The holiday season is fast upon us. For some it means a man in a red suit. For some it means a boy in a manger. For some it means free toys. It means a lot of things to a lot of people. Yet the more I think about it, the more it seems like it means the same thing to everyone, in a way.
Roundabouts the 20th or 21st of December comes the winter solstice, the point when the Earth’s orbit and rotation and whatnot make for the longest night of the year. It’s cold and it may yet get colder, but tomorrow will be brighter as the new year dawns. Most folks fit their various celebrations in a space stretching from late November through early January with a wide variety of reasons for the season.
Christmas needs little introduction, especially in the States where its so widespread as to be celebrated even by other religions and secular folks. It’s a time to gather for friends food and fellowship, and as with most holidays it’s a good time to give gifts. For Christians it’s actually a two-parter. The four preceeding weeks are the season of Advent, a time to meditate on waiting through the long dark night for the light at the end of the tunnel, symbolic of the Jewish peoples’ long wait and preparation for a savior to re-open the way to heaven. Following right after is the big day of course, starting off twelve days of Christmas to celebrate light returning to the world.
Speaking as a Christian I think it’s a neat little parallel that Jesus preached goodwill to people from every walk of life, and the modern Christmas season seems to have a little something from many of the big name solstice celebrations. Biblical historians place Jesus’ birth sometime in the summer, but it’s celebrated around the solstice both for the above reasons and to make for an easier fit with people wanting to convert.
Rather than weigh you down with a big history lesson I’m just gonna give you the cliffnotes version. Wikipedia’s right next door for the more detailed stuff. And we’re off.
Roughly two and a half millenia ago Zoroastrianism was one of the biggest religions in the world. Around solstice time they celebrated the rebirth of the sun and the victory of Ahura Mazda (the sun and other good guys) over Ahriman (darkness, evil, etc.). 7th century Japan had a similar gig with sun goddess Amaterasu being coaxed out of her cave to restore sunlight to the world. (Bet you want to take another look at Prince of Persia ’08 and Okami now.)
In the 3rd century Roman Empire held a solstice tradition called Sol Invictus (undefeated sun), broadly covering numerous similar religious figures like the above including Elah-Gabal (Syrian), Mithras (Persian), and later Jesus. Sounds like a pretty cool idea to me, having everyone come together to each celebrate the sun’s return in their own way.
Just a little further back we have Saturnalia, choc full of gift-giving and revelry for the elite and the common man alike. Here we also saw the tradition of decorating a tree, though it wasn’t until it melded with Germanic traditions that the trees were brought indoors. Said tradition of Yule inspired more than a few modern Christmas traditions such as burning a big yule log in the fireplace, having a great big yule boar (a.k.a. Christmas ham), and singing yuletide carols (which is what’s going on when people go a-wassailing).
Pagan and wiccan festivals often revolve around revering life, love, and the natural world. From these origins we have the practices of hanging festive wreathes and decking the halls with boughs of holly. The holly in the hall, the wreath on the door, and the evergreen tree in (or out in front of) the house all have something in common; no matter how long and cold and dark the night gets life keeps on going.
It’s increasingly common knowledge that very little of what we think of as modern Christmas tradition is unique to Christianity. I for one think maybe that’s not such a bad thing. A symbol can belong to many people at once and hold a unique special meaning for every one of them.
Let’s make this the last year people complain about the ‘war on Christmas’. Let’s celebrate our common traditions and join in fellowship with our fellow man, all the world waiting for the sunrise. Decorate a tree, hang a wreath, bake a big ham, swap gifts, and enjoy some fellowship via your winter holiday of choice. If you haven’t got one of your own find a friend who does and join in; can’t go wrong with friends fun and food.
Whatever your reason for the season, however you and yours want to celebrate it, happy holidays from the Paladin’s Post.