Friday, December 1, 2017


December, my favorite month, gets its name from the Latin word decem (10) because it was originally the tenth month of the year in the original Roman calendar, which began in March. It retains its ancient name even though it is now obviously the 12th month of the year.

Two ancient Roman holidays have given December a distinctive legacy. Saturnalia, a week-long festival in honor of Saturn, the father of Jupiter (the Greek god Kronos, father of Zeus), was celebrated December 17-23 by gift-giving and the contravening of Roman social norms. The Latin poet Catullus famously called it optimo dierum ("the best of days"). Saturnalia's season of festivity and gift-giving has continued in the customs surrounding the Winter Solstice, Christmas, and New Year's.

Another Roman holiday, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti ("the Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun", was celebrated on the Julian Calendar's Winter Solstice (December 25), the shortest day of the year, immediately after which the days being to lengthen. It may - or may not - have been a major factor in the choice of that date for the celebration of the Birth of Christ. Regardless, the symbolism of the Solstice has long been incorporated into the liturgical celebrations of the Advent and Christmas seasons. Likewise the imagery of the winter light festival has long been incorporated into the secular celebrations of the season. (Similarly, the Jewish feast of Hanukkah, although the historical event it commemorates - the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees after its profanation by the Gentiles - itself has nothing to do with winter or wintry darkness, in the holiday's manner of celebration fits in perfectly with the winter light festival theme.)

So December is nature's darkest month but has been turned into the brightest by massive festive illumination, both indoors and out. It is my favorite month, ending the annual cycle on its most hopeful note. 

Among the many wonderful and historically significant things that have happened in December, on December 19, 1843, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. Within a week it was sold out, and charitable giving had gone up! Perhaps no other single individual has done so much as Dickens to help our capitalism-ravaged society rediscover the transformational possibilities revealed in the story and message of Christmas.

(Photo: December from the famous Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, an early 15th-century prayer book, which is generally considered perhaps the best surviving example of medieval French Gothic manuscript illumination)

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