I’m intrigued by the Solstice. Though never officially diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder, my endurance and warm disposition are tested by the short days we get here, just below the 45th north parallel. Jimmy Buffet said it best: tempers in need of repair.
We like our stories with arcs and twists, and our universe delivers by tilting the earth so that nothing is ever the same. When it’s winter solstice here, which usually means things are cold and wet, the sun is directly overhead along the Tropic of Capricorn, places like Sao Paulo and Brisbane. What to do if you’re both fundamentalist (which I’m not) and light-loving? Thou shalt not covet those savory UVs. But we can’t help it. We like the light and miss it. And we can’t wait for it to return. That goes for all of us, pagans and Christians and everyone else.
It’s a well-trodden fact that most Christmas symbols were borrowed from folks who lived well before the arrival of the Baby Jesus. And though there’s some compelling evidence his birthday was actually in the spring, there were (and are) a lot of compelling reasons to celebrate it on or near the solstice. The ancients were used to gathering then anyway. Stored food didn’t get any better if you waited a few weeks. There was still plenty of firewood, and the beer and wine created from the last harvest was just about ready. When it’s that cold, why not stay indoors and celebrate?
I looked into traditions of earlier peoples. Many cultures – too many to list here - performed solstice ceremonies. Many contained common threads: eating, drinking, storytelling, hooking up, setting things on fire. Their motivation? Probably a superstition that the declining light might not ever return unless we (humans, or the deities we asked) did an intervention.
The Mesopotamians may have come up with the earliest version of the 12 days of Christmas. Their 12 day festival of renewal was celebrated for the purpose of helping the god Marduk calm the monsters of chaos for one more year. Wanna bet that some form of monsters of chaos has probably been translated into all known languages? Or that Mardak had kindred spirits in other places?
It’s not difficult to see how many of our current traditions (unity, giving to others, candlelight, feasting, evergreens) are modern versions of what our ancestors did before we had rural electrification or office parties.
And what did they do? Wiccans burned Yule logs to encourage the return of the light and honor both life and death. Scandinavian families placed all of their shoes in one place, believing that this would cause them to live in harmony for the next year. Romans honored Bacchus by (what else?) drinking heavily during their festival of Brumalia. The Chacoans (ancestors of the modern Pueblo people of New Mexico) gathered at the Sun Dagger site of Chaco Canyon and danced the sun back into their days.
No Christmas letter from me, at least not here. I love this day because it represents a convergence of so many things I appreciate: light, enlightenment, physics, forgiveness, redemption, boundaries, friendships, hope. But today, mostly light. I hope the light is shining where you are.