Originally published December 24, 2012
So this is Christmas. It is a time of year that some feel is quite magical while others shudder at the sound of the word. Some people find much joy, and some suffer from uncontrollable depression. It is a time of year when we find friends and family, and when we miss those no longer with us. It is intense and liberating all at once. There are many reasons for this and they go back to the beginning of human history. So, it’s time for a history lesson and those that know me would expect nothing less. You see, Jesus is a reason, but not the reason for the season. No, you may not burn me at the stake; I must fix breakfast in the morning.
I truly love “digging around” in our ancient history and finding the roots of our most cherished beliefs and traditions. Those that have remained with us are rich with meaning and it is not an accident that layer upon layer has been added as our cultures and our understanding change. The journey to learn about our December festivals begins millennium ago when we were an agricultural people and our lives depended on the coming and going of the seasons. Life or death could come based on when things were planted and harvested. So we studied the skies. Long before we knew that the earth was round we knew that the sun changed its behavior. We knew that there was a “shortest” day of the year and a “longest” day as measured by the time the sun was over the horizon. I could not find any references to earlier names but in Latin we call these dates solstices. The winter solstice is that day of the longest night in the northern hemisphere and always falls on December 21 or 22 of each year.
This was an important time and was a natural time to celebrate. Whatever it was called by the ancient cultures, the term “solstice” derives from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). This was the time when the sun “stopped” and reversed its direction to rise again above the horizon. December 25 would be the point when the sun had risen a full degree above the horizon and the people could be assured that it was indeed “coming back.”
There is a reason that depression can be so prevalent this time of year. Our bodies need vitamin D. When we don’t get enough sunlight we lose vitamin D and it affects our attitude. Scientists have studied people living in the far northern climes for a number of years and they find the phenomena quite common–we need sunlight and when we don’t get it we get depressed (and sometimes a little wonky). (Note: “Wonky” is a lovely Canadian word meaning not quite right). The return of the sun was important for any number of reasons, most all of them were an integral part of life itself.
As civilizations grew, the meaning and purpose of the solstice grew. The celebration of Saturnalia (the king of the gods) was celebrated by the Romans this time of year. It started on December 17 and eventually extended to December 23. It was a time for public banquets and private gift giving. Heralded as the festival of lights, it led up to the winter solstice. A time announced as the renewal of light and the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun (Sol Invictus). The Roman emperor Aurelian established this feast at December 25. Celebrations turned the world upside down as slaves were served by masters, grudges were forgotten and schools and courts were closed.
From Scandinavia we have the Norse tradition of Yule which lasted for 12 days. That should sound familiar. It was during this time that the Norse celebrated the rebirth of the sun gods and the increasing light upon the earth. In some countries the Yule log was burned to ashes and spread in the fields, in others a small piece was preserved to light the Yule log in the next year. In Poland the ancient solstice celebrations included forgiveness and sharing of food.
Christians did not celebrate the holiday until 354 CE. There are several proposed reasons that this particular date was chosen. Keep in mind that the only religious holidays left to us by the apostles were Jewish holidays and these were presumed to be a foreshadow of the coming of Christ. Even Passover, the ultimate symbol of sacrifice, was converted to Easter. Thus, without an historical basis, some appropriate time of feast and festival need to be selected. As far as the actual birthday of Jesus, the general consensus (such as one is possible) is that it was most likely sometime in the spring, between March and May. This is determined in part by the only hint in scripture which has the shepherds “watching their flocks at night.” The hills above Bethlehem are entirely too cold to care for flocks of sheep at night in the middle of December. The herds were moved to the hills in the spring.
Is this a bad thing that the birth of Christ is celebrated in the midst of so many pagan celebrations worshiping the rising of the sun? Does it matter that we are still having academic and theological arguments over whether or not Christians “stole” the holiday? Historical evidence points to two things. People have been celebrating the winter solstice in a variety of ways as far back as history goes and what evidence we have indicates that Jesus was born in the spring. However, all the richness of the combined holidays and feasts of this one week in December carry many symbols and lessons that can be applied to the birth of a child called the true light of the world. All the many centuries of traditions expressing this as a time of forgiveness, sharing, peace, return or birth of light do no harm in developing a Christian observance. It is a time of year that the human race has celebrated as a time of renewal since we started to plow our fields. Why shouldn’t it be used to celebrate the Lord of Peace and the Light of the World especially since we don’t have a specific date for the birth of a child named Jesus? I will admit that the wanton parties seem a bit inappropriate; and we still manage to practice that part with great verve.
Another tradition that is practiced at this time of year is Hanukkah. This too is a festival of lights with a meaningful past. The story is told in the Books of the Maccabees (apocryphal books of the Bible). During the reign of Aniochus IV Epiphanes, a revolt of the Jews was crushed, the temple ransacked and Jewish religious practices forbidden. After the decree was issued, a priest by the name of Mattahias initiated a revolt by refusing to worship the Greek gods. He ended up fleeing to the wilderness with his five sons. After his death (cir 166 BCE) his son Judas Macaabee led in a victorious gorilla insurrection against the Seleucid armies, regaining control of Judea. After entry into Jerusalem, the Maccabees cleansed the temple and determined to re-institute the Jewish religious practices. There was only one problem. The sacred oil that was to be burned in the temple had been profaned and there was only enough for one day. The process to press and sanctify the oil took eight full days. The lamps were lit anyway and, miraculously, the oil lasted the eight days needed to restore the temple’s supply. This is the basis for the eight days of Hanukkah. It is a celebration of provision, of re-dedication, of light. Although the celebration of Hanukkah varies on the Gregorian calendar (December 8-16 this year) throughout the month of December, it is still a fitting feast for this time of year.
I think it is very important for us to understand how some of our hopes and fears, joys and sadness, wonders and even prayers are expressed in different ways as our world changes. So, even though Jesus is not the reason for the season, the hope and purpose He represents to so many is certainly a major reason for the season. Perhaps we should view this season as a time to focus on renewal, rebirth, forgiveness, sharing; all the things that our past tells us is symbolized in the birth of the sun, or the Son. Let those Christmas carols stir your heart and give you hope; they are, in many ways, universal.
Please, have Merry Christmas or whatever festival you celebrate this season and pass on some “peace and goodwill.” As a special present I will post two offerings this week. On Christmas Eve we will explore the historical adventures of Santa Claus. Guess what? He really did exist.