I’m not really big on Christmas. I wasn’t always that way. Some of my most precious childhood memories are centered around Christmas in our small family home in South Norwood, London. Hundreds of greeting cards were neatly hung on strings that stretched from corner to corner in the living and dining rooms. These were accompanied with colorful decorations and balloons. As we got closer to Christmas day, we would be comforted each evening with the smell of roasted sweet chestnuts and other baked treats. Christmas day itself was the climax of the experience as the twelve of us huddled together in the tiny living room to open the hundred plus neatly wrapped packages that were filled with budget appropriate gifts. I cherish those memories.
But, I’m not really big on Christmas. It’s not that I don’t celebrate during the season. Together as a family, we have created our own traditions and I am thrilled when our out-of-town daughter arrives to complete our family quartet. My disaffection with Christmas occurred a few years ago when I tallied the amount I had spent on gifts and was forced to admit that I had been bamboozled by the true “spirit” of Christmas. Yes, I know the clichés about the “real meaning of Christmas” and Jesus being the “reason for the season.” But lets admit it. These are just marketing slogans to ease the guilty consciences of Christians who are fully aware that the festival is steeped in pagan symbols and traditions.
Come to think of it, I’m not really big on Easter either! That’s another highly commercialized holiday that brings back warm and fuzzy childhood feelings, but is also deeply rooted in paganism. Decades ago, archaeologists in Syria discovered a Jewish synagogue with a mosaic featuring the twelve signs of the zodiac on the sanctuary floor. Scholars were initially taken aback by this seemingly act of syncretism. However, once the initial shock died down, some have suggested that it may have functioned as a simple calendar that allowed the congregants to relate to the broader community. Sometimes, even the most ardent opponent to paganism has no choice but to embrace pagan symbols in society.
Think about it. As we transition from December to January, have you ever wondered how the months were named? There was a time in the west when the months were simply numbered from one to twelve. This was the era when the year was reckoned by the agricultural cycle, and begun in the month that we currently call March. In fact, remnants of this order of reckoning still exist in our current month names, particularly with September, October, November, and December, the names of which are derived from the Latin for seven, eight, nine and ten: septem, octo, novem and decem.
Of course, not all of the month names reflect this numerical pattern. Some have been influenced by other aspects of Greco-Roman culture. For instance, July and August are named after two Roman emperors: Gaius Julius Caesar and Octavius Augustus Caesar. Other months have been dedicated to Greco-Roman gods. March was named for Mars, the Roman god of war. April memorializes Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. June commemorates Juno, the chief goddess of the Roman pantheon. And January takes its name from Janus, the two-faced Roman god of gates and doorways.
Janus was not “two faced” in the hypocritical sense, but he literally had two faces! The faces were positioned on the opposite sides of his head, which gave him the benefit of looking in both directions at the same time. It was for this very reason that when Numa Pompilius decided to reset the order of the months in 713 BCE, he thought it appropriate to designate the first month after the Roman gatekeeper god. Although he had two faces, Janus only had one body. This meant, that when he moved in a certain direction he could not help but see everything behind him. It must have taken every ounce of concentration for him to avoid being distracted by the things he was leaving behind.
As we reflect on the events of 2014 and prepare to step into the uncertain waters of 2015, it would do well for all of us to adapt Janus’ posture. It’s hard sometimes not to look back. For some of us, 2014 was a year filled with happiness and success. This was the year in which we stuck to our resolutions, fulfilled our goals, and witnessed the “enlargement of our territory.” Others look back on a year punctuated by death, disappointments, and despair. For these, 2014 was their annus horribilis, if I could borrow the words of Queen Elizabeth II when describing her recollection of 1992.
Whatever our memories of 2014, we cannot allow our past experiences to distract us from our future goals. We cannot rest on past laurels, nor can we wallow in painful defeats. 2015 comes with its own challenges and opportunities, and we must be focused enough to encounter each one with renewed strength. We must be willing to learn from the Apostle Paul, who encourages us to “forget those things that are behind, and reach for those things that are ahead” (Phil 3:13). We must learn the discipline of the mythological Janus who teaches us to keep the past in perspective as we strive for God’s future promises.
As you learn to live with your two faces upon entering the gateway to January, 2015, always remember that “a tree is known by its fruit.”
Keith Augustus Burton directs the Center for Adventist-Muslim Relations at Oakwood University, where he also serves on the Faculty of Religion.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6532