Originally published in the Reader Weekly. December 20, 2007
This year, 2007, the winter solstice will arrive on December 22 at 6:08 a.m. UCT (Coordinated Universal Time or Greenwich Mean Time). That means it will arrive in Duluth about midnight between December 21 and 22. From this time we will have more daylight hours each day than nighttime hours. This in and of itself is a reason to rejoice.
But such precision was not available to our ancestors. As the days grew shorter, our earliest ancestors couldn’t be sure that the sun would come back. They resorted to magic to ensure that the spirits would return the sun to them. They lit fires to guide the sun and they sacrificed beasts and people to appease the spirits.
Increased astronomical knowledge helped predict when the solstice would occur. Stonehenge is one early astronomical clock; archeologists have uncovered others in Europe and the Americas. However, the rituals and the festivals persisted. Hey, who wants to give up a good party?
The parties weren’t always good for everybody. According to some, a man chosen to be the god-king Dionysus, the god of wine, had a pretty good party attended by lots of women. Then the women tore him apart and ate him. Of course, he was reborn for the next cycle of seasons.
If you have a week or two to spare, look up “winter solstice” on the web, adding various qualifiers as you go. You will find a large assortment of fascinating information. You will find that the winter solstice is often linked to festivals of light or the cycle of death and rebirth. One I found interesting was “Winter Solstice Celebrations”.
As calendars were invented, many started on the solar year, that is, the winter solstice. Others started at the summer solstice or the equinoxes. Because the earth doesn’t travel around the sun in an integral number of days, the first day of solar calendars moved away from the solstices or the equinoxes. January in the Roman calendar, named for the two-faced god Janus, moved away from the equinox.
Solar “drift” wasn’t the only reason calendars changed. The Romans jiggered their calendar many times, sometimes for political reasons. July and August (Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus) are two prime examples, giving us the seventh month (September) as the ninth month, and so on to the tenth month (December) as the twelfth. At one time the Romans celebrated the new year in March.
A good example of calendar drift is the different dates for Western and Eastern Christmas. The western churches celebrate Christmas on December 25. The Eastern Orthodox churches also celebrate Christmas on December 25, but on a different calendar. December 25 on the Julian calendar is now January 7 on the Gregorian calendar: the one commonly used in most of the world.
Why December 25 for Christmas? The web is full of various stories about this. One is that it was to replace the pagan festival of Mithra, a god who was born in a similar story. Another is that it was believed that prophets died on the same day of the year that they were conceived. Assuming the death of Jesus was on March 25, then he would have been conceived on March 25; thus, he was born on December 25.
Holidays never wind up as desired by those who initiate them. They take on aspects of other traditions, either similar or coincidental in time. The Saturnalia was a big Roman holiday around the winter solstice with much feasting and gift giving. These have been attached to the Christmas festivities. Saint Nicholas, of gift-giving fame, died on December 6, 343. In an attempt to revive some of the Dutch history of New York, Washington Irving wrote “Knickerbocker’s History of New York” in which the saintly bishop became an elfin Dutch burgher. See “Saint Nicholas and the Origin of Santa Claus” for more details.
The “codification” of gift-giving in the person of Santa Claus has led to what some call the “commercialization” of Christmas. So what’s new? I looked forward to the toy catalogues over sixty years ago; and boys and girls looked forward to the winter Sears catalogue decades before that. What I find ironic is some of the same people who decry the “commercialization” of Christmas want the government to create more jobs. There certainly are plenty of jobs available at Christmas, and Christmas sales keep many a business afloat for the rest of the year.
If you would like to explore the mythic and religious basis for many of our customs, read The Golden Bough by James George Frazer. If you don’t want to read the twelve volumes of the third edition, read the abridged version by Robert Fraser.
Whatever your thoughts about solstices and religious ceremonies, may the new year bring you health, joy and prosperity.