Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Put Marduk back into Zagmuk

I recently wrote in the comment section of a friend's blog about loving Christmas as a non-Christian (should I say non-religious person of Christian descent?) and -- much to my amusement -- one pissed-off poster told me I was hypocrite for celebrating the holiday. So I was glad to see this piece in the Trib yesterday defending my right to hang the goddamned mistletoe. And, apologies to Christian readers here, but I can't wait until the next time I hear someone urging to "put the Christ back in Christmas," so I can respond with "put Marduk back into Zagmuk!"

Eric Zorn
Before the Son, the sun was reason enough

Published December 5, 2006

I've got your "reason for the season" right here, pal.

Just outside the window, to be exact: sunlight.

No secret there. Civilizations all over the northern hemisphere have been making merry toward the end of December for thousands of years, with most of the celebrations linked somehow to the "return" of the sun--the longer periods of daylight that begin on the winter solstice, Dec. 21.

Which is why the triumphant, even defiant, slogan, "Jesus is the reason for the season"--seen this time of year on buttons, T-shirts and bumper stickers and heard from those who grouse that secular society is at war with Christmas--is so irritating.

A cynic with more energy than I have ought to create "Marduk is the reason for the season" banners in honor of the beloved Zagmuk story.

Some 4,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia, Marduk was the patron deity of the city of Babylon. Marduk was said to have conquered the monster of chaos, Tiamat, and thus paved the way for creation. But every year, alas, the monster fought back, the fields went barren, the days got shorter and life itself hung in the balance.

The 12-day late-December Zagmuk throwdown, then, was replete with rituals believed to help Marduk win his annual battle with Tiamat, and then to celebrate the return of light.

Ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia during roughly the same calendar window, while the Persians observed the festival of Sacaea. History does not record whether peevish Mesopotamians, perceiving a dilution of their seasonal tradition, began a campaign to "put Marduk back into Zagmuk."

But even by then, the season belonged to many cultures and was viewed as a magical, mysterious and portentous time.

Quite a coincidence that Jesus Christ was born at a time when folks all over were already partying, eh?

Well, probably not. Scholars don't even agree on the year Jesus was born, much less the month or day. Given the reported presence of shepherds watching their flocks by night, the best guess is sometime in the late spring or early fall. If you have lots of time on your hands, Google the phrase "When was Jesus born?" and start poking around the 13,000 Web sites where exegetes and skeptics alike parse the text and history books for answers.

The question didn't seem to concern early Christians all that much. It wasn't until 350 A.D. that Pope Julius I of Rome fixed the date for the Feast of the Nativity on Dec. 25.

It looked like a cynical choice designed to co-opt the wanton hoo-haw already raging at that time of year, and not an educated estimate.

Early American Puritans were among the Christians who felt the choice amounted to unseemly piggy-backing: "It was in compliance with the pagan Saturnalia that Christmas Holy Days were first invented," sniffed Puritan pastor and Harvard president Increase Mather in 1687, explaining why those in his denomination scorned the observance.

But, hey. Whatever the source of his calculations, Pope Julius got it right. Christmas is not the holiest day on the Christian calendar--that would be Easter--but it's become by far the biggest.

The reason? Sunlight.

Sunlight is also, coincidentally, said to be the best disinfectant--here a disinfectant to kill the toxic notion that any one faith "owns" this season of renewal, hope, joy, generosity and the victory over darkness.

"Season's greetings" and "happy holidays" take nothing from the Christians who also chose this time of year to celebrate the birth of their divine source of renewal, hope, joy, generosity and victory. He is their reason for the season, not the reason.

These generic expressions are not banalities that trivialize the festivities.

They are invitations to all to join in. Invitations to find and revel in your own reasons to be glad for the trappings and trimmings of this time of year and the promise that lies ahead.


Leave your thoughts on this topic at, where it is always the season for reason in the readers' comment salon.


Kori said...

So will we be decorating a Zagmut pine at your house this Saturday? As long as there's brunch, I'll throw garland on anything. lol

Bert said...

Great article! I love that you find cool stuff to share with the rest of us. :)

latitude20 said...

I am researching the origins of Christmas and your title here is too good not to comment on even though it is 6 years old today. Very clever!