So is everyone busy preparing for the Winter Solstice celebrations? Or will you be celebrating Christmas instead?
Now some will see this as a silly question, as everyone “knows” that 25th December is Christmas Day, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, while the Winter Solstice is a totally separate occasion on 21st December.
But it’s actually not as simple as that.
The Winter Solstice does indeed happen on 21st December. Technically this is the moment in time when the earth tilts furthest from the sun. The seasonal significance of the winter solstice is in the reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days. The word solstice comes from the Latin phrase for “sun stands still”.
The Winter Solstice is essentially the year’s darkest day, but it’s almost never the coldest, as oceans are slow to heat and cool and the seas still retain some warmth from summer.
For thousands of years the winter solstice has been celebrated as the rebirth of the sun by societies who placed astronomy and the turning of the seasons at the centre of their beliefs. One of the functions of Stonehenge, built at least 4,000 years ago, is to mark the time of the solstice.
And as many of these societies worshipped the sun as a deity, the idea of the winter solstice marking the birth of a god an ancient one.
Roman pagans introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, a week long period of lawlessness celebrated between 17th and 25th of December. The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule”. The victim was then forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week.
At the festival’s conclusion on December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.
This was actually based on an older Greek festival. The ancient Greek historian Lucian (in his dialogue entitled Saturnalia) describes the festival’s observance in his time. In addition to human sacrifice, he mentions widespread intoxication, going from house to house while singing naked, rape and other sexual license and consuming human shaped biscuits.
On December 25th, many pagan Romans celebrated Natalis Solis Invincti, the Birthday of the Invincible Sun God, Mithras. The Mithras cult originated in Persia and rooted itself in the Roman world in the first century BCE.
And then, somewhere around 320 CE, the Christian church decided to import the Saturnalia and Mithras festivals into its own rituals, hoping to bring the pagan masses in with it. Christian leaders did indeed succeed in converting large numbers of pagans by promising them that they would continue to celebrate the Saturnalia.
But they decided to rename the festival to make it less pagan sounding. They chose to mark the final day of the festival, December 25th, with a special mass to mark the birth of Jesus, calling it the Christ Mass. The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence and singing naked in the streets – an early form of carolling, perhaps, although I guess it has changed a little since then!
So it was a deliberate decision of the Christian church to locate Jesus’ birth on 25th December. Nowhere in the bible is the date mentioned. There is no suggestion in Christian mythology that the nativity even took place in December.
And indeed many of the traditions that we now associate with Christmas come from very different, and non Christian, traditions.
The Celtic festive of Yule is celebrated at the solstice; the name refers to the wheel of life. The winter solstice was considered a mysterious and powerful time. After the longest night of the year the sun is seen as growing stronger and the eventual return of the warmer season is welcomed
The Celtic tradition of bringing sprigs of holly and ivy into the home pays homage to the masculine and feminine elements. Both plants are evergreen, a reminder in itself that the earth never dies, but merely sleeps during the winter months. The male element is represented by the prickly holly, with its sexually potent red berries. The mistletoe is the female; entwining, gentle yet powerful. The idea of “decking the halls” seems to have started in London in the 15th century.
The use of a Christmas tree seems to come from 16th century Germany. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.”
And the eating of turkey on 25th December seems to have been imported to the UK from a native American custom.
So Christmas is merely the Christian version of several very much older festivals based around the Winter Solstice. And any talk of the true meaning of Christmas should really include the honouring of ancient festivals that go back much further than 1,700 years.
It’s only logical after all, as Mr Spock would surely say.