A Merry Zagmuk to All

It truly is a topsy-turvy world

It truly is a topsy-turvy world

Since this is the first Christmas for C?WC?, I wanted to make sure I struck the appropriate tone. Hence, the planned post on a recent book about My Lai and the many unknown My Lais will be delayed a day or two. But I can’t strike a “God bless us every one” note; wouldn’t seem authentic coming from a lapsed Catholic who has used this space to bash certain Christians and organized religion in general maybe too often for the salvation of his soul (I may be lapsed, but I never stop fearing I may be wrong and I will be damned. Oh, no). And yet a snarky, cynical anti-Christmas rant doesn’t feel right either.

So, instead, I’m resurrecting (no Christian allusion intended) some ideas I first put down almost 30 years ago, when I was a cub editorial writer for my college newspaper. Basically, I looked at the pre-Christian roots of this holiday we call Christmas. Let’s face facts: the early Church leaders co-opted “pagan” rites and beliefs all over the place, to make the new religion more palatable across the Near East and the Roman Empire. Nobody knows when Jesus was born, but hmm, these folks already have some nice winter solstice/year-end celebrations. Let say Jesus was on born around that time, make a holy day (holiday) of it, and the transition to our faith will go a little smoother.

Try this simple beer recipe at home

Try this simple beer recipe at home

So what were the cultural festivities that preceded Christmas? About 2,000 years before the Christian era began, the Babylonians honored Marduk, the king of their gods, and the coming new year with Zagmuk. People exchanged gifts and, by at least one account I’ve seen, the party lasted for 12 days. And quite a party, it was I’m sure, since the Babylonians are also remembered for regulating 20 different styles of beer. They could teach some of the bars around here a thing or two.



A more direct influence on Christmas was the Roman Saturnalia, which seems to have been influenced by Zagmuk. Some sources say the holiday honored Saturn, others the sun god, Sol. The Romans believed the sun was closest to Earth on December 25, and its energy revitalized humans for the year to come. They set aside 12 days for festivities, exchanged gifts and also decorated their homes with green leaves and lit candles (sound familiar?) Another part of the celebration: slaves became masters for one day, and they could gamble freely, something prohibited the rest of the year.

The old pagan influences remained strong even after Christianity became the Empire’s official religion; people still partied during Saturnalia like it was XCIX. So taking the path of least resistance, the Church plunked the birth of baby Jesus into the mix. Over the centuries, Germanic and Celtic customs, also having nothing to do with Christianity, crept in. Some Celts even claim Santa as a variation of their green-clad holly king who drove a sled pulled by deer (hey, I don’t make this shit up).

When I first wrote about Saturnalia and the other non-Christian aspects of Christmas, my point was that people have long celebrated with revelry and material displays this time of year, so calls to put Christ back into Christmas are kind of a red herring. We maybe should just take the Christ out of Zagmuk. But I don’t want to denigrate the spiritual importance of the holiday for those who believe. It is better to give than to receive, and the call for greater love of humanity this time of year, and all year, never grows old. Unfortunately, it mostly goes unheeded, but that’s another story, and one we kinda ignore as we get wrapped up in the feel-good morality stories of the season.

So with my atheistic (uh, call it agnostic tinged with some New-Age spirituality tinged with quantum physics) views, how do I celebrate the season? Well, instead of attending Christmas mass this morn, I’m sitting in my robe, unshowered (I know, an image you did not need), writing this. And I could have gone to midnight mass, if I were a believer, except I was watching my favorite Christmas movie. We do put up a tree, though more out of nostalgia for my childhood and a tribute to the holiday’s pagan roots. And I do play Christmas carols. I love Christmas carols. I love singing Christmas carols, especially – surprise – the religious ones. For a time, the chance to sing them was the only thing that kept me going to Christmas mass even after I stopped calling myself a Catholic.

This year, though, we decidedly dialed back the material aspect of the holiday. The gifts we got each other could easily fit inside a shoe-box and probably cost less than $50 combined. We are not scrooges, but with the impending move and life changes, we figured it was best to economize. Plus, we’d rather share experiences, like dinner and a play, than buy more things. Not that I begrudge others, especially parents with little kids, their gift-giving. I know the excitement of ripping through that wrapping on Christmas Day (and for me, the inevitable disappointment when I didn’t get nearly as much as my friends, which probably explains many of my neuroses). And I know there is true joy in giving, even that aftershave you get Dad every year, whether he needs more or not.

Just one more thought: There is no attack on the holiday season by secularists, as some people think. You are free to worship deeply your Lord and his special day. Just remember others have their own god(s), their own beliefs, and there’s room to celebrate them all this time of year. Especially Marduk, to whom we owe this whole shebang.


~ by mburgan on December 25, 2008.

5 Responses to “A Merry Zagmuk to All”

  1. Merry Christmas…”even that aftershave you get Dad every year, whether he needs more or not.”…yeah I miss that tho…I do long for the type of christmas that you had…I”m too old for all this….

  2. Too old for what, exactly? And what kind did you have? Do you mean the mad craziness of Christmas Eve? I’m kind of looking forward to it for next year, since we’ve missed the last few. Though I suppose after a few consecutive years I’ll be tired of it too.

  3. yes the craziness of christmas eve…you can have it…actually I’m willing to give you lots of stuff…LOL.

  4. I celebrated by watching Religulous.

  5. So how was the movie?

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