Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Was Jesus Born on the 25th of December?

Long thought to be sacrosanct, but is there sufficient proof to prove that Jesus Christ was born on the 25th of December, the well-accepted day of the Western Christian Christmas?

By: Vanessa Uy

To believers and non-believers alike, very few would question the fact that Jesus’ birth falls on the 25th of December, unless they want to open themselves to ridicule. But research studies conducted over the years suggest that the widely accepted day of Jesus’ birth – the 25th of December – which proves that surprisingly, only has a tenuous basis in reality. And there is strong evidence that what we accept today as Christmas Day, was arbitrarily selected in the name of “scheduling expediency”.

The 25th of December date of Christmas – according to very early Roman Catholic Church documents – became widely accepted by Western Christianity only when after the first “Christ-Mass” was officiated by Pope Sixtus III. Probably as an expedient way to replace the former pagan Roman gods’ feast days since December 25 was the feast day of the Roman Sun god. As documented by the early Roman Catholic writer Mario Righetti in order to speedily “facilitate the acceptance of the Christian faith by the pagan masses” majority of which are either Roman or of Persian ethnicity.

The written gospels of former disciples of Jesus also cast doubts about Christ’s date of birth falling on the 25th of December. In Luke chapter 2 verse 8 notes that the birth of Jesus coincided with the Roman census. This administrative survey of the Roman Empire’s annexed territories was conveniently timed after harvest season usually between September and October around the Mediterranean Region and Sinai Peninsula. The reason for this is that as winter season sets in during the month of December, roads in this region becomes so muddy and impassible that people prefer to stay indoors rather than travel. Which might serve as a proof that Jesus was born no later than October since Joseph and Mary journeyed into Roman administered Bethlehem in compliance with Augustus Caesar’s decree of Roman census.

If hard scientific facts are considered, Israeli meteorologists had known for sometime that the month of December couldn’t had been the month of Jesus’ birth. Since given that the climatic conditions of the area around the Sinai Peninsula remained more or less constant for the last 2,000 years. It would had been a very difficult month to for travelling since the primitive roads of the time would have been rendered impassible via assorted winter-season precipitation like freezing rain, hail, or even snow. Plus the shepherds portrayed in the widely accepted accounts of the nativity scene only could have happened no later than the month of October.

Given that the now well-accepted 25th of December being set-aside as the birth of Jesus, it's only fair to ask if this was done only out of sociological-political expediency, rather than the date having true holy significance. But since most Western / Christian countries lie near the Arctic Circle, the coincidence of convenience and / or political expediency of choosing the 25th of December as the birth of Jesus does have it’s obvious advantages. Since Christmas has traditionally become the season of giving, the needy of the geographic high-latitudes had now less chances of dying in the cold since their more affluent brethren are now freely providing them their basic needs. Even other faiths falling under the classification of Abrahamic Theology have major feast days that seem to coincide near the 25th of December. Convenience or not, a 25th of December Christmas seems to benefit a wide spectrum of adherents – from the spiritual to the commercial.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Trans-Siberian Orchestra: Heavy Metal Christmas Music?

Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s effort of “whittling” Heavy Metal music to fit seamlessly into this most joyous of seasons really does deserve a hearty commendation. But is it trend-setting contemporary Christmas music?

By: Vanessa Uy

Even though most people ascribe the band Bon Jovi for starting the trend of composing Heavy Metal Rock music for the holiday / Christmas Season, to me, Trans-Siberian Orchestra made it to perfection. By combining elements of a full-scale Classical Music orchestra with the late 20th Century immediacy of Heavy Metal Music, Trans-Siberian Orchestra probably started a trend in which no other contemporary musical outfit would dare follow.

My love affair with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra probably started when I was in one of those what if moments with my perennial rock bands du jour. Like what if Veruca Salt does a Black Sabbath song via the band’s own style, or Lunachicks with a Nina Simone song? Until finally my - what if Richard Wagner compose Christmas music, what would it sound like? Well, Trans-Siberian Orchestra probably made my musical wish come true.

Sounding like Handel’s Messiah under the baton of Richard Wagner in his more “manic Wagnerian moods”, this is what Trans-Siberian Orchestra – to me at least – sounds. The three founders of Trans-Siberian Orchestra – namely: Paul O’Neill, Robert Kinkel, and Jon Oliva finally created their own “unique” musical genre back in 1996. A genre that stimulates, excites, outrages, tantalizes, and finally blows away the folks under the age of 40’s prejudices on Classical / Traditional Christmas music which have kept this type of music “under glass” for probably more than 200 years! - Which is a high-praise indeed for a band that “just” wishes to transcend the tired old electric guitar-bass-and-drum sound of conventional Heavy Metal Rock music.

The New York City, New York-based band were even commended as “Princes of Peace” years ago when their debut album Christmas Eve and Other Stories gave birth to a not-so-apocryphal-legend about a musical tale of transcending the violence and strife of war-torn Sarajevo. One of the tracks on Christmas Eve and Other Stories is “Christmas Eve / Sarajevo 12 / 24” noted for the tale of a cellist born in Sarajevo many years ago. This particular cellist is Vedran Simailovic who left Sarajevo when he was fairly young to study in the finest music schools in Western Europe so that he can fulfil his dream of becoming an accomplished musician. Vedran Simailovic did go on to become a well-respected musician and played with various symphonies throughout Europe. A few years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, he returned to Sarajevo as an elderly man only to find his beloved city completely ruined by the on-going Bosnian War.

Braving the nightly shelling by the Serbs – not to mention the approaching winter chill - Vedran Simailovic started a “musical routine” by playing in the Sarajevo town square in a pile of rubble that had once been a fountain and began playing cello pieces by Bach and Beethoven. Since the Christmas Season was fast approaching, the repertoire then included traditional Classical Christmas carols played on his cello.

Vedran Simailovic’s regular routine was soon photographed by a war correspondent. It was a powerful image of a white-haired man silhouetted against bursts of artillery fire, playing timeless classics to both sides of the on-going conflict amid the backdrop of rubble and devastation of his beloved city. Later on, a reporter managed to interview Vedran Simailovic and asked why he did this “insanely stupid stunt”. Vedran Simailovic then answered that it was his way of proving that despite all the evidence to the contrary, the spirit of humanity was still alive in that place.

Though a number of people still harbor doubts about the authenticity of the story, an overwhelming majority say that there might be some truth to it because as soon as the conflict in Sarajevo subsided, the semblance of normality returned much faster in comparison to other conflict zones. And we have the Trans-Siberian Orchestra to thank for spreading this tale of transcending unbearable conflict, proving that peace and goodwill towards humanity can outlast the atrocities of war. Maybe Richard Wagner did miss out on writing Christmas Music?

The “X” in “Xmas”: An Irreverent Commercial Contrivance?

During the Reagan Years – which I admittedly lived through, the word “Xmas” was targeted by Catholic priests during their “Yuletide” sermons as a sure sign of the commercialism of Christmas. Is this true?

By: Ringo Bones

If there is one redeeming quality that can be said about then US President Ronald Reagan is that he managed to rally a so-called “united front” against the then Soviet Union. He even managed to convince present day al-Qaeda and Taliban thugs to fight for him back then. But despite his charisma, Reagan did create an unpleasant conservatism fervor during the 1980’s that favors demagoguery over erudite reasoning.

Take the use of the word Xmas as a common interchangeable substitute for Christmas. An overwhelming majority of Catholic priests during the 1980’s describe the word “Xmas” as either an irreverent commercialized contraction of the word Christmas where Christ was replaced by an “X” signifying the almighty mammon that made the “Christmas Season a materialistic rather than a holy and charitable season”. Or in relation to the previous argument a space-saving journalistic invention for the convenience of headline writers. But it was only during the “enlightenment” of the Clinton era that the truth behind the word “Xmas” was finally freely divulged to the general public.

Maybe it was one of the episodes of the Discovery Channel that I found out that “Xmas” is indeed reverent. The use of the word Xmas originated in the early Greek Church - read that: early Greek Church, probably the origin of the Greek Orthodox Church. The Greek letter “X” which is pronounced “Chi” is the first letter of Christ’s name in Greek, and it was frequently used as a holy symbol. If you have any doubts about this, just arrange for a packaged tour by your friendly neighborhood travel agent. Since Greece is currently peaceful and their old Greek Orthodox Churches are a prime tourist spot, you can document / observe those various old iconic portraiture of Christ and note the Greek writings. All it takes is a few thousand dollars in airfare and other expenses by the way.

Given that the Catholic Church – despite proving us with the Nativity Scene as their contribution to the symbolism of the Christmas Season, She (or Her as the Catholic Church / Vatican is referred) seems to be critical of other Christmas “Iconography” that originates from other Christian sects. Like Santa Claus which everyone in the West ascribe to European Anglo-Saxon Protestant Christianity, and the word “Xmas” which has Greek Orthodox origin. I mean belief in Santa Claus has never harmed anyone. It’s not like Father Angus MacGyver can no longer perform the miracle of turning stone into bread in some refugee camp in Darfur, Sudan if all of Christendom continues to believe in Santa Claus. Does it?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Just Say Noël: The Next Phase of Christmas / Seasonal Music?

Just say Noël not only capitalizes on the preexisting chic of contemporary or Rock & Roll oriented Christmas / Seasonal Music but also the core values of this season of giving; Christmas music but not as we know it?

By: Vanessa Uy

Released back in 1996 primarily as a humanitarian campaign / fundraiser for Peter Gabriel’s Witness (visit them at www.witness.org), Just Say Noël – like what it said on the album cover – really made the song fresh for years to come. Plus the guarantee of the holiday spirit and the music remaining in your heart long after the tannenbaum has gone brown – or gets composted into organic fertilizer. Whether this is proof of David Geffen’s late 20th Century marketing savvy is anybody’s guess. But twelve years after the fact, the songs on this album still has the power to compel, even to the under 18 crowd.

Other than the very first Special Olympics benefit album – A Very Special Christmas – which was released back in 1987, an overwhelming majority of “contemporary” Christmas / Holiday Season albums seem to be found wanting when compared to old perennial Christmas Morning war horses like Handel’s Messiah. And other Classical oriented pieces like the Christmas in Vienna series of concerts, An English Ladymass by the Anonymous 4, Sergei Rachmaninov’s The Liturgy of St. John. Which unless the under 18 kids in question are “hyper-sapient”, won’t easily find Classical Music oriented Yuletide music as being to their liking.

But Just Say Noël is not your typical run-of-the-mill contemporary Rock & Roll oriented Christmas / Holiday Season album. With circa 1996 artists as diverse as Beck with his “Little Drum Machine Boy” sounding a cross between an electronica-heavy hip-hop and a test and burn-in CD – with the emphasis on the burn-in. As in that horrible chainsaw-like nose designed to break-in / burn-in – i.e. make them sound better - your new audio gear way faster than Marilyn Manson’s first two albums.

The Aimee Mann with Michael Penn track “Christmastime” is probably one of those really good songs just begging to be used in some TV or movie soundtrack. The “humor” behind Sonic Youth’s “Santa Doesn’t Cop Out on Dope” wasn’t lost on me. Most Americans – like then President Clinton – were really having fun at the disdain of the extreme right. One of my favorite track here is The Posies’ “Christmas”, which with the help of Velocity Girl (probably the only band who kept the record label Sub Pop afloat after Nirvana) vocalist Sarah Shannon.

You might be surprised to know that there are a countless number of rap / hip-hop oriented Christmas songs out there. The reason radio stations aren’t flooded by them or your mom and pop listening to them, is that 99.9999999% of them are very, very bad. With the exception of Run-DMC ’s “Christmas in Hollis”, The Roots’ “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” is probably one of the very few rap / hip-hop Christmas / Seasonal songs that pass muster to me at least. The funky lo-fi aesthetics of this recording really epitomized the artistic side of what makes a good rap / hip-hop song, old school or not.

Southern Culture on the Skids’ version of “Merry Christmas Baby” is - to me at least – a bit better than the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band version on the “A Very Special Christmas” album. SCOTS “Merry Christmas Baby” is my second favorite song on this record.

Before he sang for the title soundtrack of the Superman based TV series Smallville, Remy Zero wrote a quirky Christmas song for the Just Say Noël album simply titled “Christmas”. This could be my favorite song in this album, if it had not kept reminding me of being caught in the middle of the pouring rain many miles away from the nearest shelter. Elastica’s “Gloria” is probably an “Alternative-Britpop” fave for bass-heads, a bass-heavy song which –to me – that’s were this particular song’s charm ends. But still way, way better that the majority of today’s / 2008 Billboard Top 40 offerings.

Wild Colonials’ “Christmas is Quiet” despite being domestic abuse and misogyny, is my favorite track on this album. Not only on the songwriting and musicianship aspect, but also it is so well recorded it even rivals some well-known “Audiophile Label” offerings. Or will put some of them to shame.

XTC ‘s “Thanks for Christmas” is well – XTC. Given the scant number of their songs I manage to hear on our local FM dial, this is probably an archetypal XTC song – to me at least. The Musical Cast of Toys Featuring Wendy and Lisa made a soundtrack for the movie Toys back in 1990 called the “Closing of the Year”. This is probably one of the few times that Robin Williams gets away with being “dramatic”.

Ted Hawkins’ rendition of “Amazing Grace” - to me – is simply to die for, despite the relatively mediocre recording (freak occurrence?). His musicianship nevertheless, saves the day. Amazing Grace is a very relevant inclusion here because the music represents the Santa-friendly stance of American Anglo-Saxon Protestantism – which the rest of the West attributes as the “conventional” birthplace of Santa Claus.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Should Santa Claus Impersonators Preach to Kids?

Given that there is already a somewhat ad hoc international code of conduct for Santa Claus “impersonators” throughout the world this Christmas / Holiday Season, is it right for Santa to “preach” to kids?

By: Vanessa Uy

The ad hoc international code of conduct for Santa Claus “impersonators” concentrate on the maintenance of proper attire; the red wardrobe should be spot on and not tattered. The white wig and "fake" beard should be on straight. No drinking on duty because - a toddy and the occasional cup of cheer - on every household Santa visits can add up to certain inebriation. Plus, given the egalitarian nature of today’s society, Santa Claus should be able to say hello and Merry Christmas in at least 10 languages. But when it comes to preaching – especially when pertaining to kids with unattainable gift issues (World Peace?) and telling kids with bedwetting problems to just quit it – raises issues that are not so easy to resolve. Parents should have the wisdom to be accepting of their kid’s “frailties”.

Given that a majority of conservative Christians want to maintain the Nativity of Jesus Christ as the “Be all and the end all” of Christmas. Santa Claus and his primarily gift giving / cheer spreading role – if extended to the “nanny” / parenting role – might be found wanting. Santa Claus / Saint Nick / Father Christmas has always served a secondary role to the birth of Jesus during the Christmas Season. Shouldn’t skillful relegation of duty be applicable here? Remember folks, Santa Claus is not your child’s parent.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Is Santa Claus from Kyrgyzstan?

No, its not a premise for a Borat Christmas Special, but an idea that gained some validity after the BBC’s investigative reporters began interviewing some Kyrgyz citizens back in 2007. Santa Claus, but not as we know him?

By: Vanessa Uy

Back in December 22, 2007, the BBC ran a feature news story about how Santa Claus might be from Kyrgizstan(sometimes spelled as Khyrghizstan). The BBC investigative were following the trail of facts, hunches, and other “credible evidences” – like academic studies on old Khyrghiz folk tales – suggesting that Santa Claus – the man behind the generosity of gift-giving during Christmas – is from Kyrgyzstan. If the facts uncovered by their investigation really merits further study, then what’s the problem?

During the airing of that BBC investigative news feature story / news segment back in 2007, the whole Western World was still reeling from the “diplomatic embarrassment” created by the movie Borat – a “Gonzo Journalism” influenced film starring Sacha Baron Cohen which pokes fun at the country of Kazakhstan. The runaway success of Borat capitalized on the Western World’s – or the majority of her inhabitants’ – ignorance about former Soviet-block countries like Kazakhstan. Confusing Kyrgyzstan with Kazakhstan, the West probably viewed the idea that Santa Claus having Khyrgyz origins simply as an April Fool’s joke that came somewhat late – at Christmastime no less.

But that same BBC news feature did create a new cultural phenomenon in our local Sufi Muslim community. Since the concept of generosity is one of the ideals universally held in high esteem to the adherents of Abrahamic Theology, then an idea of a Kyrgyzstan-born Santa Claus is a good thing to them after all. Plus, given that our local Sufi community is probably the only one who appreciates the “artistically better” aspects of American Heavy Metal music, they probably assume that the idea of a Kyrgyz Santa Claus goes seamlessly with the Christmas Heavy Metal Band Trans-Siberian Express. Which is probably the only place where I live that the band has a very significant Southeast Asian fanbase. And besides, a Silk Road savvy Santa Claus really does explain away his somewhat over the top generosity when compared to the accepted generosity norms of Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

If the concept of a Kyrghyz Santa Claus ever becomes widely accepted all over the world, will this forever change the face of Christmas? Well, given that the Catholic Church is probably one of the staunchest critics against Santa Claus and his somewhat materialistic-leaning gift-giving role during the Christmas Season, this particular idea will probably be met with stiff ecclesiastical resistance. After being admonished first-hand by our local Catechism teacher for holding the view that Saint Nicholas is Santa Claus and knowing that those before me had met the same fate during the Reagan era / 1980’s, the Catholic Church will be one of Kyrgyz Santa’s staunchest critics.