by Piet Coetzer

Unholy Holidays

Originally holy days are not so holy anymore

Christmas and summer holidays are not always so holy
Holiday 001.jpg

It is that time of the year again: The Christmas decorations have started going up in shops all over the place and high-school learners, in what they hope is their final year, are busy with their matriculation examinations. It is also the time when the mind turns to the summer holidays. It all makes for a pretty unholy mix. 

Let's start with the concept, or term if you want, of  holidays. The word derives from the Old English hāligdæg which comes from the Germanic hālig, meaning holy (heilig in Afrikaans and Dutch) and dæg meaning day (dag in Afrikaans and Dutch). It originally started off as 'haliday', thus literally signifying a holy day, usually to commemorate a siant or a particular event of mostly religious importance. The modern version, “holiday”, was first recorded in the 1500s.

The reason for the prominence of holidays on our present-day calendars is, however, not all that holy. In the early days of Christianity, Christian holidays were mostly hijacked versions of pagan festivals, used as a means of weaning people from their heathen ways.

The most prominent of all holy Christian holidays or festivals, Christmas, is a good example.

There are plenty of reasons, including weather conditions in Palestine at that time of the year, to believe that Christ was not born in December. The date, 25 December,  was, however, the 'birthday' of the sun god, Mithra, a pagan deity whose religious influence was widespread in the Roman Empire during the first few centuries of the present epoch. Mithra was identified with the Semitic sun god Shamash and worshipping him was originally based in Asia before it spread west and was celebrated as Deus Sol Invictus Mithras throughout the Roman Empire.

In his book, Myth and Mystery, Jack Finegan writes, “In the time of Constantine the cult of Deus Sol Invictus was still at its height, and the portrait of the sun god was on the coins of Constantine. With his defeat of Licinius in A.D. 323 he became the uncontested ruler of the empire (323-337) and was free to openly accept Christianity ... Likewise it must have been in this time and with the intent to transform the significance of an existing sacred date that the birthday of Jesus, which had been in the East celebrated on January 6, was placed in Rome on December 25 ...”

Many of the traditions that we follow to this day like decorating a Christmas tree and the delightful one of kissing under the mistletoe, have similar pagan roots.

Over time, for political and other reasons, days off were added in most countries around the world and called 'holidays' and the concept mostly lost its general air of  being holy. At best, religious holidays can lay such a claim, while some people, and especially those worried about the health of the economy, claim that we have an unholy number of holidays!

Which brings us to the original idea behind matriculation examinations: to allow successful candidates to join an exclusive list.

Matriculation, in the original meaning of the word, meant to be registered or added to a  selective list. Most commonly it referred to the process of selecting those who qualify for university education.

The word comes from the Latin matricula, which means 'little list'. The first known use of the term,  to matriculate, in English dates back to 1577.

Today, to matriculate, for many young people, unfortunately marks their joining other not so little or exclusive unholy lists: Those of the young unemployed or those who become victims of end-of-school celebrations, to name but two.

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Issue 393


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