Here in the heart of winter, those of us living north of the equator find our days drawing ever shorter until reaching their nadir; we must find comfort where we can.
Societies through history have dealt with this by having a mid-winter celebration as a centrepiece of their calendars, be they written, celestial, lunar or solar.
It was simply a way to mark the beginning of the annual resurrection of the sun, the return of light and, eventually, warmth.
One of the best-known early celebrations was the Roman Saturnalia, in honour of their god Saturn, celebrated from Dec. 17 to Dec. 23 (according to the Julian calendar) with a time of feasting, role reversals, free speech, gift giving and revelry.
The tradition of celebrating the birth of Christ on Dec. 25 appears to date from the fourth century when Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire, biblical scholars say.
The actual date of his birth is a topic of some controversy, with informed opinions setting the date anywhere from September to April. One thing most of these scholars agree on, however, is that it’s vanishingly unlikely the date was Dec. 25.
It would seem that celebrating on this date is an expression of peculiarly Roman practicality. That empire is said to have survived and thrived as long as it did because it took a pragmatic view of local customs, language and religion in regions it conquered.
In the case of Christmas, the Roman leadership apparently recognized fealty to this new religion would be more acceptable to the average citizen if it were somehow also combined with the familiar, and thus the holiday that’s celebrated today emerged.
Today Christmas has come to mean many different things to many different people.
Many continue to view it as the single most important annual event on their Christian calendars and work tirelessly to “keep Christ in Christmas,” as they say.
Others take a more secular approach and concentrate on gift giving and gatherings to mark the passage of mid-winter and the end of one year and beginning of another.
No doubt, during those first Christmases, more than one Roman parent thought longingly of a centurion son, standing guard on Hadrian’s Wall in northern Brittania, ever watchful for the hostile Celts.
Our lives are immeasurably easier, yet more complex, than theirs. But over centuries we all share this desire for family and friends during the holidays.
The importance of family is central to all at this time of year. Our popular culture is full of tales of friends and families gathering for the holidays — and their related adventures and misadventures — in trying to do so. “Home for the holidays” is a phrase that, for most of us, packs a lot of meaning into a few words.
These gatherings can be exuberant or bittersweet, depending on the occasion and events of the past year. It could mean the introduction of a new family member, or the poignant absence of a loved one who is no longer with us.
While most of us love and cherish our families while they’re still here, it’s in the absence of them we really understand all they have contributed to our existence.
Nowhere in this issue of the Co-operator is that more evident than in our own Alexis Stockford’s feature article “Because I love you: Preparing for the worst.” It’s a detailed account of one farm family’s loss of a beloved husband and father and how they coped with that loss.
One of the clearest themes that emerged in this article is the importance of having conversations one might not want to have. After all, none of us care to dwell on our own mortality. It’s not a very pleasant prospect, and besides, we’re all too busy with living.
While that’s an understandable sentiment, we here at the Co-operator hope farm families across the province might take the opportunity, while the family is gathered, to at least begin this conversation.
It won’t always be easy. At some point at a later date you’ll probably have to consult professionals to complete it all, and it’s not a conversation that can happen in a single sitting. But it is an important process to begin. After all, it’s only by having that conversation that we can be sure those nearest and dearest to us will be taken care of.
So do take the time to enjoy your friends and family this Christmas season. Life is too short and too full of less-than-pleasant aspects. We should all seize the opportunity to revel in the more positive parts of life when we can.
The management and staff of the Manitoba Co-operator would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and happy New Year. We’ll see you again in early 2018.