Happy New Year to all! I apologize that I haven’t been posting lately due to the general craziness that occurs around the holiday that I call The Yuletide. My family is Christian, and I support their celebration of Jesus but do not participate in it. Over the years of debate, we’ve agreed that most of the symbols of ‘Christmas’ are actually pagan in origin, and belong to the secular holiday. This allows us to share the joy of putting up an evergreen tree, giving gifts, decorating with red and green, etc. We both recognize “The light of the world”, as my mother says, only I am celebrating the return of the sun, and she the son.
Regardless of what symbols you use to celebrate, remember that the winter solstice was a holiday that celebrated life after death. In a world without 24 hour grocery, communities only had enough food that they had stored for the winter. There was no more to be had unless you begged from your neighbors who had as little as you did. After the end of the harvest festivals in autumn, there was not much to do beside slaughter the animals and salt down the meat, and collect firewood for the long dark ahead. Everywhere they looked were signs of death. They watched the animals disappear, the plants die and wither away. They worried if the food that was stored during the abundant times was enough to get them through. Snow covered the fields and families bundled together in small huts to sleep where it was warmest next to the fire. Many people died during these hard times.
Ancient agricultural societies watched the stars carefully – they knew every sign, and it was a calendar for them. When they detected the first signs that the sun had stopped sinking in the sky, they held their breath. For three days, the sun seems to freeze in the sky – not going lower, nor higher. By the third day, it rose higher. The first sign of spring!
Each culture celebrated differently, but people in temperate climes brought evergreen boughs inside because the winter’s death didn’t touch these seemingly magical plants. They were symbols of everlasting life. The romans had feasts and gave gifts to their servants, “the less fortunate” among them. The pagan Germans brought whole fir trees into their houses and decorated them with fruit resembling the imagined bountiful times ahead. Later, colonial women made fruit cakes drenched in alcohol, showing off the bounty of nuts and fruit carefully preserved in the summer and autumn. Each family’s fruit cake was a kind of status symbol and thanks to the alcohol, it lasted until spring.
The return of the sun proved to the ancient people that they had not been abandoned by their solar gods; life-giving warmth and the return of the harvest was just around the corner. It promised life after the death that surrounded them and they rejoiced.
In the greatest marketing twist of all time, the early Christians seized upon these traditions, seeing the obvious symbolism in the birth of Christ to the winter solstice. I don’t blame them – it was an ingenious move. But the pagan customs and symbols never really died off – they were repurposed and blended, creating the amalgam of symbols we have today in the holiday of Christmas.
Everyone has a shared agricultural past, and for anyone who deals with the fury of winter, the winter solstice is a celebration that belongs to you. Christians don’t own the decorating of a fir tree, nor the feast, or the fire, or the red and green. Those symbols belong to everyone and everyone is allowed to celebrate. They represent the renewal of hope. In the new year, let’s extend that expectation – just like our ancestors knew that better times do lay ahead, for the future is what we make of it, always.