Monday, December 26, 2005

Merry Winter Solstice!

Christmas may now be over, but with Bill O’Reilly’s “war on Christmas”, I thought now would be a good time for a little history lesson to begin.

What exactly are we celebrating during Christmas? Gift-giving? Mistletoe? The birth of Jesus?

The Christian faith pronounces Christmas as “the mass of Christ” (thus the name of the holiday), a celebration of Jesus’ birth. But is there any historical, much less biblical evidence that Jesus was born on December 25th, much less during that time of year?

In the Gospel, the book of Luke gives the most detail of the birth of Jesus’ and his early childhood, and I have personally found nothing which would indicate what time of year Jesus was born. The book of Luke, Chapter 2 states:
The angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
But there’s nothing about what month or day this took place. So why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25th ?

The first scholarly text showing the practice of December 25th as Christmas was in the Roman Empire in the year 325 A.D. The practice had been first decreed by Emperor Aurelian in 274 A.D. However, a celebration around December 25th had been taken place for centuries prior.

Winter Solstice comes around every December 21st , marking the shortest day of the year. Solstice, coming from the Latin words “sol” (sun) and “sistere” (to make stand still), in the Winter was a celebration to call the sun back to give new life for the next year. Yes, Christmas originated as a form of Sun Worship.

Before it was Christmas, the Romans called it Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. The ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia was practiced, a holiday named after the god Saturn, who ruled over agriculture. Typically Saturnalia was celebrated for 7 days, giving praise to Saturn after the crops had been sown. It was considered the greatest holiday of the year. Work was suspended, schools were closed, the army rested, criminals were not executed, homes were decorated, and friends would visit one another bringing good-luck gifts to each other. Lamps and fires were kept burning to ward off the spirits of darkness, and evergreen trees were decorated, to celebrate their life and strength, which remained green throughout the winter months.

But the Romans weren’t the only ones celebrating Winter Solstice. In Scandinavia, which was still pagan, the people celebrated the winter festival of Yule. Yule logs were burned throughout the night, it believed to have a magical effect to help the sun shine more brightly. If the fire burned out, it was considered bad luck, and the next year would bring trouble. Mistletoe, which grew on the most sacred oak tree, was cut in ceremony and hung in doorways for good luck. Hanging it in rooms was an offer of goodwill to visitors and kissing was a pledge of friendship.

But the Scandinavians weren’t alone either. In Ancient Greece the Winter Solstice celebration was called Lenaea, the Festival of the Wild Women! On this day, the harvest god Dionysus (represented by a man) was torn to pieces and eaten by a gang of women, and the ritual would conclude with Dionysos being reborn as a child. Human sacrifice was eventually replaced with the killing of a goat.

But Europeans weren’t the only ones celebrating the Winter Solstice. In Iran Shabe-Yalda is celebrated. The celebration of Yalda, which predates Islam, originated in the Zoroastrian faith. The name of Yalda refers to the rebirth of the sun, a celebration where people gather at home all night to tell stories and eat pomegranates, while bonfires are lit outside.

But Westerners weren’t the only ones celebrating this time of year either. The Native Americans celebrated Winter Solstice as well. The Pueblos observed Winter Solstice rites, praying for the rebirth of vegetation. The Hopi celebrated 20 days of Soyal which included purification rituals, feasts and blessings. The Chumash celebrated Winter Solstice as well for several days. The Incas celebrated a festival of the sun, honoring the sun god Wiracocha. The celebration continues today by the Quecia Indians in Cusco, Peru. And in Vermont a 20 acre sized stone amphitheatre was built centuries ago by native peoples. In the center of the structure a series of vertical rocks are formed, shining a shadow onto the side, which has notches set to mark the Winter Solstice.

Celebrations of Winter Solstice predates the Christian faith by thousands of years, by peoples all over the globe. It’s origins have nothing to do with Christianity. It has been a celebration of life and rebirth, of giving and good times, of feasts and wishing goodwill onto others. Is that not the real meaning of Christmas? Or should the holiday be simply reserved for getting into somebody’s face and screaming at them when they say “Happy Holidays”? You can be sure that in a year’s time, Bill O’Reilly will have the answer for you.


Blogger M A F said...

With regards to Bill O'Reilly, I have his letter of resignation. All it needs is his signature.

3:51 PM  

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