The winter solstice marked a cold and lonely time for the farmers of Europe in the millennia before Christ. The land appeared barren, the sun made barely an appearance for a few hours during the cloudy days. What was there to give them hope, then? What spoke to them in those dismal freezing nights?
I don’t believe they were bereft of spirituality. I think they knew what they were doing when they used firelight to revive their spirit and began traditions that have carried into today.
Stoking large fires. Gathering of people from the community and beyond to share their food. Keeping company with those who tell stories about the darkest night that gives a start to brighter days. Ancient farmers explained the rebirth of the sun and therefore explained the cycle of life in nature and in the heavens and gave reason to their own human journeys.
Personification of the seasons in the Bronze Age showed a powerful symbol, the child, who came to represent the newness of a brand new year. The rituals that developed may have been sympathetic magic which coaxed the sun to make its return and save their lives as scholars purport, but they were also a symbol of what stirred in the hearts of early humans, helping them to see what was important: community, children and the light of the tended fire mirroring the light in their hearts. These traditions and symbols are found all over the world and they started long ago.
All before the year 0 CE.
December 17th was originally the celebration of Ops, a goddess of fertility and prosperity, joined by her consort, Saturn. It kick started the beginning of the winter holiday season: weeks of revelry in ancient Rome. This was the day where slaves were freed in Rome and every effort was made to dissolve all social ranks. Saturnalia is one of the origins of gift giving: people gave to one another small items wrapped in rice paper and made dolls that represented each other in health and happiness. This continued into Juvenalia, the feast honoring Rome’s children which featured games and theater. Not done yet: then there was Carnomania and Lupercalia in those winter months as well.
Looking to the eastern world the winter solstice evoked equal excitement. The Dōngzhì Festival, meaning Extreme of Winter, is one of the most important festivals celebrated by the Chinese and other East Asians . The origins of this festival can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 CE). Family members joined together to feast, give offerings to heaven and to their ancestors, and they believed this would bring balance to the world of the living and the world of the dead. As the last days up until the winter solstice were considered a time of old year energy spinning downward, after the festival, the growing daylight hours demonstrated the rebirth of vitality spinning upward.
Christians are, for obvious reasons, broadcasting their efforts to keep Christ in Christmas. Such assertions abound on the local church marquis and Bible belt billboard to remind us the holiday is all about Jesus. We should not get caught up in all the trappings of consumerism. All the other stuff is very distracting. I agree that in the age of consumerism we are met with the trappings of a distracted and stressed out society.
Now, though, is not the time to exclude each other.
The very fact that we are not only allowed but encouraged to acknowledge the miracle under the star of Bethlehem is due mostly to pagan traditions.
Who can say when Jesus was really born? No one agrees of an exact day or month and many acknowledge that he probably wasn’t born on Dec 25th. As Luke declares in the New Testament, Christ was 33 ½ years old when he died on Easter in the year 33 CE. So Jesus was probably born in the fall.
The Christian link to winter solstice began when the Emperor Constantine created St. Nicholas. The origins of St. Nick are sketchy at best and there is ample evidence to suggest that he was concocted by Constantine who had recently converted to Christianity in 325 CE. Constantine decided something must be done to compete with the pagan holidays of Rome. As you recall, this was no ordinary time for celebrating. This was the big chief Cahuna combo of holidays in the Roman world.
In the first few centuries CE there was no official observance of Jesus’ birth, so the Nicholas’ legends were mostly of stories as a beneficial saint who gave alms to the poor and protected children.
St. Nick’s fame caught fire as he absorbed many of the old world gods and their symbols: Odin, a Norse god who flew his sleigh of reindeer across the night sky encircling the globe in one night, and Hold Nickar, the Teutonic god, known as Poseidon to the Greeks. This powerful sea god galloped through the sky during the winter solstice, giving gifts to his worshippers below. This mixing bowl of iconography grew and spread as the light of Christianity spread to the four directions.
Holland in the15th century was a Spanish territory and as Christianity arrived so did St. Nick who the Dutch welcomed, calling him Sinterklaas. The Dutch already had winter solstice rituals of their own, of course, which Sinterklaas adopted. Dutch children put their wooden shoes outside and St. Nick filled their shoes with candy and toys.
During the 1500’s in Puritan America if you were caught celebrating around the solstice, in Jesus’ name or not, you could face the stocks or some other corporeal punishment. The US did not observe Christ’s birth at all until the Reformation when the Dutch arrived in Manhattan and brought with them Sinterklaas. Perhaps our culture was finally ready for this rich collection of traditions from across Western Europe that date back to the Paleolithic, traditions which Clement Clarke Moore and Victorian England solidified in the late 19th century. The picture we have today of Christmas time is a vision you know well: nutcrackers, trimmed trees, Father Christmas, stockings hung by a fire, twinkling lights and lots of caroling, to name a few.