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20 December 2001 Edition

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They don't care it's Christmas time at all

An Phoblacht's MICK DERRIG again cries of the Seasonal celebrations to deconstruct the notion that the world is united in celebrating the birth of Christ (or of Coca-Cola's Santa Claus) on 25 December. With typical begrudgery, he points out that only a minority of the planet's six billion human beings are in any way nominally Christian.

Yes children, isn't it exciting? It's that time of year again when Good Old Father Derrig deconstructs your flabby bourgeois Western Christmas. Oh joy to behold!

Last year, I dealt with the Christian credentials of Christmas. There aren't any. However, that doesn't stop people seriously overindulging. Of course, there were good practical reasons in dark primeval Northern Europe why people feasted at the depth of mid-winter and many belief systems emerged around the basic fact that it was the shortest day - and ipso facto - the longest night. Psychologically, it was important to know that after the solstice each day was incrementally longer.

These days, the globalised Christmas has more to do with Coca-Cola than Christ. Some still claim it is a Christian feast day, but as the overweight, overdeveloped part of the planet gorges itself, it might be worth noting that among the six billion humans on this planet, only a minority are in any way nominally Christian.

Western ignorance

At this point in human history the dominant ideas are those of global capitalism and that is rooted in the West. Part of that power is a Christian sectarian assumption that the Christ figure is the most important individual in history and that his birthday is the event of the world's calendar
As recent events have proven, for example, there is an Olympian ignorance of the people of Islam. In the 1980s, the Live Aid yuppie guilt trip had "Let Them Know It's Christmas Time Again" as their anthem. I'm sure this meant much to the starving Moslems of Eritrea & Tigre - their land ravaged by drought and Cold War sideshows, which brought military governments and the destruction of a fragile infrastructure. They needed justice and food, not jingle bells. But Live Aid wasn't done for their benefit. They merely had a walk on role in a "look how caring we pop stars are" gig at Wembley.

The ruling ideas of any epoch are those of the ruling class. I still hold that to be true. For me, the Marxist dictum is irrefutable. At this point in human history the dominant ideas are those of global capitalism and that is rooted in the West. Part of that power is a Christian sectarian assumption that the Christ figure is the most important individual in history and that his birthday is the event of the world's calendar (even though the entire planet can't even agree what year this is!).

I thought then it would be useful - this midwinter - to focus on what this time of the year means - in religious terms - for the majority of the planet's citizens who don't care whether it's Christmas or not.

I looked at the major religious festivals around the December/January period. Belief systems that emerged in the warmer Southern Hemisphere tend not to make such a big deal around midwinter for the survival reasons that our ancestors in Northern Europe did. I would wager this is especially true for the planet's one billion adherents of Islam.

Ramadhan and Eid ul-Fitr

For over one billion Muslims throughout the world, Ramadhan is a special month of the year. During the month of Ramadhan, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset every day. Ramadhan was the month in which the first verses of the holy Qur'an were revealed to Prophet Mohammad. It is a time for inner reflection, devotion to God and self-control. The sighting of the new moon at the end of Ramadhan heralds the celebration of Eid ul-Fitr. The Holy Koran was revealed this month, according to the Muslim belief. Muslims fast every day during this month, which is called Roza. Food is taken once after sundown during this whole month. Friends and families join the Iftar (the breaking of fast) and share the meal, irrespective of religion. On the completion of the period, which depends on the appearance of the new moon, Id-ul-Fitr is celebrated with great fervour. Community prayers are offered in mosques and Idgahs and it is celebrated as a joyous occasion. People visit friends and greet them. New clothes, good food and fireworks all form an important part of merrymaking.

The Story of Chanukkah

Chanukkah, the Jewish festival of rededication, also known as the festival of lights, is an eight-day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. Chanukkah is probably one of the best known Jewish holidays, not because of any great religious significance, but because of its proximity to Christmas. Many non-Jews (and even many assimilated Jews) think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas, adopting many Christmas customs, such as elaborate gift giving and decoration. It is ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on the Jewish calendar.

The story of Chanukkah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine, but allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated much of Hellenistic culture, adopting the language, the customs and the dress of the Greeks, in much the same way as Jews in America today blend into secular American society.

More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV, was in control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar.

Two groups opposed Antiochus: a basically nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim, the forerunners of the Pharisees. They joined forces in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Selucid Greek government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.

According to tradition, as recorded in the Talmud, at the time of the rededication there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight-day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle.

Chanukkah traditions

Chanukkah's religious significance is far less than that of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavu'ot. It is roughly equivalent to Purim in significance, and you won't find many non-Jews who have even heard of Purim! Chanukkah is not mentioned in Jewish scripture; the story is related in the book of Maccabbees, which Jews do not accept as scripture.

The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a menorah (or sometimes called a chanukkah) that holds nine candles: one for each night, plus a shammus (servant) at a different height. On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shammus candle is lit and three berakhot (blessings) are recited. Each night, another candle is added from right to left (like the Hebrew language). Candles are lit from left to right (because you pay honour to the newer thing first). On the eighth night, all nine candles are lit.

Why the shammus candle? The Chanukkah candles are for pleasure only; it is not allowed to use them for any productive purpose. The shammus is there so that if there is a need to do something useful with a candle, the Chanukkah candles are not accidentally used. The shammus candle is at a different height so that it is easily identified.

It is traditional to eat fried foods on Chanukkah because of the significance of oil to the holiday. Among Ashkenazic Jews, this usually includes latkes - pronounced "lot-kuhs" or "lot-keys" depending on where your grandmother comes from. Pronounced "potato pancakes" if you are a goy (non-Jew). Gift-giving is not a traditional part of the holiday, but has been added in places where Jews have a lot of contact with Christians, as a way of dealing with children's jealousy of their Christian friends. It is unusual for Jews to give Chanukkah gifts to anyone other than their own young children. The only traditional gift of the holiday is "gelt," small amounts of money.


For many African Americans, the cloying, sugar-coated sentimentality of their master race every Yuletide was just too much.

Kwanzaa, the African-American cultural holiday conceived and developed by Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga, was first celebrated on 26 December 1966. Kwanzaa is traditionally celebrated from December 26 through January 1, with each day focused on Nguzo Saba, or the seven principles. Derived from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza", which means "first fruits", Kwanzaa is rooted in the first harvest celebrations practiced in various cultures in Africa. Kwanzaa seeks to enforce a connectedness to African cultural identity, provide a focal point for the gathering of African peoples, and to reflect upon the Nguzo Saba, or the seven principles, that have sustained Africans. Africans and African-Americans of all religious faiths and backgrounds practice Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa was born out of the whirlwind of social and political changes of the 1960s. The '60s represent one of many eras during which the African and African-American struggle for freedom and self-identity reached its historical peak, spawning multiple revolutionary movements.

By creating Kwanzaa, African-Americans sought to rectify the cultural and economic exploitation perpetrated against them during the months of the Christmas season. During that season, corporate America typically ignored the quality of life concerns of African-Americans, yet encouraged participation in the commercialism of Christmas. Additionally, African-Americans did not observe a holiday that was specific to their cultural identity. A review of the major holidays celebrated in the United States would reveal that not one related specifically to the growth and development of African-Americans. The development of Kwanzaa assumed a reassessment, reclaiming, recommitment, remembrance, retrieval, resumption, resurrection, and rejuvenation of the "Way of Life" principles recognised by African-Americans.

Today, Kwanzaa is recognized by millions throughout America and the world. It is celebrated often in community settings provided by homes, churches, mosques, temples, community centers, schools, and places of work. Kwanzaa allows African-Americans to celebrate the mid-winter season without shame or fear of embracing their history, their culture, and a regaining a sense of themselves as a distinct human community.


So, for most of the planet's tenants this isn't Christmas. The 25th day of December may have become a key date in global consumerism, but for great swathes of the planet, globalisation is simply a new form of colonialism that rapes resources and impoverishes peoples. Here in Northern Europe, our mid-winter celebrations need to be freed from consumerism and kitsch.

The leaders of Christian churches here will bleat that the "message of Christmas" has been lost. In my view the message of Christmas was lost after the Council of Nicea defeated the Semitic Gnostics - ach mara deirtear sin é scéal eile. With Christ and Caesar as one, the West had a belief system in place that would lead killers for the Cross into Judea in the Middle ages. The Christ myth provided western imperialism's rape of Africa with a civilising garnish in the 19th century.

In the same way that Pizaro and Cortez took "enlightenment" to the Incas and Aztecs in the 16th century, today heavily armed men of the West are still killing brown people who don't know that it is Christmas

Where Christ was born, 'Christian' still means Crusader.

As I wrote last year, enjoy the turning of the year; we all need the light.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1