For weeks Morcant looked forward to the Winter Feast and it was finally here. The entire village was gathered around the fire, along with the neighboring villages that came to celebrate the Feast and welcome the New Sun and a new year, “Solstice” they called it. He loved the big gathering, the tradition of special foods, and this year, because he was five now, he would be getting his first present. He knew it would be a bow, that was always the first gift, but he was no less excited. The five year old sat on one side of his mother while his two year old brother occupied part of her lap and suckled at the breast that provided both food and comfort. “Sit still, and listen carefully Morcant,” his mother whispered, “Brennus is about to begin your favorite story.”
Brennus weaved a beautiful tale of the dark Night that grew longer and overtook the warmth and light of the Sun, and the Sun wrestling for rebirth, and the promise of new year. Morcant sat mesmerized. He thought of himself wrestling the same dark Night as the Sun and overcoming them with nothing but strength and a pure will. The last thing he told his mother before he went to sleep that night was “I want to be like the Sun when I grow up and be strong and obercome ebil too.”
“Ah,” replied his adoring mother, “You have found yourself a hero I see, and a fine one at that. But remember the real lesson my sweet Morcant, we must let the light inside of us always outshine the dark” And she tucked him with a kind of gentle muse that every mother possesses for her child. “Sleep well my son.”
Several hundreds of years later, eight year old Naevius was walking home from the village feast of Saturnalia, where they watched the Temple Priest unbind the god’s feet as a sign of freedom and then ate and drank with, well, everyone. Endless shouts of “Io Saturnalia!” echoed everywhere. Naevius was tired from the days of celebration, but the excitement kept him alert and full of questions. The smell of evergreen wreaths (one of his favorite smells) filled the air as well as every door and window they passed, “Mother, tell me again the story of Mithras.”
“Ah,” she chuckled, “you’ve been listening to your grandfather I see. Many of the old men still worship him. Mithras’ story is that of a great hero, not unlike our own Saturn. He is the sun incarnate, protector, watcher of cattle and many celebrate his story at the same time as our Saturnalia. Both are meant to mark the beginning of a new year because……?” she waited for Naevius to finish the sentence.
“Because the Sun is reborn after the darkest night of the year, promising longer days and warmth, and also giving us hope that all things renew themselves.” He responded without hesitation and with confidence.
His mother laughed out loud, “Well done, Naevius!” and she rustled his long hair, “But do not forget,” her voice changing to a somber tone, “the Sun’s rebirth also reminds us to allow the light within us to overcome the dark within us. This is the most important lesson.”
“Yes Mother.” And they finished the walk home in a tired, content silence.
Over two thousand years later twelve year old Ava was riding in the back of the family Subaru en route to pick out their annual christmas tree. She asked her mother a question that was bothering her since last week and the conversation she had with her classmate, Mayzee. “Momma, what is the war on christmas? Are there bombs somewhere that go off on christmas day?”
Ava’s mother gave a small laugh and reflexively asked a question or two first before answering so as to get some context for her daughter’s infinite questions, “Where did you hear about that?” she inquired benignly.
“From Mayzee,” she replied with a straightforward voice, “she says that if I say ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of Merry Christmas then I’m participating in the war on christmas. I didn’t know there was one.”
“I see” responded her mother slowly, giving her time to formulate a logical answer, “Well, why are we so happy that Winter Solstice has finally come round?”
“Because it means the days will be getting longer again and we can play outside longer.” Ava replied with just a hint of impatience.
“Right. And while that was the original winter celebration, there are many other customs and traditions that also occur around the same time of year, and mostly for the same reasons. What does your Uncle Jay say to you every year?”
“Happy Festivus!” Ava said in a booming voice to imitate her favorite Uncle.
“Exactly, it’s an old Roman celebration. What does Auntie Sara’s family celebrate?” the patient mother was leading her child through a thought process.
“Oh, what’sit called? Hanashka? Hankannah?” she asked
“Hanukah.” Her mother said. “It’s also known as the Feast of Lights and remembers a time when their ancestors were freed from captivity. There are many traditions that celebrate Light and Hope this time of year, most of them for the same reason: The return of the sun. Which is why it’s quite accurate, really, to say Happy Holidays. If you break it down slowly and change the ‘o’ to a long vowel sound what do you get?”
Ava took just a second to sound it out in her mind first and then she blurted out “Happy HOLY – days!”
“Right” said mother. “Now, let’s slow down christmas a little bit. What if we said ‘christ mass?”
“Oooohhhhhh,” Ava said, the proverbial light bulb was coming on in her head now, “Mayzee said her family was going to go to mass on christmas eve. It’s some kind of church service right?”
“Yes,” her mother confirmed, “it celebrates the birth of Jesus, the hero of their story.”
“But what about the war Mayzee was going on about?” Ava asked, certain there must be killing going on somewhere and she just didn’t know where.
“Well, followers of Jesus believe that there way is the only right way to believe so they think Christmas is only about Jesus, even though our ancestors were celebrating the rebirth of the actual sun for thousands of years before. That’s why many of them feel strongly about only saying “Merry Christmas” and anything else they figure makes up a ‘war’ on their holy-day.
“I get it now……” Ava said with typical teenage hubris, “it’s not a real war but an imagined one. Seriously, I thought it was a real war with real bombs and stuff.” She finished.
“I can see how you can be confused.” Said her mom understandingly, “Does it make sense now?”
“It does, I think.” Ava answered.
“And what is the real lesson behind Solstice, Festivus, Hanukah, and christ – mass?” her mother asked, seizing the opportunity to remind her daughter, because she could never remind her enough, of the deeper issue.
Ava thought for just a moment, she was still working on the whole war that wasn’t really a war thing.
“The real lesson,” she finally began, “is that we must always strive for the light within us to outshine the dark.”
“Exactly,” said her mother with a proud heart as she parked their car at the tree lot. “So, Happy Holy-days! Now, let’s go get our christ-mass tree!”
May these next days be filled with warmth, hope, and beautiful memories for you and your family….