Humans in general don't care much for darkness. We don't see as well in the dark, so it's more dangerous for us, and if there's too much of it, we get depressed. So having a festival of some kind at the winter solstice, when the hours of daylight begin getting longer again, is common to many cultures and traditions, no matter how it's framed. (The Egyptians knew about the solstice; the temple of the sun god Amun at Karnak aligns with the sun like this on solstice morning. It's one of many sun-aligned Egyptian structures.)
The Roman solstice festival of Saturnalia was a huge deal that went on for a week:
The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves.The Romans also decorated with evergreens and kept their lamps burning.
There's general agreement that Jesus wasn't very likely to have been born in December; that's not a time shepherds are out watching over their flocks by night in that part of the world, for one thing. But since the Christian church was quite interested in converting European pagans, and they were accustomed to celebrating the solstice, Jesus's "official" birthday moved to December 25 around the fourth century.
The word "Yule", now used by Wiccans and some other pagans to designate the winter solstice, is from the Old Norse/Old English word, originally meaning the whole midwinter season, but narrowed in Christian times to mean the 12-day feast surrounding the Nativity. The name of the Christian holiday didn't change to "Christmas" until the 11th century (so merry Yule, Bill O'Reilly!)
I imagine that Christians get tired of hearing about all the modern Christmas customs that are pagan in origin, like the tree and other evergreens, the holly and ivy and mistletoe, the circular wreaths, the candles and the fires with special logs. But, like the returning-light holiday itself, the original meanings of those things are both appropriate to Christmas and universal in appeal. Evergreens, and the other greens that keep well after cutting, are symbolic of immortality, and the circle, of eternity. Mistletoe, in particular, was thought to have divine properties (the ritual of kissing beneath it arose in connection with its use in promoting fertility. It was also used to ward off evil and, in particular, lightning.)
More below the orange garland.
For modern Wiccans, Yule is a celebration of the gradual return of light, symbolized by the mother goddess giving birth to her divine son. This new god is the Oak King, god of the waxing sun, and by his arrival, he defeats the aged Holly King, god of the waning sun, and drives him away until the summer solstice.
In this dark time of year, we will rest and renew ourselves as the earth is renewing itself, and reflect on the new seasons to come. Most of us aren't living an agrarian life now, and so our lives don't quiet down in these dark months -- we need to take the time for rest and reflection, whether or not our lives want to let us. It's more important than ever that we do so. Our ability to keep everything lighted up and running 24/7 is both useful and pernicious.
I have two more things to say. One is, for those who are disappointed that this post is more about Yule and not so much about the astronomical solstice, have a look at this fabulous composite photo. An analemma is the figure traced by the sun in the sky in a particular spot over the course of a year. That is, if you set up a camera in the exact same spot every day and photographed the sun at the exact same time, it would not always be in the same place, but would describe a shape like this. The winter solstice position is the low point, and the summer solstice, the high. More, plus bigger image, at the link!
The other is, the modern secular winter holiday that the US observes and calls "Christmas" (both confusing and disappointing those on the right who think they own it) is about many things. It's a mashup of lots of traditions, as it should be in a country composed, for good or ill, mostly of people from elsewhere. It's unfortunate, to say the least, that so much effort is expended to make it be about acquisitiveness. It's obvious from which stories are our favorites that that's not what's in most people's hearts. On this website especially, I don't so much have to say it, but I will anyway: the message of this holiday, the one we should hold onto all year, is stamped clearly on the stack of disposable roasting pans in your nearest supermarket.
Kitchen Table Kibitzing is a community series for those who wish to share part of their evening around a virtual kitchen table with kossacks who are caring and supportive of one another. So bring your stories, jokes, photos, funny pics, music, interesting videos, and so forth. We would also appreciate links—including quotations—to diaries, news stories, and books that you think this community would appreciate.
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