A guest post by Rev. Howard Furst.
The Proprietor has temporarily let me take the reins of Sick Horses, for better or for worse, and today is a fine time to offer some (sadly) true observations about Christmas.
Back in days of yore, Persian culture was in vogue in future Christendom, and winter celebrations were centered around the solar deity Mithras. As the Romans took over stewardship of the known world, they took advantage of the celebratory disposition around the winter solstice, though switching the focus from Mithras to Saturn, hence the Saturnalia feasts and debauchery. As an improve- ment over midwinter sun worship, this eased conversion of common folk to the Roman way of life. Emperor Constantine thus engineered a makeover of the Roman Empire, still active to this day in two lucrative operating units, the Mafia and the Catholic Church.
Constantine embraced and subverted a growing populist movement, declaring Christianity the official religion of Rome. Out-of-work Roman Gods scrambled for new positions, with Jove muscling out Old Testament Jehovah; Cupid and his brethren became the putti that infested Cathedrals for centuries, starting in Italy and migrating north to the Netherlands as documented in contemporaneous paintings; and, as Botticelli revealed in paintings in the same gallery at the Uffizi in Florence, Aphrodite became the new face of the Virgin Mary. The same young Lady surfing ashore in a cockle shell is seen on an adjacent wall dressed as Mary, with her shell inverted overhead as a dome covering her little alcove.
As had been done with Saturnalia before, late December was designated as the time to celebrate the birth of the son of Jehovah and Mary (and adopted by the cuckold Joseph, after a vision of Angels threw him off the scent of Mary’s Centurion friend). The rubes in the provinces were just as happy to celebrate Christmas as they were to enjoy Saturnalia or Mithrasmas, with only minimal prodding by Roman spears. As a massive marketing effort with sales closed at sword point, the nature of Christianity quickly changed from actual direct communion with Jehovah to enforced embrace of a set of dumbed-down beliefs, an effective system of crowd control that served to funnel tithes and other wealth back to Rome.
Meanwhile, up north, the forest pagans also celebrated the winter solstice by coming together to share genetic material between tribes in free-for-all orgies, lest inbreeding diminish their hardiness. The horned deity of these festivities was known as Pan Pangenitor to the Greeks, Cernunnos to the Celts (who started out in central and eastern Europe, emigrating to the British Isles and Ireland as their last stand), and later as Herne. Herne was the old name of the character who became Santa Claus. However, the Romans marginalized and literally demonized virile Herne by inventing the Devil in the image of Herne. In recent times, as Christmas became repurposed to support retail commerce, Thomas Nast was commissioned to create iconic images for the advertising campaign, taking advantage of happy ancestral and archetypal memories about orgies sponsored by Herne. Nast’s first images of Santa were confusing mixes of Herne and Devil in the form of Black Pete, St. Nicholas’ swarthy reprobate companion who went down chimneys giving Dutch kids either sticks or salt in their shoes if they were bad, and Dutch kids back then were pretty much all bad.
The imagery evolved, finally crystallizing in Coca Cola advertisements in the 1930’s in which our familiar Santa was established as a jolly bearded gentleman in a red suit. We will save for later a sermonette on “Santa Claus and the Cola Holy Wars”, documenting the fierce competition between religious organizations using soft drink advertising slogans as media for increasing spiritual mindshare as they claim soft drink market share. Suffice it to say for now that Hindus made great inroads into American popular culture with Seven-Up (based on the yogic ascent up the seven chakras), Royal Crown (referring to the sahasrar, the seventh chakra depicted as an opening lotus in Indian iconography and as a halo in Christian imagery, and as a golden crown among royalty), and Sprite (“I like the Sprite in you” is based on the Sanskrit greeting “Namaste”, honoring the light within).
I offer these fragments of our cultural history to help us grasp and see how the same process goes on today, with nefarious, effective operators gutting traditions and institutions, using a veneer of familiar trappings and glad talk to exploit the unwashed masses. In keeping with the political orientation of this forum, we might reflect on these Christmas lessons to ponder the use of the trappings of patriotic representational democracy, Mom’s apple pie, eagles, freedom-guns, The Constitution, etc. as vehicles for siphoning wealth from one large group of people to another much smaller one, just as the simple spiritual help offered to his friends by Jesus of Nazareth to become aware of their essential identity with divine consciousness (and the teaching methods and transmission given by Jesus were essentially the same as those practiced by yogis in the Kashmir Shaivism tradition) has evolved (by guile, not by the “chance and necessity” behind Jehovah’s great process of natural evolution) into Balkanized factions of religious lunatics and their benighted ovine followers (in the livelier cases) or intensely boring organizations with rules and rituals that do rather little to support divine realization, but simply establish primate tribal identity. Like Christmas trees severed from their roots.
Merry Christmas to all!
Rev. Howard Furst