This is an important time of the year for most of us. But what’s the true reason for the season? It depends on who you ask.
Whether you happen to be gearing up to celebrate the the birth of Jesus or not, remember that many cultures around the world — particularly those with indigenous or ancient ties — mark the days around the longest night of the year with some sort of observance. There is evidence that neolithic cultures noted and celebrated the solstice at least 10,000 years ago. (my apologies to “young earthers”, but this is the first of several sacrilegious statements in this post, so be warned)
I think even most Christians understand that there’s very little chance that Jesus was actually born on December 25th — or even in December at all. Go ahead and give me some heat on this if you’d like, but even biblical references point to a spring or autumn date, with the fall harvest time (September – October) being the most likely.
Christians began celebrating the current date of December 25th in the 4th century A.D. There are a lot of theories about why this date was chosen, but it’s pretty likely that it had something to do with the solstice. More specifically, it had to do with using an existing Roman holiday, called Saturnalia, as a recruiting tool for converting people to Christianity. Saturnalia was a raucous, drunken, event that began as a one-day celebration on December 17, but over the years evolved into a week-long (think spring break without a warm beach) kind of orgy of excessive eating, drinking and debauchery — even involving role-reversal of slaves and owners. Early Christians saw the end of this week as the perfect time to piggy-back with their message of the birth of the savior — so they decided that Jesus was born during the massive hangover right after this Roman celebration.I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on ancient religious practices and there are tons of books and websites out there that provide the background for the Solstice / Pagan / Christmas connections. I do know that many, if not most current Christmas customs have ties to solstice-related celebrations dating back to the time before Jesus. The Christmas tree, holly, mistletoe, ivy, the yule log, the hanging of wreaths, feasting, even gift-giving and the lighting of candles were all well established solstice-related customs before the date for the birth of the the messiah was changed to the same week. I also know that while some (but relatively very few) modern-day Christians eschew these symbols and practices, the vast majority of Christmas celebrators hang on to at least some of them. How many Christian households don’t have a tree, light some candles (or hang outdoor lights) or have a little holly around the house? Pagan, pagan and more pagan!
Because solstice celebrations go back thousands of years, Christians are relative newcomers to celebrating this time of year with lights, candles, gift-giving and good cheer — and they’ve pretty much stolen these traditions and claimed them as their own. If you’ve been to a shopping mall or watched TV ads recently, you may not like what they’ve done with all of it.
The Christmas holiday is celebrated differently by people everywhere and it has evolved greatly through the centuries. In Europe, it was a considered a time to party to excess, mirroring the Saturnalia festival — nothing like the quiet, family time we now espouse — until the mid 1600s, when Oliver Cromwell came to power with his puritan beliefs in England and put a stop to all the craziness. In the new world, the Pilgrims did not celebrate Christmas at all. Even after Boston became a city, celebrating Christmas was against the law from 1659 to 1681.
A hundred years later during the revolution, English customs were falling out of favor, including Christmas. In fact, Congress was in session on Christmas day of 1789. And it was ANOTHER 81 years before Christmas was declared a national holiday in 1870. So much for nostalgia about Christmas in early America.
Christmas in America began to gain importance in the late 1800s. As a writer on the History Channel website puts it,
“As Americans began to embrace Christmas as a perfect family holiday, old customs were unearthed. People looked toward recent immigrants and Catholic and Episcopalian churches to see how the day should be celebrated. In the next 100 years, Americans built a Christmas tradition all their own that included pieces of many other customs, including decorating trees, sending holiday cards, and gift-giving. Although most families quickly bought into the idea that they were celebrating Christmas how it had been done for centuries, Americans had really re-invented a holiday to fill the cultural needs of a growing nation.”
I happen to think this time of year has a spiritual quality all its own. It doesn’t need commercial embellishing, manipulated date changes, mythological overlays or the belief that God will make the sun go away if we don’t pray enough.
We live in an age when science explains why the days are short. We know exactly when the northern hemisphere is tipped away from the sun’s rays the most — this year it’s 5:38 PM on December 21. But that doesn’t take anything away from its importance. It’s still a profound event and a metaphor for the rhythms of our lives. As the days get short, cold, and quiet, it’s a great time to slow down, think, appreciate, reflect, pray — whatever it is you do. It’s a time to contemplate the year that’s ending and anticipate the new one coming. Many people have some time off work this week. How many will spend it quietly and peacefully? How many will be frantic and frustrated?
The season means something different to all of us, but for most of us it does have meaning.
For me, (after I get my shopping and wrapping and some house cleaning done) I hope to find a little time to slow down and think. To appreciate and be grateful. To spend a little time with my family and friends. Life can be a treadmill, and cold, short, days are a good time to stop running and hop off for a few hours here and there.
The darkness helps us appreciate the light. As our ancestors knew, the sun is a good thing. We notice when it goes away and we’re thankful when it comes back.
I’m thankful for another day, another year, another cycle in the rhythm of life.
And for you?
I hope you take time to appreciate the light this week and I hope all is calm, all is bright.
I hope you take time to be quiet.
I hope you take time to do something kind for somebody.
I hope you can spend some time with the people who are important to you.
I hope you find peace and joy.