Saturday, December 10, 2022

"The moment on which all of history turned"

From Tom Holland on "The myth of ‘pagan’ Christmas":
In AD 932 the most powerful ruler in Britain spent Christmas on the edge of Salisbury Plain. ....

...[T]he festival we call Christmas — Cristes Maessan, as it came to be known in the 11th century — would have been described by Athelstan and his courtiers simply as Midne Winter: Midwinter. They knew perfectly well that pagans in the benighted times before the coming of Christ had marked the darkest time of the year, just as they did, with great celebrations. Bede, a scholar who had lived two centuries previously, and whose works were much valued by Athelstan and his dynasty, recorded that prior to the conversion of the Angles and Saxons their most important annual festival had been held on 24 December. Whether or not this information was accurate, it caused Bede himself no concern or perplexity. To note the echoes of pagan practise in the Christian year signalled, not a surrender to relativism, but its rout.

Bede, more clearly than any Christian scholar before him, had recognised that there was only the one fixed point amid the great sweep of the aeons, only the single pivot. Drawing on calendrical tables compiled some two centuries earlier, he had fixed on the Incarnation, the entry of the divine into the womb of the Virgin Mary, as the moment on which all of history turned. Years, by Bede’s reckoning, were properly measured according to whether they were before Christ or anno Domini: in the year of the Lord. The effect was to render the calendar itself as Christian. The great drama of Christ’s incarnation and birth stood at the very centre of both the turning of the year and the passage of the millennia. The fact that pagans too had staged midwinter festivities presented no threat to this conceptualisation, but quite the opposite. Dimly, inadequately, gropingly, they had anticipated the supreme miracle: the coming into darkness of the true Light, by which every man who comes into the world is lit. ....

The divine had become flesh. The Son of God had descended to earth and been born amid straw and the stench of the barnyard. The mystery of it was at once beyond the comprehension of even the greatest scholars, and a cause of wonder that even the least educated could feel. To a king it served as a summons to remember the needy, the homeless, the poor. And so Athelstan, conscious that in time he would be called to answer for himself before the throne of his Maker, did his best to keep them in his mind, and to care for them.

The foundational story of Christmas, that of the birth of the Son of God amid poverty and danger, gives to the festival its own very particular flavour. The feasting, the gifts, the brief liberation from their sufferings of those ground down by poverty, or oppression or war: all, in the case of Christmas, are endowed with a very culturally distinctive resonance. It is a resonance that derives, not from timeless and universal archetypes, but rather from a specifically Christian narrative. All the other myths and narratives that, over the course of the centuries, have become a part of the festive fabric, from Santa Claus to Scrooge, from football matches in no man's land to the Grinch, endure because they go with its grain. .... (more)
Tom Holland, "The myth of ‘pagan’ Christmas," UnHerd, Dec. 25, 2021.

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