No one knows the exact day or year of Christ’s birth, and no one thought of celebrating it until 360 years after He died. That happened during the reign of Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor. It was a difficult time to be a Christian, as many of us know from watching modern TV serials, and Constantine stopped the persecution of Christians by legalizing Christianity, along with some other religions and cults. He only became a Christian himself near the end of his life.
The early Christians, who were trying to get their religion accepted, decided on December 25th as the day to commemorate Jesus’ birth.
This date was decided on partly to counteract the long celebrations of the Roman Saturnalia, which was generally commemorated from December 17th to the 24th, depending on the emperor in power. This was a pagan festival of Mithras, the goddess of light, and related to the ancient sun god, Saturn. The festival was held just before the winter solstice, which was considered the renewal of lights. It also marked the end of the planting and harvesting seasons. People danced and partied in the streets, took part in ritual games, and sometimes even practiced sacrificial killings. Executions and wars were cancelled. There were fighting shows and female gladiators, and they even had nighttime illumination. People decorated their houses with greens and gifts were exchanged. Masters and slaves exchanged clothes at banquets, with the masters waiting on slaves.
Saturnalia had the general feeling of a Brazilian Carnival, and authorities knew that it was going to compete seriously with the emperor’s new religion. Most people, and especially the Roman soldiers, were not just going to give the pagan festival up because their emperor had decided to convert to a religion that they didn’t understand or really care about. So the Christians decided to compromise. They took over the pagan customs, and sanctified them by changing the festivities from “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun” to the birthday of Jesus Christ, the central figure of the Christian religion.
The idea of Christmas slowly spread to the Eastern Mediterranean, and then gradually to the rest of the world. Some parts of the Roman Empire, the Eastern half to be exact, adopted the date of Christmas as January 6th, which is a commemoration of Christ’s birth, baptism and first miracle. But the Christmas we celebrate today mostly came from a compromise, and probably a lot of patience. If you pray or meditate, do it like an emperor and focus on the need for compromise and patience in the world, and the necessity for flexibility and fundamental tolerance.
I was born near the end of WWII and raised in a small town in New Jersey, just a little more than a 30-minute drive from NYC. It was a wonderful place to be brought up, feeding ducks and canoeing on the river that meandered through the town in the summer, and ice-skating on that same river in the winter.
My two brothers and I were privileged to be raised in a lovely town that was safe to explore on foot, but close enough to NYC to be taken there on day trips to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Baily B & B circus, museums, Chinatown, street fairs in the spring and Broadway shows as we grew older. But we thought nothing of it.
Later as teens, we would go into NYC to buy a couple of beers (the drinking age in New York State was 18, and 21 in New Jersey) and hang out in Greenwich Village where we saw singers such as Bob Dylan who were on the first rung of the ladder on their way to fame.
The sixties were a time of speaking out and creating change. I decided to do my part by joining the Peace Corps, an innovative cold war program established by John F. Kennedy in 1961. I arrived in Brazil at the end of 1966, and after an adaptation period, was sent to serve in Porto Nacional, in what was Goias at that time. I can’t say I changed the course of the country, especially as I was immediately called upon to teach English in the local high school.
I have been teaching ever since; high schools, college literature, college language pedagogy, financial English and everything in-between. I married a wonderful Brazilian from Rio and we had 3 boys and moved around some, as he was an engineer who worked on hydro dams. Nowadays I am a widow and live in BH with 3 cats, one of which has extraordinary powers, and I have 4 wonderful and uniquely different grandchildren nearby. Thus far, I have had an interesting life, and this new endeavor called a blog should make it even more interesting.