Why December 25?

Carols ring from in-store speakers, twinkly lights sparkle on rooftops, menus are being planned and families are poised to gather.  Christmas is near, and people all over the world are counting down the days until December 25.  Some do it in a purely secular spirit and look forward to holiday parties and Santa’s treasures.  Others take a more religious view to the holiday and focus on the celebration of Jesus’ birth – but not a birthday.

Scholars agree that biblical clues indicate that Jesus was not born on December 25 but that the day has been widely agreed upon as a celebration of his birth.

Why not celebrate Jesus on his actual birthday?  Records do not exist for that specific date, and biblical clues are conflicting.  One thing is certain, though, he wasn’t born in December. Bethlehem is chilly and often rainy in December, and the shepherds are not in the field.

The bible suggests that Mary and Joseph were headed to Bethlehem in order to register for a census and pay taxes in the city of Joseph’s origin.  Because farmers were done with their harvests in the fall of the year, that would have been the most logical time for such a census and taxation to take place – when the farmers were flush and finished with work.

Fall is also a time of harvest festivals and celebrations, and it’s a time when Israelites would make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem for Sukkot, a week-long celebration that follows Yom Kippur.  This would be a time when homes and inns would be overflowing with family and friends gathering to honor the harvest and join in their religious ceremonies.  It would be a time when a too-full inn might offer a stable as lodging to a young expectant couple.

Two other festivals encourage Israelites to gather in Jerusalem: Passover and Shavu’ot. These happen in the spring of the year and inspire some thought that Jesus was a spring baby. This theory would coincide with the shepherds tending their flock in the fields at night because spring lambing would require around-the-clock observation.

There are more detailed clues, too, that are given in the bible’s book of Luke. Here, the pregnancy of Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, is detailed. Luke writes that Mary conceives during her cousin’s sixth month of pregnancy and that her son is born six months after Elizabeth’s.  Through a complicated exploration of biblical clues, the date of Elizabeth’s conception can be narrowed down to June, Mary’s to December, and the ultimate birth of Jesus to September.

If it’s possible that Jesus was an autumn baby, why do we celebrate his birth in the darkest days of winter?  According to Reverend Julianne Lepp, a Unitarian Minister educated at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, it has ties to pagan traditions.

“The early beginnings of Christmas, in fact, have direct roots in the winter solstice celebration that took place at Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture,” Lepp explains.  “When Christianity was introduced to the Roman Empire in the early 4th Century, the church allowed the Saturnalia tradition to continue, but concluded the week-long festival with a day dedicated to the birth of Christ, or Christ Mass, better known today as Christmas.”

In fact, Emperor Constantine was a Christian convert who sought to combine pagan worship and Christianity. Mithraism and other pagan religions honored the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice, and it married well with the Christian birth of the holy son.  Rome first celebrated the birth of Jesus on December 25 in 336AD, and Pope Julius I made it official in 350AD.

“In seeking the return of the light we seek to restore balance,” says Lepp. “It is an age old quest of restoring our tired hearts and rekindling joy in the darkest of nights. It is the real hope of the season.”

This hope is reflected in the Christian and pagan traditions that remain dear at Christmas time.  Yule logs burn brightly under mantles festooned in holly – both customs that come from the Scandinavian celebration of solstice.  Candles burn as they have since Saturnalia festivals when they were given as gifts to chase away darkness. Wreathes, pagan symbols of life everlasting, decorate front doors.  Colorful decorations on evergreen trees recall the original fruits, nuts and cookies that were hung reverently on trees that showed power over winter demons by maintaining their color throughout the winter months.

Even more recent Christmas traditions can be traced to the rebirth of light at the winter solstice.  Santa’s sleigh may stem from a Norse myth of Freya who rewarded good deeds with gifts in the days following the winter solstice that she doled out from her stag-drawn chariot.  And Santa himself is a warm and shining light that emerges in the darkest days of the year to bring joy around the world – just as the sun is beginning its reemergence into the northern hemisphere’s coldest days.


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Seasonal Skin Care

Eyes have the reputation of being a window to the soul, but it is hands that speak volumes about who people really are, where they live, and how they spend their lives.  Unfortunately, as the seasons change, temperatures cool and humidity drops, a soft, supple, well-manicured hand might quickly become rough and weathered.  You can do a lot, however, to maintain youthful-looking hands as Jack Frost moves in to take his toll.

The stratum corneum, or outer layer of skin, is the first line of defense against exposure to the external world.  Low humidity draws moisture out of this layer and leaves the living epidermis beneath it vulnerable.  Keep humidity levels up in your home and drink plenty of water to maintain healthy skin.  Mayo Clinic suggests about 8 cups of water for an average adult – more as necessary for exertion, climate and health issues.  If allergens and bacteria can reach the deeper living epidermis, eczema and intense sensitization can occur.  The more skin breaks down through a lack of care, the less resistance there is to external threats.

Since winter is the season for colds and flu, it’s also the time to pay special attention to hand-washing.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 20 seconds of washing to prevent the spread of germs.  Try singing the ABC song in your head to be sure that you have washed long enough.  To prevent the dry, chapped hands that may result, avoid excessively hot water, use a mild moisturizing cleanser such as Dove, Cetaphil or its generic equivalent, or an alcohol-free bath gel, and rinse completely.

Sharron Davis is the lead esthetician at Calistoga Ranch’s luxury Bathhouse spa in California’s Upper Napa Valley and has insight to seasonal hand care.

“Don’t wash your hands with antibacterial soap unless you absolutely have to,” she warns.  “Antibacterial soap actually strips the natural oils from your hands.  On the rare occasion that you must use it, be sure to use a heavy moisturizer on your hands afterward.”

Any soap or chemical left on the skin can be an irritant.  Be sure hands are completely dry before heading outside.  Residual water can lead to chapped hands in cold, dry weather – an invitation to raw skin and infection.

Moisturize after washing, but use caution:  Some lotions feel and smell nice, but fragrance can be acidic and result in drier hands.  Curel, Eucerin and Aveeno all have fragrance-free lotions that are excellent moisturizers, especially the gentle baby lotions.  Vaseline and antibiotic ointments treat severely weathered hands, and century-old moisturizers that originated in harsh environments remain popular, too.  Corn Huskers Lotion emerged in 1919 Iowa for corn huskers’ weathered hands, and Bag Balm hit the market in 1899 Vermont for chapped cow udders.  Both are effective hand remedies.

Use sun block in addition to a regular moisturizer to help prevent the spots that generally appear after age 55.  These are attributed to sun exposure, smoking and poor diet and appear where too much lipofuscin exists in the skin.  Pure lemon juice as well as over-the-counter products that contain hydroquinone can help fade spots and lighten skin.  Doctors can perform chemical peels, laser resurfacing and plastic surgery to remove these “age” or “liver spots,” but the best plan is to prevent them from appearing by using a sun block of SPF 30 or higher and keeping a healthy diet.  Orange foods high in vitamin A aid in protecting the body from harmful UV light.

To lock moisture in, soak your hands for 20 minutes before you pat dry and apply lotion or cream just before you go to bed.  Slip your slathered paws into some soft cotton socks or sleeping gloves that you can find at most drug and beauty supply stores.  The moisture will soak deeply into your skin as you sleep.  For a lighter nighttime treatment, forgo the hand covers, but don’t ever pass on the moisturizer.

“If you are the type of person who tends to sleep with your hands against your face,” says Davis, “your hand moisturizer needs to be ‘face worthy’.”

Many spas use sugar rubs in their hand treatments to exfoliate dry skin.  You can generate the same results at home with 2 tablespoons of sugar mixed with a few drops of water and lemon juice.  Sugar is softer on the skin than salt, but either could work in a pinch.

To enhance your at-home-spa experience, rub a non-petroleum oil onto the hands and cover with a hand cream.  Wrap the hands in plastic bags and cover with hot, wet towels for about 10 minutes to open pores and allow increased blood flow.  Spas often use paraffin baths, which are also available for home use, to treat weary hands.  Melted paraffin solidifies onto the hands in at least five heat-trapping layers that have a similar effect to the bags and hot towels.  Increased circulation moisturizes the hands, and the heat treatments help to soothe aching joints associated with age and colder winter temperatures.

Deep cracks or fissures are likely to form on the hands in this dry time of year and can be aggravated by interaction with chemicals, paper and cloth.  Protect them with Band-Aids or Liquid Band-Aids or use an unexpected trick and cover the cracks with Crazy Glue.  Be sure your fissure is clean, though, or you could trap an infection that might become quite painful.

Darlene Granger of New Auburn, Wis., has been managing deep fissures for decades.

“Gloves, at night, over fully lubricated fingers add comfort and some healing,” she said, “but two days in the more humid climates of Hawaii or Florida is the best fissure-healing treatment I have found!”

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