Category Archives: Mysticism

How To Celebrate Each Christmas Multiple Times

by Reinhard Kargl

Commerce has tricked many people into believing that Christmas begins with Black Friday sales.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The four weeks before Christmas are called “Advent”. Thereafter, Christmas begins with Holy Night (the night from December 24th to December 25th). Or does it?

Well, if you really love Christmas, you may actually enjoy it three (or even four) times. How come?

First of all, there are no historical records of the birth date of Jesus of Nazareth. So the chosen date for celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ was picked rather arbitrarily. However, it stands to reason that the date was chosen to coincide (roughly) with winter solstice. This natural event had been a sacred day ever since human civilization grasped the rudimentary fundamentals of celestial cycles. The Romans (as well as many other literate cultures) had of course more than just a basic understanding of this.

By the way, contrary to popular belief, Christmas is not the most important holiday in Christianity, nor was it even celebrated in the early beginnings. 

In 330 AD, the Roman Empire split into two parts: the western half centered in Rome, and the eastern half centered in Constantinople. The churches of the Western Roman Empire continued to celebrate Christmas as a minor holiday on December 25.

Mosaic of Jesus as Christus Sol (Christ the Sun) in Mausoleum M in the pre-fourth-century necropolis under St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

But in the East, the birth of Jesus began to be celebrated in connection with the Epiphany, on January 6. This holiday was not primarily about the the birth of Jesus, but rather his baptism. The feast was introduced in Constantinople in 379, in Antioch towards the end of the fourth century ( probably in 388) and in Alexandria in the following century.

When it comes to marking days, all conventional, numerical calendar systems suffer from an astronomical problem: During the time it takes for the Earth to complete one full orbit around the Sun, our planet rotates 365.256 times around its own axis. What this means is that the day isn’t really 24 hours long. Earth spins once in about 24 hours with respect to the Sun, but once every 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4 seconds with respect to other, distant, stars.

So one Earth year isn’t 365 days long, but precisely 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds. How does one put that into a calendar when we define each 24-hour period as a “day”? And when we divide the year into 12 months – which, by the way, are all arbitrary, man-made definitions? There really are are only four natural demarkations in the year that play a major role in our lives: the two equinoxes and the two solstices, which mark the beginnings of each season.

For completeness, because Earth’s orbit isn’t a circle but an ellipsis, there are the two apsides, the two extreme points of Earth distance to the Sun: Aphelion (apoapsis) and perihelion (periapsis). But these two would have little to no practical effect except for those studying such things.

The Julian Calendar, was proposed by Julius Caesar in 46 BC and enacted by edict on January 1, 45 BC. No, Julius did’t invent it. It was a reform of an earlier Roman calendar and probably designed by Greek mathematicians and Greek astronomers such as Sosigenes of Alexandria.

Whoever did it, the Julian Calendar was undoubtedly one of mankind’s most remarkable intellectual accomplishments. But as all human explanations of natural phenomena, it is rather imperfect in that although its synchronization with the solar year is better than most other calendars, the deviations get bigger and bigger as time goes on. Eventually, the year’s four seasons and the calendar will become way off.

One can correct these deviations from the natural world by throwing in “leap time” – a strange concept in which we are basically making up days, months or even years. (In other words, we are violating the rules of science by purposely making our interpretation of the reality fit the observation).

In order to reduce the need for such calendar doctoring, Pope Gregory XIII in October 1582 introduced the Gregorian calendar as a correction of the Julian calendar.

Lunario Novo, Secondo la Nuova Riforma della Correttione del l’Anno Riformato da N.S. Gregorio XIII, printed in Rome by Vincenzo Accolti in 1582, one of the first printed editions of the new calendar.

This has liturgical significance since calculation of the date of Easter assumes that spring equinox in the Northern Hemisphere occurs on March. To correct the accumulated error, Pope Gregory ordained the date be advanced by ten days. (One can do that is one is pope).

Pope Gregory XIII, portrait by Lavinia Fontana, 16th Century.

Most Roman Catholic lands adopted the new calendar immediately. (Not that they had much of a choice). The clerical leaders of Protestant lands who did not recognize the pope’s authority of course protested. But eventually, they too ended up following suit over the following 200 years. (Not because Protestants admitted the pope’s new calendar was a good innovation, but because having two different calendars caused quite a bit of confusion. Let’s just say it wasn’t popular with the masses).

The British Empire (including the American colonies) adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1752 with the Calendar (New Style) Act 1750. At that time, the divergence between the two systems had grown to eleven days.

This meant that Christmas Day on December 25 (“New Style”) was eleven days earlier than it would have been but for the Act, making “Old Christmas” (“Old Style”) on December 25 happen on January 5 (“New Style”).

In February 1800, the Julian calendar had yet another leap year but the Gregorian calendar did not. This moved Old Christmas to 6 January (“New Style”), which coincided with the Feast of the Epiphany.

For this reason, in some parts of the world, the Feast of the Epiphany, which is traditionally observed on 6 January, is sometimes referred to as “Old Christmas” or “Old Christmas Day”.

So where do we stand today? According to the Gregorian calendar, Western Christianity and part of the Eastern churches celebrate Christmas on December 25.

The Armenian Apostolic Church, the Armenian Evangelical Church, and some Anabaptists (such as the Amish people) still celebrate “Old Christmas Day” on January 6.

Meanwhile, most Oriental Orthodox and part of the Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate on January 7 (which corresponds to “Old Style” December 25).

Lastly, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem maintains the traditional Armenian custom of celebrating the birth of Christ on the same day as Theophany (January 6), but it uses the Julian calendar for the determination of that date. As a result, this church celebrates “Christmas” (actually, Theophany) on what the majority of the world now considers to be January 19 on its Gregorian calendar.

Russian icon of the Theophany (the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist) (6 January), the highest-ranked feast which occurs on the fixed cycle of the Eastern Orthodox liturgical calendar.

So there you have it! The dates of Christmas are neither prescribed by God nor nature, but by man. They are nothing but human convention, and they differ because of the problems inherent in making a calendar that accurately reflects nature, along with some religious differences. Celebrate as you wish!

Merry Christmas.

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Halloween 2013 – Memento Mori

I love Halloween! By that I mean the dark and traditional kind, not the recent intermingling with Carnival (or Mardi Gras, in North America). The two are entirely different occasions. I believe that the mystic aspects and deeper philosophical meanings of Halloween should be retained.

In this spirit, here’s my annual Halloween picture. Click to enlarge, and as always: remember death.

IMG_2689_m

Halloween on Wikipedia

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Realms

“I believe that behind the physical world we see with our eyes and study in our microscopes and telescopes, and measure with instruments of various kinds, is another, more fundamental realm which can not be described in physical terms. In this non-physical realm lies the ultimate origin of all things, of energy, matter, organization and life, and even of consciousness itself.”

Gustaf Srömberg, Astronomer, 1948


 

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The Palace

by Rudyard Kipling :. 1902

WHEN I was a King and a Mason – a Master proven and skilled
I cleared me ground for a Palace such as a King should build.
I decreed and dug down to my levels. Presently under the silt
I came on the wreck of a Palace such as a King had built.

There was no worth in the fashion – there was no wit in the plan –
Hither and thither, aimless, the ruined footings ran –
Masonry, brute, mishandled, but carven on every stone:
“After me cometh a Builder. Tell him I too have known.”

Swift to my use in the trenches, where my well-planned ground-works grew,
I tumbled his quoins and his ashlars, and cut and reset them anew.
Lime I milled of his marbles; burned it slacked it, and spread;
Taking and living at pleasure the gifts of the humble dead.

Yet I despised not nor gloried; yet, as we wrenched them apart,
I read in the razed foundations the heart of that builder’s heart.
As he had written and pleaded, so did I understand
The form of the dream he had followed in the face of the thing he had planned.

•••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

When I was a King and a Mason, in the open noon of my pride,
They sent me a Word from the Darkness. They whispered and called me aside.
They said – “The end is forbidden.” They said – “Thy use is fulfilled.
Thy Palace shall stand as that other’s – the spoil of a King who shall build.”

I called my men from my trenches, my quarries my wharves and my sheers.
All I had wrought I abandoned to the faith of the faithless years.
Only I cut on the timber – only I carved on the stone:
“After me cometh a Builder. Tell him, I too have known.”

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Is Krampus Finally Coming To America?

Today’s Santa Claus is nothing but a sanitized marketing figure, stripped of all deeper meaning, and sanitized of any mystery. And (perhaps reflective of America), his morbid obesity problem seems to be getting worse from year to year.

Where I grew up, we still have the original Saint Nicholas. The figure is based on Nikolaos of Myra, a 4th century monk and bishop. “Saint Nik”, of course, represents goodness and selfless charity. He promotes quiet introspection and rewards the good.

But beware. If you are not good, you might expect a visit from quite another fellow who roams the Alps at this time of the year — especially during the night from December 5 to December 6. For if there is goodness, there must also be evil.

According to NPR, the nemesis of Santa Claus is now also gaining a foothold in America. Listen or read the transcript:

I’ve been saying for years: It is about time! (See my earlier blog entry). America needs Krampus to cut through all the commerce, carry off some evil people and restore Christmas to its rightful place as a promised time of light, hope and good joy for all mankind.

If you watch the video, you will understand why Austrian and Swiss children do better in school than their American counterparts, and why they never misbehave. (Well, rarely).


 

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Remembering The Dead

In most of Europe and many Christian countries,  November 1 (or the first Sunday after Pentecost, in Eastern Christianity) is a quiet holiday, known as “All Saints Day“, “Allerheiligen”, “All Hallows” or “Hallowmas”. The tradition can be traced back to the 8th Century.

Growing up, I never really cared for it much, except that it was of course a legal bank holiday, and all schools were closed. Today, since I have known a long list of people who have passed, I find the tradition quite beautiful. In many areas in Europe, people visit cemeteries and place lit candles and flowers on the graves of their loved ones. After dark, the entire cemetery may be bathed in the warm shine of thousands of candles.

Death is always a most vexing concept, isn’t it?

Yesterday, while visiting a “haunted” house for Halloween, I heard a wonderful poem by Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886).

(Note: Dickinson left several versions of this poem, and like many others, it probably did not have a title. An alternate version is posted here).

 

 

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labour, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.

 

PS: A place I’d like to visit someday: The Emily Dickinson Museum

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Halloween 2011 – Mysterious Journeys

At this time of the year, the barrier between the physical world and the other dimensions of the netherworld is said to become porous. For those who seek them, hidden gateways open the possibility for passage from one world to another. Mysterious journeys in both directions may be undertaken. Enjoy Halloween. And return safely to your respective worlds.

(Click images to enlarge)

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We Need More Krampus!

In the misty forests of the northern Alps, under cover of darkness, mysterious figures are making their rounds through the snow.

As he has been doing for many centuries on December 6, Saint Nicholas appears out of nowhere, to bring blessings and gifts to children. If they were good, that is. Bad children may receive a visit from someone else instead …

The amazing National Geographic photographer Carsten Peters had the good fortune to encounter Nikolaus (as he is known in German) and Krampus in Bavaria, which resulted in this wonderful image. It was featured in the December 2010 edition of National Geographic Magazine (“Visions of Earth, p. 12). Click to enlarge.

Saint Nicholas (also known as Nikolaos of Myra) was a third century monk and bishop. Many good deeds and miracles are attributed to this worthy man. He was particularly kind to children.

When I was a kid growing up in Europe (and perhaps because I was a rebellious one who usually identified with the underdog), I was always more interested in Saint Nicholas’ sinister companion and servant: the Krampus. While Nicholas represents everything that is kind and good, the Krampus is a bird of different feather. I kid you not — the Krampus is liable to make children (and sometimes adults too) wet their pants.

Perhaps you were not so good last year. The Krampus might administer a thorough lashing. If you are lucky, that is. He might also fling you over his shoulder and into his knapsack, and take you to places where you really don’t want to go.

Like many of us, Saint Nicholas also emigrated to the New World. But he did not fare well in America.

First, “Saint Nick” was stripped of his dark companion. In America, violence is something kids ought to watch on TV every day, but there’s little public acceptance of it in folk tales, fables and ancient stories. Christian holidays are supposed to be nice and sanitized – and mostly secular, so they can be sold to non-Christians as well. As a marketing tool, Christmas must not offend. It cannot be controversial, and it must not be too thought provoking. Next, Hollywood agents called for a name change. “More catchy and easier to pronounce, please! And drop the “Saint”, so that Protestant majority won’t be offended. How about Santa Claus?”

Then, because too much seriousness is bad for publicity, Hollywood producers admonished him to cheer up and smile for the cameras. And the outfit now had to be a brighter, flashier red.

Worst of all, Wall Street hired Santa as the official spokesman and promoter of “Christmas” cheer and consumerism. Increasingly frustrated, Santa gorged himself on American junk food for comfort, until he became grotesquely obese.

What a shame! Today, there are so many misbehaving children in America. And of course, these turn into nasty, ill-behaved adults. I propose that what America really needs is less Santa Claus … and more Krampus! Wouldn’t it be great?

I love old postcards, so here are a couple of images of greeting cards from the the early 20th Century. (Click to enlarge).

And so, should you hear a rap on your door late tonight, you might think twice about opening. Who might your visitor be? Saint Nicholas — or rather the Krampus?

 

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