We have a radio station here in Queensland which keeps announcing that “We know the reason for the season!” At first it was cute, “Ah!” I thought “at last, someone realises that it is not all about ‘conspicuous consumption!’” but of course I was wrong – it was all about conspicuous consumption and how to get more of it for their advertisers.
And anyway, I thought to myself in a very uncharitable attitude, I wonder if they really do know the ‘reason for the season’. I mentioned this casually to an acquaintance over coffee and was unprepared for the passionate response. Christmas, it appears, is the actual date of Jesus’ birth and the ‘only reason for the season.’ Only, of course, if we are to be strictly accurate – it isn’t.
Now this isn’t a theological dispute and I offer my apologies in advance if I offend anyone – but the facts of the matter are that the date, the traditions and the customs we now associate with Christmas were clearly adopted from earlier pagan beliefs.
The choice of December 25 was made perhaps as early as 273 AD, and it reflects two other related festivals: ‘natalis solis invicti’ (the Roman “birth of the unconquered sun”), and the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian “Sun of Righteousness” (a popular god much favoured by Roman soldiers). In addition the winter solstice, another celebration of the sun, fell just a few days earlier.
Pope Julius, a pragmatist, recognising that pagans were already celebrating gods which had some parallels to the Christian one, (and appeared reluctant to surrender their mid-winter feasting), decided to commandeer the date and introduce a new festival incorporating all those highly popular traditions and customs.
None of this alters in any way, or diminishes the association build up over nearly 2000 years of Christian attitudes and belief in the season. As a theologian asserted in 320 AD, “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.”
Pope Julius understood that the history which had gone before had a lesson that the fledgling church could learn from and adopt and personalise for the present. It created much more willingness by the pagan community to listen to and adopt the new religion and it became a unifying festival between, what had been up to then, diametrically opposing views.
By learning from, and adopting and adapting, Pope Julius had built a strong foundation for the future of his church. This, to me, is a pragmatic use of history.
My companion, alas, was appalled at my view. To him, all reference to the pagan past of the festival smacked at heresy; and I can foresee that I will now be doomed to the stake – metaphorically at least (I hope). His unwillingness to accept the past, his refusal to understand the lessons of history has created a closed mind – to him the only thing that is important is the latter association and there is nothing to be learnt from what has gone before.
“That’s rather like Henry Ford’s attitude that history is bunk” I said, trying to lighten the conversation; but it didn’t work. He was adamant that only what we believe now is true and everything that has gone before should be shut up in a box labelled “Do not open”.
Strangely enough, later in the day I attended a meeting where issues about modern Leadership were being discussed. One highly experienced CEO announced that he believed that the cause of the present business difficulties lay in the past. That the seeds of the deadly weeds of unethical behaviour and unacceptable attitudes lay in what was taught in the past.
I was amazed at some of the reactions. As equally passionate as my earlier companion, some of these leaders of industry also refused to accept that there were lessons to be learned from the past. One also quoted Henry Ford – “We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we made today.”
Since quotations were being thrown around left, right and centre I decided that I’d throw my hat in the ring with Santayana’s “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” but it got a chilly response.
But I agree with the CEO who claims we should learn from history, and I refer back to Pope Julius as a good example of someone who built a modern foundation (well it was modern when he did it) using ancient ideas and principles.
If we don’t look back and learn from what went wrong and examine what was successful we haven’t much of a chance to change things for the better. We just need the openness to accept that today’s economic circumstances are built on older teachings. That today’s business outcomes are the result of older beliefs in leadership and management. We need to go back and adopt, adapt to build for the future.
If we put these older ideas into boxes and label them “Do not open” then, as Santayana said we are doomed to repeat their mistakes.
As this is the season of opening presents let’s open these boxes and examine our past for ideas for the future.
So to all readers of the blog, have a merry Christmas, celebrating it whichever way is your tradition and culture, and whatever is your “reason for the season”.Michele @ Trischel