Dec 13, 1990
Many of our religious holidays revolve around astronomical events. Chanukah and Christmas, while steeped in the Judeo- Christian mythology, are simply celebrations of the winter solstice. It is fitting that our most significant holidays applaud the end of increasing darkness.
Since the summer solstice on June 21st the sun’s path across the sky has slowly shifted. In midsummer the sun travels almost directly overhead, giving us daylight for 15 hours or so. By the autumn equinox (“equal nights”) on September 21st the sun’s path has moved far enough south to give us exactly 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness. By December the days are short and the nights long.
This year at exactly 3:28 AM PST on December 21st the sun reaches its lowest point in its journey across the sky. At this exact moment the sun appears to stand still, the literal meaning of the word “solstice.” After this point the sun begins its apparent northward motion again. The days now begin to increase and the lengthening nights are no more!
This shortest day of the year has always been significant to agrarian humans. Among many native populations there have always been mid-winter celebrations. The most influential on our modern rites are the festivals of the Romans, the rituals of the Druids and, of course, the dogma of the Christians.
Saturnalia was a traditional Roman winter celebration. It usually took place on December 17 and lasted for seven days. The name is from the root of “serere”, to sow and the celebration was connected to crop fertility for the coming year. People exchanged gifts especially candles. The candles were to insure the return of the sun’s power after the solstice. It was a time of equality between men–slaves danced with masters and the poor and the rich mingled. An early law made it clear: “No discourse shall either be composed or delivered, except it be witty and lusty, conducing to mirth and jollity.” Amen.
A few days after Saturnalia was the Roman festival of the Kalends. During this event houses were decorated with lights and wreaths of laurel. Gifts were exchanged and large banquets were made. Even the poor laid abundant food upon the table. There was a general feeling of generosity and kindness toward one another.
The Celts through their priestly class the Druids gave us many of our winter rites regarding plants. The mistletoe was regarded as “holy light”. Imagine a cold bleak winter, no leaves on any tree, apparent death throughout the land and growing on the oak was the mistletoe. Alive, vibrant, green and with fruit, it is no wonder mistletoe was associated with fertility. Our current custom of kissing under the mistletoe is quite innocent compared to what the Druids did with the mistletoe to insure crop fertility.
The lighting of the traditional Yule log also has its roots in the Druid past. The log is thought to embody the vegetation- spirit. The fire from this log symbolically represents sunlight, the light that is so essential for plants and man to survive. The word, Yule, is derived from the ancient word that means wheel. The wheel of the sun rotating through the sky, through the year.
During the last 2000 years missionaries have turned many of the native rituals into Christian ones. The Church has blended pagan customs with a spiritual core to give us the most human and lovable of all the Christian festivals.
How appropriate that during this dark time we celebrate the birth of a child. We put all of our hopes into this being, a humble infant that great Kings came to worship but for whom the world had no room at the inn. We huddle with other humans–members of our family or the community–to eat, drink, sing and be merry. We rejoice in the midst of this long bleak night by surrounding ourselves with greenery, gifts, food, and fire. We love all mankind for a moment. We try to forget war, poverty and injustice. We give and we hope for the children.