Tag Archives: traditions

My Annual Valentine’s Day Rant

So. Here we are once again, February 14th, and you’re nervous as hell that all you managed to get your SO after days of searching and sweating and asking the opinions of others is a bunch of overpriced flowers picked by Brazilian produce workers for pennies an hour and some chocolate that you’re not quite sure she’ll like and you’re afraid you’ll come off trite and insincere when, dammit, you TRIED, and who the hell came up with this stupid holiday, anyway? I will tell you, as I do every year. It was not, as those even more cynical than this chronicler (hard to imagine, isn’t it?) will tell you, the South African diamond merchants and the Hallmark people…though if there’s justice, a specialized hell awaits them all. Damn, atheism bites hard sometimes. No. It was the Romans. And, is too long to sum up, so I will splain.

Once upon a time, there was a rather sweet little custom held by the ancient Romans called the Lupercalia. As I tend to leave the dry, scholarly posts to those who actually enjoy such things, I will link the wiki article for you to peruse and enjoy at your leisure. Essentially, the Romans were celebrating fertility. They liked doing that quite a bit, and managed to find many, MANY inventive reasons for doing so. Every year on February 15th, the local priests would round up the year’s crop of likely young men and take them up to the cave where the she-wolf suckled the twins, Romulus and Remus. There, they were daubed on the forehead with the blood of a goat, and afterward, they were to take strips of goat skin, dip it in the blood and run through the streets touching everything in their path with the goatskin. Especially women. Go figure. It was supposed to cleanse the town and make women fertile. And afterward…and this is my favorite bit… there was a HUGE feast; lots of meat (goat, sure, you didn’t want it to go to waste after all…), lots of wine, everyone laughing and happy, and just when the evening hit its zenith…there was the sex lottery. You heard me. See, while the young men were up on the hill, the unmarried young ladies would all put their names in this urn. After the feast, the boys would draw names from the urn, and they’d take the young ladies off and do what it is kids do. It was an arrangement for a year to decide whether or not they liked each other well enough to be married which, when you get right down to it, is a hell of a lot more practical than a lot of what we do now. It was considered lucky if she became pregnant on the Lupercalia, and the pregnancy generally signaled an intent to make the arrangement permanent.

So what happened? Do you really need to ask? The Catholic church, of course. They got all tingly and uptight whenever they thought about the Lupercalia, and they knew that something that felt that good just COULDN’T be right. So they took a little known saint who may or may not have ever existed (Valentinus), ran it smack up against the Lupercalia, and, oh, yes, took away the sex lottery. Instead, the urn was stuffed with the names of saints, and the youngsters were instructed to research those saints and emulate them. Yeah, that’s more fun. Over the years, it has morphed and changed and become what it is; a holiday that takes the fun out of love. Manufactured romance. And yet…and yet…at the base of it…if we really want it…the Lupercalia is still there, winking and wearing not much more than a come hither look and a smile. So forget the flowers and the Whitman’s sampler and the two hour wait at the restaurant. Get a bottle of really good wine, some decent candles, and whatever it is you and your sweetie like best to eat. Feed each other in the candle light. Then go and make ol’ Lupercus proud. Be the secret entry in each others’ respective sex diaries. The page they never talk about and blush to think about.

Atheists and Christmas

As I think I’ve shown thus far, there have been many “reason[s] for the season.” It bears repeating that Christmas is NOT the day Christ was born. In fact, it’s been debunked to death.  There’s only one point in the year when shepherds “watch over their flocks by night,” and it ain’ t the dead of winter. It’s lambing season, around April. We also know Joseph and Mary were on their way to Bethlehem to be taxed by the Romans, which didn’t happen til late spring. The date December 25th wasn’t even arrived at until the 4th century CE, and was mainly chosen because the church needed something equally important to rival the pagan festival of the Winter Solstice. What could possibly be more important than the birth of the savior? Perfect. The actual facts fudged for the more important “truth” of Ecumenical politics.  December 25th it is.

As a result, I have absolutely no problem celebrating Christmas as a generic, mid winter holiday. There are many reasons to celebrate. My children are happy, healthy and doing well in school. They’ve worked hard all year; they deserve the gifts they’re getting. They have time off, and we get to spend time making cookies, watching old movies and playing games together as a family. Family has come in from California to visit, making this holiday special. We are happy to have each other. Do we really need to impose another reason? Especially one that isn’t true anyway.

And despite what Bill O’Reilly froths, I really have nothing against Christmas at all. I’ve always been a huge fan. Tell me Merry Christmas; I don’ t mind. I enjoy the lights and the displays on my and the neighbors’ front lawns. I love decorating the tree (incidentally, for those Christians still reading, you should look up what Jesus said about keeping company with ‘pagans’ who keep trees in their houses during the winter festival) and the house. I throw myself into Christmas. It’s the one time of the year I forget all my cares and worries and just enjoy.

So, no. I don’t have a problem with Christmas. If anything, I think it’s a shame that not everyone celebrates it. I think we should remember the original reason for it: We all made it through the year alive, we all have our health, we have our family gathered close, and the days are going to start getting longer any time now. It’s come full circle and time to start again. Merry Christmas.

A Short History of Holiday Traditions, Part 2

Okay. So we got as far as Easter yesterday. I know I skipped over quite a few things that are tied into Easter, like Lent and Good Friday and Ash Wednesday.  Rest assured, I didn’t forget about them. To put it rather bluntly: they’re just not that important. They, much like the Easter Bunny, are sort of societal vermiform appendixes. They once had meaning, but it’s changed and now we keep them around more or less out of habit.

Moving on.

Samhain aka Hallowe’en aka All Hallows Eve. Yes, I know. It’s roundly rejected by horrified Christians as a night of demonic influence, but it’s still a religious holiday. What would a religion be without a demon to point to and use to scare the masses?

Samhain (pronounced Sowen, not Sam Hane) and Halloween are now woven together as one holiday, the traditions of both making the whole. In Ireland, where Samhain originated, it was the festival celebrating the end of the harvest, and originally translated to “end of Summer [season].”  According to Wiki:

Traditionally, Samhain was time to take stock of the herds and grain supplies, and decide which animals would need to be slaughtered in order for the people and livestock to survive the winter. This custom is still observed by many who farm and raise livestock.[3][4][13]

Bonfires played a large part in the festivities celebrated down through the last several centuries, and up through the present day in some rural areas of the Celtic nations and the diaspora. Villagers were said to have cast the bones of the slaughtered cattle upon the flames. In the pre-Christian Gaelic world, cattle were the primary unit of currency and the center of agricultural and pastoral life. Samhain was the traditional time for slaughter, for preparing stores of meat and grain to last through the coming winter. The word ‘bonfire’, or ‘bonefire’ is a direct translation of the Gaelic tine cnámh. With the bonfire ablaze, the villagers extinguished all other fires. Each family then solemnly lit its hearth from the common flame, thus bonding the families of the village together. Often two bonfires would be built side by side, and the people would walk between the fires as a ritual of purification. Sometimes the cattle and other livestock would be driven between the fires, as well.

I’m having difficulty figuring out exactly how a harvest festival came to be viewed as “evil” and “the work of the devil” from the Irish custom. Let us move on to the “Dia de los Muertos,” Day of the Dead, as it’s celebrated in Mexico. This, I can at least understand if not agree with.

The Day of the Dead is a rather sweet holiday that got misunderstood by knee-jerk reactionaries. It’s all about honoring ancestors. That’s done in every culture at some point and is still valid in many countries. The church saw this and reacted in a predictably horrified and histrionic manner. It was wicked. It was worshiping ghosts. EVIL!! AAAAAARGH! What, oh WHAT to do? I know! All Saints Day! It had worked with those obstreperous Irish. Well. It worked and it didn’t. Dia de los Muertos is still celebrated, it just has a more Catholic flavor.

Thanksgiving. I need to clear this up. There are two schools of thought on Thanksgiving. One is that because it is about giving thanks to god for making it through the really nasty New England winter it is therefore religious. On the other hand, it’s not celebrated anywhere else by any other Christians, and is viewed by the other school as a purely patriotic holiday like 4th of July. Yes, I’m probably biased in my atheism. But since it is celebrated by EVERYONE in my country regardless of religion or creed, I view it as a secular holiday that is more along the lines of St. George’s Day (Britain) than anything else. Except without the dragon.

And we are brought full circle to Christmas. Which, when you get right down to it, is the latest in a long line of holidays celebrating the end of the dark and the return of the light. So. Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukhah, Joyous Yule, Happy Solstice…whichever may be appropriate. Enjoy the season, whatever your personal reason. The sun really will come up tomorrow.

A Short History of Holiday Traditions, Part 1

So after coming back from my extended hiatus, I dropped over at the Atheist blogs list to see what was going on. Interestingly, Superjesus had posted a rather cool discussion about the origins of Christmas. Turns out the Europeans had that whole sun-worshiping thing going on.  And guess what? As it turns out, tonight is the winter solstice. The longest night of the year. You know. That time when the new god kills the old god and the days start getting longer and life comes back to the earth.

Yup. Pretty silly, backward, superstitious-y religion, that pagan stuff. It got me wondering. Just how many “Christian” holidays are actually derived, condensed and rearranged pagan myths set into the church’s uptight, joyless, sexless doctrine? Let’s count, shall we? The major ones, because otherwise we’d be here all damn year, and I got Christmas presents to wrap. I am to present wrapping what Lucretia Borgia was to modest virgin Catholicism.

St. Valentine’s Day. This was originally a very fun and exciting Roman holiday called the Lupercalia. According to Wiki, The Lupercalia was an extremely important fertility holiday, in which young boys ran through the streets, striking women with thongs of goat skin dipped in blood, which was thought to aid in ease of pregnancy and labor. The things people will come up with, eh? On the other hand, afterward was the feast and the sex lottery afterward. WOOHOO, SEX LOTTERY! In which young people were paired up for a year or so, and if children were the result, marriage generally followed. I don’t mind telling you, a feast and a sex lottery sure beats the hell out of some chintzy stuffed bear holding a heart that says “I Heart you THIIIIIS MUCH” and an hour and a half wait time at the steak joint downtown.

Easter. As everyone knows, Easter came about because Jesus and all his apostles were celebrating Passover (you know. The Jewish holiday.), and Judas sold him out and told the Roman soldiers where he was and he ended up having to do the walk of shame through Jerusalem with a big assed wooden cross strapped to his back. Except for that one part, where it was carried for him. Well, in order to make it more appetizing to those fun loving Romans who, frankly, weren’t quite the guilt-ridden Catholics you now see before you, the church found it necessary to tweak a few things and told the pagans that of COOOUUURSE they could keep some of their more time honored traditions and idols, because Jesus was TOTALLY down with that, even though he wasn’t and it was a desperate ploy for converts. Let’s take the name Easter. See, way back before the church told all us Italians how incredibly bad we should all feel about Jesus’ death (because it was all our fault, after all, even if it was “pre-ordained”), there was this moon goddess. Her name was Eostara. Her totems were the hare and the egg, for fertility. Yeah, them Romans, they liked sex a LOT. This has not changed noticeably. Ever wonder how we got something like the Easter Bunny?  I mean…a rabbit? Handing out eggs?! Amazing what we hang onto, isn’t it? Cultural memory is a funny thing.

Wow. This late and I’ve only covered two holidays. This is getting a bit long, too. Okay, kids. I promise I’ll be back tomorrow and we’ll go over the rest of the story. Right now I’m going to pay attention to my family some.