by Anne Batty
The sky darkens slowly and as the sun drops below the horizon ancient mankind hovers anxiously upon the earth, fearfully expecting the failing light will never reappear. Apprehensively the ancients attempt to summon sol’s return with vigilant rites and elaborate ceremonies. In time sunlight reappears and there is much rejoicing.
The sun – sol - played an important part in the daily life of early humankind. Before fire, its light was the only illumination against winter’s seemingly unending darkness. The earliest ancients thought the sun’s disappearance below the horizon caused it to stop in its flight across the sky, thus its return or rebirth was great cause for celebration. Through the ages these earliest rituals, ceremonies and rejoicings for the sun’s return were repeated annually, eventually becoming known as the Winter Solstice celebrations.
Evolving from the Latin sol stetit, solstice means “sun stops or stands still,” and it is the time of year when the sun is furthest from the celestial equator, creating the longest night of the year. The Winter Solstice marks a crucial part of nature’s earthly cycle. At this time the sun literally begins its journey toward longer days, signaling times of new growth and renewal. In a spiritual sense, it is a reminder that in order for a new path to begin, the old one must end and that spring will come again.
In ancient times, as well as today, the celebration of Winter Solstice was often considered pagan, but like many words over the centuries, the term pagan has deviated from its actual meaning. Its origins come from the Latin word paganus meaning “country dweller.” Since scientifically the Winter Solstice marks a crucial part of nature’s cycle; in this context, to an ancient agricultural and pastoral people – country dwellers, the sun’s importance to harvest, rebirth and life might be more clearly understood. As well as the influence early mankind’s commemoration of its rising has had on the holiday celebrations of today. For upon closer examination these ancient Winter Solstice celebrations reveal that their rituals, ceremonies and practices have contributed much to our present day Christmas festivities.
As we plunge into the whirlwind of preparations that lead up to this all-too-brief yearly holiday, a new knowledge of what’s behind some of the things we do during this time might help make this one of our best celebrations ever.
The Date – December 25th
Since the ancients viewed the Winter Solstice – December 22 - as a rebirthing of the sun, it followed that the ancient church would also mark this time of year to celebrate the new life that the birth of Christ symbolized to believers. (Although December 25th is the accepted time to celebrate Christ’s birth, it is historically debatable whether this is the exact date).
By lighting a fire, the ancients were acknowledging the longed for return of the sun, warmth and light. They thought if they captured light in the form of fire, harbored and protected it, it would remain alive as a symbol of the hidden sun and eventually return the sun to the sky.
The Yule Log
In pagan belief the Yule Log was lit on the eve of Winter Solstice and burned for twelve hours. It is a reminder of the importance of fire in the depths of the cold and darkness of midwinter. The Yule Tree later replaced the Yule Log. Instead of being burned it was adorned with burning candles.
The Evergreen Tree
To the ancients, the evergreen tree’s ability to survive during the dark days of winter assured them they would also survive in the absence of the sun. It was a reminder that life never dies, continuing even when the sun is at its lowest ebb. It was the tree the Shaman (medicine man) climbed in his dreams to get into the bright heavens where he would find the gifts of fire, life and the newborn sun itself.
Mistletoe, Holly and Ivy
The mistletoe with its spectral white berries and the holly with its scarlet fruit (both bloom during Solstice), as well as the ivy with its variegated green and white leaves, all gave proof that life could withstand the harshness of winter and continue its cycle even in the coldest and shortest of days. And the filling of homes with this greenery in midwinter was thought to be evidence of a special power defying winter’s ability to kill. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe may have grown out of the ancient practice of enemies meeting under the mistletoe, dropping their weapons and embracing. It was regarded as a symbol of future hope and peace.
As with most belief systems the use of candles by the ancients symbolized light, focused the spirit and marked the belief that the sun (Son for believers) of light and warmth would come again.
In those distant times, winter would have meant lean months subsisting on the last of the crops. To partake of this larder in honor of the sun was to reaffirm the return of light and warmth to the world.
The celebration of the solstice has always been about ritual, whether taking the form that offered gifts to the gods, nature, or the more recent celebration of the birthday of the Child of Wonder. Originally celebrated in a far more simplistic time, it laid the foundation for our modern ways of honoring birth, life and rebirth. Changed as they may be these celebrations remain among us today, timeless and eternal.
THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
Understanding Its Myths and Practices
The days from Christmas Eve on December 24th to the Epiphany on January 6th (in reality 14 as the first two are not included in the 12) symbolize the past year, one day of celebration for each of the 12 months.
1) December 26, Boxing Day and/or St. Stephan’s Day – Boxing Day celebrates the custom in Britain of giving servants a Christmas box during the holidays. It is a day to remember those less well off than we are. This day also remembers St. Stephan who was once a servant of the biblical King Herod. He saw the star of the nativity and seeking to know more of the Child of Wonder born in a stable changed his allegiance to a new king.
2) December 27, Mother Night/St. John’s Day – Mother Christmas, derived from the feminine principle of deity, was regarded as a conveyor of fertility, abundance and justice. On this day in Germany and Austria the priest blesses the wine brought to him by the people and this “St. John’s Wine” is believed to then have healing properties.
3) December 28, Holy Innocent’s Day/Childremass – A day to honor the blessing that children are. Also a day to remember the children slaughtered by Herod in fear of a new King of the Jews.
4) December 29, The Feast of Fools – A day when the normal order of things was dismissed. A day when people could act foolishly and let off steam in a safe way.
5) December 30, Bringing in the Boar – A day for providing the meat for the Christmas Table.
6) December 31, New Year’s Eve/Hogmanay – A day to celebrate the old year’s end and the new year’s beginning. Time to wind up unfinished business, clean up and prepare for a new beginning.
7) January 1, New Year’s Day/The Kalends of January – A glad remembrance of the old year and a renewed hope for the new. The promise of better days to come.
8) January 2, Snow Day – The day to pay our respects to Snow, its beauty and magic. A time to celebrate the canceling out of the darkness of midwinter and transformation of the earth into a place of light.
9) January 3, Evergreen Day – A time to contemplate the powerful presence of trees
10) January 4, St. Distaff’s Day – A day to celebrate the return to normal time and acts after the feasts and celebrations.
11) January 5, Eve of Epiphany Festival of the Three Kings – Celebrating the day the Magi found their way to Bethlehem and the importance of giving gifts to show our love and loyalty to one another.
12) January 6, Epiphany/Twelfth Night – This is the day the decorations come down and are stored until next year. A time to put an end to the festivities.