Celebrating the Winter Solstice From the Beginning of Time

IMG_0654Last Friday I brought a Yule Log over to my brother’s house for dinner. I saw it at The Fresh Market, and it looked particularly decadent. I’m not eating sugar, but I know everyone else is, and I’m always the dessert gal. Who am I to break with tradition? My sister-in-law Sharon asked what the word “Yule” meant?

Yule or Yuletide (“Yule time”) is a religious festival observed by the historical Germanic peoples, later undergoing Christianised reformulation resulting in, the now better known, Christmastide. The earliest references to Yule are by way of indigenous Germanic month namesÆrra Jéola (Before Yule) or Jiuli and Æftera Jéola (After Yule). Scholars have connected the celebration to the Wild Hunt, the god Odin and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Modranicht.

We laughed about us serving this dish named after a pagan festival in their Christian home. I’ve been confused and conflicted over Christmas and its celebration for many years. There’s the guilt-producing admonition to put ‘Jesus back in the season’ or ‘The real reason for the season’. As a Christian, I was raised to believe that Christmas is the celebration of Christ’s birth. Imagine my surprise as an older adult when I read that Jesus was probably born in the fall. In fact, the Christmas celebration that we have is peppered with pagan festival customs like decorating trees, giving gifts, symbols like holly and ivy and feasting and drinking. The true origins of Christmas are much more complicated than it first appears.

It seems that most cultures in the world have some sort of feasting, drinking and celebrating around the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. My friend Gerry reminded me yesterday that it is the time of year that is the ending of the darkness, and the beginning of the light. Isn’t that an appropriate time to schedule Jesus’s birthday? For isn’t that what He means to the Christian religion and world? Some man – for I’m sure women didn’t have a voting voice back in 4 A.D. when Christmas is recorded to have started – probably had a great case for suggesting that Christmas be an option for Christians to opt out of the pagan festivals. Why not have their own?

According to a blog on religioustolerance.org, the United States is considered to be the most religiously diverse nation in the world. With the majority (75%) identifying with Christianity, they say conflict is perfectly normal during this time. They also say that there are three different ways that people view other religions and their celebrations.

  1. Some love the diversity of celebrations and see the winter solstice as a time when most cultures have adopted their own ways of becoming spiritually connected. They see the diversity as a positive.
  2. Others acknowledge only their beliefs and celebrations as valid. They see diversity as something they need to change.
  3. Still others see all celebrations as the spawn of Satan. They see diversity as evil.

I probably fall into that first camp. I see the holidays that are upon us as a celebration of humankind and of the cyclical nature of our seasons – both natural and innate. I’m curious about Hanukkah, Kwanza, other cultures’ celebration of Christmas and winter solstice celebrations. I am sympathetic that not everyone is a Christian, and I respect that the world doesn’t revolve around me and my particular belief system. I’ve never had a problem with saying Happy Holidays nor do I care if others say anything but Merry Christmas to me. If someone wishes me well, who cares what language it’s in.

I particularly love the idea of the winter solstice celebration. One pagan solstice celebration included ‘banishing’ ceremonies that encouraged people to let go of bad habits and addictions. It reminds me of our habit of making New Year’s resolutions. Whether I make them or not,  I sit down on New Year’s Day and write goals for the year and begin to look forward to what’s next. Since I’ve had the luxury of spending many holidays alone, the holidays are a time of reflection for me. If I don’t have some down time to reflect, journal and rest, I feel like I’ve missed the reason for the season.

In times before electricity, we rose and retired with the sun. In the winter, the harvest season was over, and it was a time where families had more downtime. Chores reflected the art of preparation rather than of doing. I can only imagine when we were ruled by the weather and seasons – not inconvenienced by them – that our bodies reacted like other animals in nature. We treat SAD like it’s a disease, but maybe it’s a sign that it is time to hibernate like the bears. Perhaps the winter is a time to slow down, enjoy the darkness, spend time with family and yourself and ponder. Instead of our winter celebrations being a time of reflection and celebration, we turn them into work. Maybe depression is a sign that we haven’t taken the time we need to flow with the current.

I love my friends’ reminder about the Winter Solstice being the end of the darkness and the beginning of the light. If I was truly living with the seasons like my ancestors, I can see where this would be a huge celebration. The sun was so important then. It’s ‘turn-around’ on December 20 would be a significant event that promises more energy, possibly prosperity and most of all hope. Call me pagan or a heathen if you want, but I think that is the reason for the season. Yes, for us Christians, the symbol of that is the birth of Christ. But, his birth is not the only symbol of hope and rebirth this time of year. The fact that people all over the world celebrate this wonderful time of year with hope, love and joy in their own way is a cause for a holiday celebration. Perhaps one day we can unite to celebrate our love for humankind regardless of our differences, our faith and our beliefs. That would truly be the beginning of the light.

For all of my readers out there, and I know I have readers all over the world, I wish you the happiest of all holiday seasons – no matter who you worship or what you believe. And please take some time to reflect and ponder. That’s positive energy that we all need much more than sugar and booze. I think It would change the world.

Article on Holiday Celebrations from religioustolerance.org

11 thoughts on “Celebrating the Winter Solstice From the Beginning of Time

  1. I love teaching my students about Saturnalia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturnalia), a Roman festival honoring Saturn that culminates on the winter solstice. Early Christians in Rome adopted Dec 25th for Christmas, so converts wouldn’t lose the festival they so loved. Saturnalia is where we get caroling (the Romans went door to door naked and sang lusty songs), tree decorating (usually with suns, moons, stars, and the doubleheaded Janus), and even gingerbread men (they used to begin the festival with human sacrifice. At some point they stopped and instead had everyone eat human shaped baked goods). I also heard that Jesus was born in the spring because that’s when shepherds are out with their flocks because that’s when they lamb, but I have no idea. Anyway, Merry Christmas!

  2. Fantastic blog, as usual, and good comments – I love the info about Saturnalia! I personally like the terms this time of year: Seasons Greetings! Joy! Peace on Earth! I just read a great NYT article about taking God out of ritual. It echoed how I feel about religion and ritual. I love the sense of community, singing and intellectual discussion. I can send it to you if you’re interested. Merry Christmas!

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