The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian network founded in 1973


Christmas Sacrifice

By John Pitt

From Animal 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 magnificent cats.

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 ambiance.

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 Innocents.

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 Vivisection.

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