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Guest column | James Pettican

Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas? The sun will still rise

December is here and with it our annual debate over what to call our big year-end holiday.

Since Christianity, in its various forms, is the major religion in our country, those who want to say Merry Christmas always out-shout proponents of other beliefs and greetings. They claim historical precedence, but did they really stay awake in history class?

Author Earl W. Count, in his 1948 book, 4,000 Years of Christmas, writes "Shall we liken Christmas to the web in a loom? There are many weavers who work into the pattern the experience of their lives." He goes on to point out that 4,000 years ago, the ancient Mesopotamians staged their 12-day winter festival to bolster their courage against the fading light of the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. The ancients grew fearful as the days shortened near year's end and wondered if perpetual darkness was coming. They, along with the ancient Druids and others, hoped that dancing and singing around bonfires might bring back the daylight. It would be thousands of years before science discovered that the process is automatic and has to do with the tilt of our Earth in its orbit.

Solstice rites were held by Native Americans, the Chumash tribe, on California's coast thousands of years before Europeans arrived. Images of the sun are seen in their rock paintings. From Ireland to Persia, solstice observances were held. Eventually, our ancestors devised ways to pinpoint the angle of the sun and know when the solstice had arrived. Probably the best of these is Britain's Stonehenge.

Historians tell us that 1,600 years ago, the early Christians were able to overlay religion onto the big year-end celebrations. Since the Christian New Testament was not written until 200 years after the events it describes took place, scholars were unable to pinpoint the date of the birth of Jesus. They eventually decided to have it coincide with the time of the Northern Hemisphere winter solstice, which it still does to this day.

From Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, to Kwanzaa, an observance of more recent origin, the old solstice celebrations live on in many shapes and forms, from rotund Santa Claus to the dazzling displays of thousands of lights which start in early December and continue until year's end.

Many think that the ancient holiday has slipped into overdrive since retailers and manufacturers have commercialized it to almost the Nth degree. Now, believers or not, just about everyone exchanges presents with loved ones and takes part in an orgy of decorating and feasting.

Christians still insist it be done their way by wishing others a "Merry Christmas'' while other interests and beliefs feel that "Happy Holidays'' is a more universal greeting that fits all. But whether you wish someone a happy or a merry, the solstice will come and go as it always has.

Retired journalist James Pettican lives in Palm Harbor.

Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas? The sun will still rise 12/12/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 15, 2009 4:57pm]

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