What is now known as Syria was eventually called “Aram,” a name reflected in the Aramaic language used there. To the south, at some point in the twelfth century B.C.E. an entity called Israel appeared. As with its neighbors the artificial superstructure of statehood rested uneasily on the people who seem to have preferred smaller, tribal-based government. The generic name “Canaanite” was apparently applied to any of the many peoples of this region. Violence often marks the stages of social progress. This is true of the major technological advances that give their names to eras of human progress: the stone ages, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. Each is marked by a technological leap into a new medium for tools with which to build society and weapons with which to conquer it. The end of the Bronze Age represents just such a leap.
For millennia humankind used stone and wood for its tools and weapons. Innovations were small and lasted for hundreds of years before being improved upon. Following the technology of working clay into various utilitarian shapes, metal smelting was one of the earliest technologies developed. Metals were known as heavy rocks that would dent, bend, or flatten, rather than break when struck. The first metals smelted were gold and copper, both too malleable to use for the serious business of warfare or for even for chopping wood. Whether some proto-scientist intentionally added tin or zinc to copper or whether they were accidentally alloyed is unknown, but the resulting bronze transformed history enough to become the banner of all cultures first discovering metallurgy — the Bronze Age.
Bronze is hard enough for making tools and weapons. It is shaped by casting molten metal into molds and its blades are sharpened with stones. Bronze was the material of choice throughout western Asia until the much harder and stronger iron was introduced around 1000 B.C.E.
Over the millennia foreign armies acquired the valuable land bridge at the nexus of Africa, Asia, and Europe. Assyrians and Babylonians from Mesopotamia in turn dominated the Levant, followed by their eastern neighbor Persia. The Greeks under Alexander annexed Asia. Perhaps because of an inexact knowledge of the complex geography of the region, it was the Greeks, in whose language “Assyria” becomes “Syria,” that Aram was renamed. Rome followed Greece in the conquest of western Asia, continuing European dominance until the Ottoman Empire brought the region into Asian control until the end of World War I. During all this time many ancient cities and city-states were slowly being forgotten, lost to memory and to history.
The Great War brought a European presence back into western Asia. Colonialism still ran strong in the ideologies of the dominant national powers. The political machinations following World War I gerrymandered Syria under the authority of the French Empire. Not yet a state, the southern Levant that would become Israel was under British mandate. The Louvre and British Museum thus came to house some of the finest antiquities recovered in modern times.
The cultural barometer for the importance of ancient artifacts from West Asia, for better or for worse, is the Bible. The Great War had given the Good Book a shot in the arm. The Fundamentalist movement was in its infancy in the 1920s and the Scopes Trial of 1925 had helped many Americans define truth as only that found in the biblical record. In fact, early archaeological work in the Middle East had been undertaken with the express intent of proving the veracity of the Bible’s history. The Bible had given birth to archaeology in this part of the world, and archaeology would do its mother proud. Funding for early digs often came from churches or wealthy patrons passionate for the historical proof of biblical stories and myths.
In 1928 Mohamud Mella az-Zîr, a Syrian farmer, was plowing a field in northern Syria the old-fashioned way while the roaring ‘20s were winding down in America. The field was in the shadow of a tel was known as Ras Shamra, “headland of fennel.” It had stood sentinel over this barren plain for three thousand years. The plow ran afoul of a large stone. When the stone was pried out of the ground, a rich burial chamber was found. Accounts of the wealth of the tomb are vague, since no paparazzi were present and it is the fate of unprovinanced artifacts to become anonymous quickly once they reach the black market. Just what was found in that tomb is lost to history.
Plundering ancient sites is a way of life among the desperately poor in artifactually rich areas of western Asia, and soon the grave goods began to appear on the antiquities market. Eventually the situation came to the attention of the French administration of Syria. Realizing that such a find might lead to a site of some significance — King Tut’s tomb had been unearthed just six years earlier — the government sent an archaeological crew, under the leadership of Claude Francis Schaeffer, to investigate. Archaeology is costly and time-consuming work, not engaged in lightly by post-war governments. In the post-bellum world, however, Art Deco was only one example of the renaissance of interest in the ancient world. The distinctive style of ancient Egyptian artwork had found its way into European and American homes; social interest in antiquity was in the ascendant as society sought meaning after the pointless trenches of the First World War.
The results from excavation in the necropolis were disappointing. Having come this far, however, the team turned its attention to the virgin territory of the unexcavated tel. This buried city had occupied a mercantile crossroads in the ancient world. A good harbor lay nearby, almost directly east of the finger-like peninsula of Cyprus, an island named after its copper deposits. The site had access to major riverside caravan routes. These factors suggested that the unknown city might have been wealthy or politically important in ancient times.
Almost from the start the tel began to yield inscribed clay tablets, always a source of excitement among archaeological circles. While artifacts provide a view of how people lived, texts preserve the actual thoughts and concerns of the otherwise mute voices of long ago. Tablets were discovered in eight different languages, pointing to the cosmopolitan nature of the city. One of these languages was found to be the earliest archive in an alphabetic script that would be legible to scholars of Semitic linguistics. The name of the city had been buried in its documents; this was Ugarit, known to scholars of the ancient world as an important trade venue. The newly discovered alphabetic script was dubbed Ugaritic, after its first known exemplar.
Pottery typology and other specialized dating techniques pointed to the destruction of the city around 1200 B.C.E., long before the vast bulk of the Hebrew Bible had been committed to writing. One way in which the Great War benefited the study of the Ugaritic language was in the training of cryptographers. Another hidden benefit was a sense of international cooperation which made Ugarit a textbook example of collaborative research. Scholars in recently belligerent countries engaged in the common study of these unreadable texts. The French could have claimed proprietary rights to the new material as a perquisite of the Versailles treaty, but instead the unknown language was made internationally available as soon as it was transcribed on paper. Three scholars working independently broke the code, issuing a passport for the reading of these tablets. Ugarit’s prosperity was reflected in its literary legacy. Writing on clay is cumbersome and labor intensive. The ideas selected for preservation in the ancient world were generally important for historians, but often appeal to a very limited readership. Literacy was rare in he ancient world, so only texts of political importance tended to be inscribed. These texts would be read by specialists, the few literate scribes, in the ancient world. The pattern had been repeated in many ancient cities in which caches of tablets had been hoarded. What clearly set Ugarit’s written archive on a higher plane was the type of material it contained. Among the tablets a surprisingly high proportion were devoted to telling the stories of the gods and heroes of the city. Religion, after all, was of a single piece with politics in the ancient world.
A divine world ruled by El, whose name translates to “god,” and his consort Asherah was in conflict. A younger generation of contenders for divine kingship under El’s authority had arisen. The contestants were Yam (“Sea”), the primordial waters, Mot (“Death”), the final word for all living, Athtar, lord of the groundwater, and Baal (“Lord”), who would survive to become Yahweh’s arch-enemy in the Hebrew Bible. The tales of Baal’s eventual kingship filled at least six tablets with his adventures which reflected the deepest fears and highest aspirations of Ugarit. Baal was their patron god, the protector of their city. He would eventually come to rule the operative gods of the human realm, overcoming even Death.
Many tablets recorded the exploits and peccadilloes of the gods: Shapash (“Sun”) drives away the poisonous snakes, El impregnates two women who bear him voracious godlets, Baal falls in love with a cow, El gets drunk at a party and has to be led home by more sober deities (this particular tablet ends with an apparent cure for a hangover). A human world punctuated by the divine found a place in this literature. Kirta, an unfortunate king with no progeny, secures a wife and children by divine intervention. What the gods gave, however, they also took away again and Kirta ends up cursing his own children. The tale of Daniel had also been long forgotten. Like Kirta, Daniel sired a valued son by a literal version of deus ex machina. His son Aqhat, however, offended a goddess and was pecked to death by raptors. Daniel’s grief is shared by his daughter who dresses like a man and sets off to avenge her brother, but the text breaks off before the ending of the story. This Daniel would live on in tradition to appear in the biblical book of Ezekiel where an ancient folk-hero named Daniel is recalled.
Ugarit met a sudden end during the violent fall of the Bronze Age. Strangers from a distant western land had come like locusts onto the Levant. Iron was in their arsenal, and civilizations vanished as they fell to the invaders. A message hurriedly scrawled on clay was found amid the ruins of Ugarit. “Send help” it read. Ugarit would lay silent until an accidental discovery in 1928.
The question hanging in the air in this biblically charged era was how these texts might have affected the Bible. The city of Ugarit was destroyed in roughly the same period as Israel was founded. Located some 400 kilometers north of Israel’s eventual northern border, a tremendous distance before motorized travel, direct influence would appear to be unlikely. Ugarit, however, did represent the culture in which Israel grew and the context in which its ideas developed. Clearly some of the characters, El, Asherah, Baal, and Daniel, were remembered and reemerged in the Bible. So closely had the characteristics of El matched those of Yahweh that they were recognized as the same god. Asherah survived as a wooden cultic symbol that even found a place in Solomon’s temple. Baal, revered in Ugarit, became the bane of Israel’s god, especially among the prophets.
Less obviously, but equally importantly, linguistic information was also a tremendous benefit to biblical scholars. No serious Bible translation has been undertaken since that time without a thorough consideration of Ugaritic. Until this find the only lengthy document in a Northwest Semitic language was the Hebrew Bible itself. Classical Hebrew had not materialized into other ancient writings, and so, if some linguistic question arose, there were few other literary texts with which to compare it. Ugarit changed all this. The comprehension of Hebrew grammar and vocabulary grew. It would seem that a Bible-hungry America might have been first in line to claim Ugarit’s invaluable insights into their sacred book. Why the serendipity of Ugarit failed to capture American imagination is worth exploration.
One factor must have been timing, as any good entertainer knows. Tablets from Ugarit first surfaced very late in the 1920s. The New York stock market was busy crashing at the time, plunging the entire country into the Great Depression. Universities, the obvious bastions of arcane studies such as Ugaritic, were not spared as poverty haunted the nation. Ancient Near Eastern studies was a new academic field and notoriously poor at boosting any economy. Although the French continued to find important texts, just getting by was the order of the day even in Europe. The Dust Bowl perhaps made desiccated finds in dusty Syria less appealing. What did it matter in such times that texts from a long-dead civilization were reforming academic study of the Bible? In fact, it could be downright threatening to challenge the magisterial authority of the stable Good Book in these apocalyptic times.
Clearly World War II had a consummate diversionary role. The Ugaritic tablets, held in the Louvre, were spared the fate of many irreplaceable artifacts of the past as warfare took to the air. Several species of dinosaur became extinct for a second time as bombs rained down on the Alte Akademie in Munich. Paris had been captured early in the war, perhaps preventing the destruction of many symbols of civilization that tend to fall easy prey to war. When simple survival becomes the objective of life, just as it had been for the Ugaritians, subjects of purely academic interest seem to be all ruffles and lace. Stepping into the Atomic Age, social interest in the Bronze Age flagged. The supreme irony is that many Americans, emerging from the ravages of war and the unfolding news of the Holocaust, were seeking answers in the Bible. Ugarit, the Bible’s contextual place-setter, faded into a dry, purely academic interest.
Events would soon bring the interests of the world back to the Bible’s context, but would also shift the focus forever away from Ugarit. In 1947 some Bedouin looking for lost sheep, so the story goes, had discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls. Only one important archaeological find at a time, it seems, may hold the public’s attention. The Dead Sea Scrolls were show-stealers. Here was the treasure-hunter’s dream; an accidental find that would revolutionize biblical studies and open chairs in many university departments.
Meanwhile excavation continued at Ugarit, important tablets continued to surface, but Ugarit had been scooped. The Dead Sea Scrolls, now a household phrase, eclipsed their older siblings of ancient manuscripts. Although the public remains largely uninformed about what the Scrolls actually contain, many know that they are important for understanding the Bible. The fame of the Scrolls was secured by several scandals that hit the major newspapers. Seldom has the administration of ancient manuscript handling claimed such popular notice. Israel had just become a nation again, but the Scrolls had come from disputed territory. Access was limited by scholarly convention and preservational necessity. It had the aroma of a cover-up.
Meanwhile, the French and Syrians continued to dig and make finds available. Now solely the interest of the academic community, not collectively known for its promotional P-R skills, Ugaritic texts were relegated to the children’s table in the back-room of public awareness. The vast importance of the Ugaritic tablets was clear to all serious biblical scholars, but it would never command public attention in America like the Dead Sea Scrolls. Centers for the study of Ugaritic have sprung up in Europe. Paris houses several tablets and still continues to publish the texts and salient studies. An institute for Ugaritic research was founded in Muenster, Germany. Spain has emerged as a new haven for the study of the tablets, and several universities in the British Isles, the Netherlands, and Italy have specialists on the topic.
In America, the land of the Bible, the story is different. At 80 years of age, Ugaritic studies have fallen on hard times. Even with the vast academic resources of this nation the specialized study of Ugaritic comes and goes with individual scholars. By far the majority of these are employed, if they are employed at all, as professors of Hebrew Bible. Ugaritic is considered a side-line which robs time from the study of the Bible itself in many institutional eyes. “Who’s ever heard of Ugarit?” many a dean wonders. A more undignified treatment of a field so important is difficult to imagine. Ugaritic studies will continue to revolutionize what we know of the Bible, and here may reside the seeds of its fate.
The preconceived Bible continues its grip on American consciousness. Presidential elections may be tipped in the balances by “Bible-believing” Christians. Science instruction is continuously assaulted and insulted on the basis of a view of the Bible no serious scholar holds. The prominent display of the Ten Commandments is front-page news. The Bible has become a cultural icon, itself a sacrosanct artifact. Too close a look at its neighbors and siblings in the manuscript world might tarnish its lustrous patina. Do people want to know that El is a social drinker who has love affairs? Is too much knowledge about the biblical worldview a threat to how many have already decided that the Bible should be interpreted?
Around the scholarly world celebrations of Ugarit’s eightieth year of rebirth are underway. A dim candle still burns for this corner of the cradle of civilization, even if it seems faint by comparison with the harsh political floodlights locked onto its neighbor Iraq. Ugarit, it seems, is destined to remain an extinct city in the eyes and imagination of the American public, just another octogenarian. Little do they know that their very own Bibles have a long forgotten older sibling.