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Anno Domini - Marking the years : A Christmas Contemplation
December 22, 2011 Jerry Purvis   

Read more by Jerry Purvis

Jerry Purvis, Citizen News Editor

Earl Pickles, one of the characters in the comic strip “Pickles,” once observed that on New Year’s Day, he had one less year in front of him, one more year behind him … and confetti in his shoes.

As the end of another year fast approaches, I’m always in awe of what a “now you see it, now you don’t” proposition time has always been. This year, it’s highlighted in the fact that today marks the winter solstice – the shortest day, the longest night. The seasons change hands as those events we’ve labeled “2011” vanish into the history book. And for each of us, that volume grows larger.

No matter how we measure time, by clocks or by seasons, we use traditions to mark the years. When our holidays and holy days approach, we break out our family and cultural traditions to give us a sense of permanence, a still point against the march of time.

As Thanksgiving, Christmas the New Year’s come around again, we bring out the old songs, the old movies, the old recipes. They remind us of celebrations past, when things were simpler, more meaningful, more … as things were meant to be. These traditions tie us to the past in a very real way, and hopefully make us thankful for how far we’ve come.

With the blessed season of Christmas upon us, the scoffers would say the birth of the infant Jesus didn’t happen anywhere near December 25. Maybe. Or maybe not. But is the event less significant because we’ve chosen this particular day to celebrate? I don’t think so.

For centuries, people in the western world have grappled with how to measure time and mark its special events. Around the year 532, a monk and astronomer named Dionysius Exiguous began his calculations to ascertain the date of Christ’s birth. What eventually resulted from that work was our modern day calendar, although some major glitches had to be ironed out along to way.

Just a side note: I still like the English translation of the monk’s name – Dennis the Short.

Centuries later, the English cleric and historian the Venerable Bede started using the monk’s system for recording the years. Prior to writing down the year, Bede would make the notation A.D. – the abbreviated form of the Latin Anno Domini, or “the year of our Lord.”

Until the early 20th century, the A.D. notation was common on most legal documents. Whether in abbreviated or long form, it often appeared just before the signatures of the involved parties. And it’s prominently featured in the original writings of our nation’s founders.

Our year-end celebrations also remind us of how fast time is passing. On every New Year’s Eve, I can almost see the laughing ghosts of my past – friends and family well-loved and long gone.
Several years ago, James Kushiner, one of the editors of the Mere Comments blog site, posted a poignant reminiscence of home and holidays past.

Kushiner wrote that on every Thanksgiving Day, his heart and mind returned to the house of his childhood and the people he loved. Although he admitted he hadn’t been back to that street in decades, he would always remember.

It’s the same for me. I haven’t returned to the small town of my childhood since my family moved back here in 1959. And while many of the features of that small town have faded into the fog of my memory, I still remember the people with great fondness.

During this joyous season we call “the holidays,” the whole idea of time comes into sharper focus for me. The season has a kind of strangeness as well, as the remaining members of my family are scattered all over the place. But such is the transient nature of this life, complete with its detours through the valley of the shadow and its resulting sorrow.

Historian Wilfred McClay, who also wrote for Mere Comments, put it well: “Even as we make our homes, plant our gardens, and raise our families here, there will come a time when those families are no more, when our yet-unborn grandchildren will be vanished, our houses torn down, every earthly grace and beauty decayed into dust and scattered in the air. That this city on a hill is, like every earthly city, not a city for us to abide in.”

As the year 2011 is fast closing down, I’m going to try to keep the spirit of the season closer; no matter how fast time seems to fly by. After all, there’s a certain amount of sacredness about time.

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading an essay long since stored on my hard drive. It was written by Professor Anthony Esolen, who teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College in Rhode Island. “Ancient of Days” was its title, and a couple of lines stood out for me, especially during this season of Christmas. “Here in the dead of our winter, it would do us well to remember that every passing thing in this world derives its true meaning from that Child; that upon the boy asleep in the manger depends all of man’s history.”

Thanks for reading – and have a blessed Christmas and New Year.
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