By John Pitt
Welfare (December 1980 edition)
How many hundreds of thousands of animals, birds and fishes will be
sacrificed this Christmas in the course of celebrating the Nativity of
the Lamb of God?
And, in the name of that God, how many animals throughout the past
cycle of religious annual beanfeasts will have been sacrificed to the
supposed betterment of human health?
Paradoxically, at Christmas, Man and his fellow creatures should
logically be more closely associated on all levels than at any other
time of the year.
And, at no other period is the central figure of Christianity more
intimately involved with animals than at the annual celebration of his
birth in a cattle-byre when, it is emphasised, he was literally
surrounded by domestic animals.
Long, however, before Christ or Christmas were introduced to mankind
there was at this very time of year very much the same kind of festival
involving another divine infant and a member of that humble species of
animal, the ass.
In the Ancient Egyptian Saturnalia, in which the victory of the child
god Harpocrates over the evil deity, Set, was celebrated, the latter -
the personification of the basest human instincts - was represented as a
red-haired ass which, according to Robert Graves, in The White Goddess,
symbolised "the bodily lusts, given full rein at the Saturnalia, which
the purified initiate repudiated".
Graves tactfully observes: ". . . indeed, the spirit as rider, and
the body as ass, are now legitimate Christian concepts".
Apart from employing animals, birds and fishes at Christmas-time to
satisfy the bodily lust of gluttony, this season from time immemorial
has been renowned for all manner of gross behaviour that seems to date
back to the time when our remote ancestors first began to realise that
on the day we now know as December 21 the Earth had reached the middle
of winter and begun to orbit nearer and nearer to the Sun.
Even after 1980 years of Christianity those who combine an appetite
for animal flesh with a penchant for tradition and who can at these
times still afford to indulge in both may be celebrating Christmas 1980
by gorging on a boar's head.
In so doing, those who eat this hogflesh will be paying homage to
that most beautiful and revered of all Norse goddesses, Freya - whose
name is perpetuated in everyday life in the day named after her, Friday.
And there was a true lady for you; one who travelled far and wide in
search of her wandering husband, drawn in a trap by a pair of
Few of us nowadays possess an open hearth, so the Yule Log - from
lovely Freya's northern woodlands, will not be burned in quite the same
way as in days of yore.
Since perhaps it was believed in England that the burning of this
out-sized baulk of wood kept the devil at bay - at least throughout the
Twelve Days of Christmas, it may well be that the introduction of
insurance policies covering accidents caused by household fires finally
put out that sacred flame.
Otherwise, come next quarter day, when the premium falls due, there
might indeed be the devil to pay.
Perhaps it is well to remember that Christ's birthday was not
universally celebrated on December 25 until some time during the 4th
Century AD, and that it was determined to have happened then so as to
coincide with the period of the Roman Saturnalia.
Nevertheless, it has been hoped in the fullness of time that the more
spiritual content of the Christian feast would prevail over the somewhat
less than spiritual atmosphere that hitherto had so joyfully persisted
over the mid-winter holiday period.
It is also prudent to realise that those involved in the first wave
of Christianity to hit the British Isles - culminating in the
establishment of the Celtic Church - were far more understanding and far
more tolerant of pre-Christian carryings-on than the second wave, which
was led by the lesser-known of the two Saints Augustine, who landed in
Kent in 597.
What remains then of the original Christian Christmas?
There rests in Cologne Cathedral the much-travelled bones of the
Magi, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, the Wise Men of the New Testament,
who were in turn baptised, according to legend, and then ordained in the
Christian faith by the apostle Thomas.
When in course of preaching Christianity they were eventually
martyred, their bodies were recovered by St. Helena, mother of
Constantine: then buried in Constantinople, then their bones were taken
to Milan, from whence they were demanded by Frederick Barbarossa after
he seized the city in 1162 and placed in triumph in Cologne, in the year
1180 or thereabouts, in perhaps the greatest masterpiece of all time of
the goldsmith's art, a gorgeous gold shrine.
What do these few bones signify when compared with the annual
mountain of beef, mutton, pig, chicken, duck and turkey bones that is
left at the end of a typical latter-day British Saturnalia?
Perhaps it is typical of Man that he will go to inordinate lengths to
preserve and to perpetuate his superstitions, his relics and his myths,
but do little or nothing to safeguard or to protect other forms of life
that compete with him for attention and seek to survive in the same
While Christmas should essentially be a time for good living and -
because Egyptian, Roman and certainly Norse habits die hard - for
drinking and that which passes at least for loving, this season of
frequently such sickly and insincere "goodwill" has seemingly long lost
the spiritual significance that the early Christians hopefully attempted
to superimpose upon it.
At rock bottom, the celebration of the Nativity seems now only to
herald an increasingly terrible new variant of the Massacre of the
Where once Herod sought to safeguard his chair of office by a single
deliberate, brutal act, we who should be as responsible for the welfare
of all animals, as any parent should choose to consider him/herself
responsible for a well-loved child, do not in the main complain about a
systematic, wholesale murder that takes place not once in a lifetime,
but at every sacred feast-time in every year.
Gone for ever, for most who are seriously committed to animal welfare
is what we consider to have been the central prop of Christmas - the
symbolic symbiosis that connected the Christ-child physically with his
companion animals in that humble village byre.
For reasons that are not difficult to find, what now remains of the
original theme of mystery and wonder is a welter of sentiment and a mess
without message of mythology accompanied by an annual boom for the
butchery business and the manufacturers of cards and calendars.
Reproduced with thanks to the British Union for the Abolition of
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