WATERTOWN — Through numerous cultures and across many countries, the colder months have been a time of anticipation.
The ancient festival of Yule begins each year on the winter solstice and lasts for 12 days. It commemorates the return of the sun to break the dominance of extended nights.
The themes of “light” and “hope” transferred from pagan societies to the Christian world. Converts kept many of the same traditions practiced by their ancestors and incorporated them into their winter celebrations.
Where pagans looked forward to longer days, Christians found joy in waiting for the birth of Jesus. They believed God’s incarnation would illuminate the hearts and minds of humans, which led to their salvation.
Christians borrowed pagan ceremonies from this time of year when creating the Christmas holiday. As an example, the few seasonal conditions outlined in the biblical Nativity narrative describe spring rather than winter.
But taking bits of pieces of each other’s myths is what we as a species have done throughout our history. Why disrupt a couple of good existing religious traditions (Yule and Saturnalia) if you don’t have to? Just slap a new name on the reformed holiday and begin cheering!
Therefore, early winter seemed like a good time to mark Jesus’s birth. Christians altered the focus of the anticipation of pagan festivals and infused their holiday with new meaning.
“Advent” comes from the Latin word “adventus,” which means “a coming, approach, arrival.” From his 1988 book, “Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized,” here’s what Christian author Frederick Buechner has to say about this season:
“The house lights go off and the footlights come on. Even the chattiest stop chattering as they wait in darkness for the curtain to rise. In the orchestra pit, the violins bows are poised. The conductor has raised his baton.
“In the silence of a midwinter dusk, there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen.
“You walk up the steps to the front door. The empty windows at either side of it tell you nothing, or almost nothing. For a second, you catch a whiff in the air of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you’ve never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart.
“The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of the moment. The Salvation Army Santa Claus clangs his bell. The sidewalks are so crowded you can barely move. Exhaust fumes are the chief fragrance in the air, and everybody is as bundled up against any sense of what all the fuss is about as they are bundled up against the windchill factor. But if you concentrate just for an instant, far off in the deeps of you somewhere you can feel the beating of your heart. For all its madness and lostness, not to mention your own, you can hear the world itself holding its breath.”
Throughout this season, we joyfully wait to discover mysteries revealed. And many of our holiday customs play into this.
For many years, my family used the same artificial tree for Christmas. My father would use a color-coded system to place the correct branches in the correct spots in a wooden pole. The longer branches formed the bottom of the tree, while the increasingly shorter branches filled the middle and top.
We kept the tree base, center pole and branches in a large cardboard box. This was stored in a utility room in our basement next to our furnace.
On occasion, I had to find something in this room. As a child, gazing at the cardboard box filled me with great wonder as I contemplated the coming Christmas season.
What gifts will be placed underneath the tree once it’s set up? What goodies will be found inside the wrapping paper? No matter how far off Christmas was, I always felt the same sense of excitement whenever I viewed the box.
Mustering the patience needed to pass the time until we experience the magic of Christmas can be difficult, but it’s vital. As renowned German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer remarked, “Celebrating Advent means being able to wait.”
To compensate for all the waiting, we lengthen this holiday season. Many people begin putting up Christmas decorations right after Thanksgiving — some even do it before.
Then we begin counting down the days until Christmas arrives. I recall making use of my family’s Advent calendar every day.
We also mark mini-holidays along the way. While not widely observed by people in the United States, Saint Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) is a warm-up act for the major event.
Some people prolong the holiday experience. The Epiphany is commemorated Jan. 6 by recalling the visit of the Three Wise Men (the Magi) to the holy family in Bethlehem. In some societies, Jan. 5 has been recognized as the Twelfth Night, the Eve of the Epiphany; various traditions were carried out during this period.
In Charles Dickens’s classic tale “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge says, “I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the past, the present and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
Seeing how much we cherish the Christmas season, I’d like to believe that Scrooge speaks for all of us at some point in our lives.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. They also may follow him on Twitter: @WDT_OpEd.