Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Solstice, Christmas and Yule celebration



I was assigned to write an "event" story for the paper, and since there wasn't much of anything going on that hadn't already been covered, I wrote one on the winter solstice, which turned out to be fascinating, at least for me, who knew just the basic fact, that it's the longest night of the year.

The winter solstice will arrive at 7:42 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 21, marking the beginning of winter. It's the day of the year with the shortest amount of daylight between sunrise and sunset -- the longest night of the year.

In these parts, the sun will rise at 7:14 a.m. and set at 5:31 p.m. on Dec. 21, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. You can go to their Applications Department, plug in your geographic coordinates, and get the exact time in your neck of the woods.

The winter solstice occurs when the earth tilts in its rotation so the northern hemisphere is farthest away from the sun's light and warmth. South of the equator, the seasons are reversed, and the summer solstice is celebrated on Dec. 21.

Solstice means "sun stands still," as the sun appears to slow down, then hover at the same, unchanging elevation in the sky from day to day, as the solstice approaches.

According to the Naval Observatory, the "season" of the winter solstice actually began Dec. 7, with the year's earliest sunset occurring on that day, at 5:27 p.m. locally. Because the time of sunrise is still moving later in the morning, the latest sunrise won't occur until January 5.

The Naval Observatory site waxed eloquent over the season, saying, "The longest nights of the season are populated by a beautiful collection of bright stars which can now be seen rising majestically in the east in the late evening. The distinctive figure of Orion, with his three prominent 'belt' stars, leads a parade of bright constellations over the eastern horizon. Nine of the sky's 25 brightest stars lie in the vicinity of Orion, and this year a tenth interloper brings up the rear guard."

The astronomical meaning of the solstice is only part of the story.

Celebrations of the winter solstice began in prehistory, and traditions from pre-Christian Germanic and Scandinavian observances remain with us today.

Imagine a Northern European, thousands of years ago, watching the nights becoming longer and feeling the days turning colder, as the sun appeared to move farther and farther away in the sky. It seemed as though the sun would finally disappear -- go away forever.

Finally, the sun reached it most distant point. Daylight pierced the darkness for mere hours, if at all. Then came the return of the light, with longer days and shorter nights, promising spring and the rebirth of life, despite the winter months to come.

A feast marked this turning point. It was called "Yule," from the Norse Yul, meaning "wheel," when the the wheel of the year was at its lowest point. Current customs, such as serving ham, came from the Yule feast, when it was customary to serve a roasted, wild boar. "Yule" also means "Christmas" in Scandanavian countries.

Other traditions persist.

Evergreen trees and shrubs, symbolizing rebirth and life amid the winter whiteness, were prized. The prickly holly was particularly sought to decorate openings to the home -- doors, windows and fireplaces -- to ward off or snag and capture evil spirits.

Gift-giving was important, and often meant survival. Gifts were usually food items given by those who still had stored-up food to those friends and family who were running short. The Yule feast ensured that everyone had something to eat, as well. Later, gift-giving incorporated other sorts of items.

Mistletoe, also called the golden bough or Allheal, was prized by the ancient Celts and Norsemen for its healing properties. It was also the plant of peace in Scandinavian antiquity, and if enemies should meet by chance beneath it in a forest, they laid down their arms in truce until the next day. Kissing under the mistletoe was popularized in England.

So how did all these pre-Christian, Northern European customs become part of the Christian celebration of Christmas?

First, note the time Christmas is celebrated -- Dec. 25 -- right around the time of the winter solstice, though the Bible gives no date for the birth of Christ.

Dec. 25 was marked as the "Victory of the Sun-God" festival in the pagan Babylonian world, and as a celebration of the Festival of Saturn (Saturnalia), or winter solstice, in the ancient Roman Empire. The ancients believed that the sun god rose from the dead three days after his death, which would have occurred on the solstice, as the newborn and venerable sun.

In the fourth century, under the Emperor Constantine, who wanted to convert these pagans to Christianity as part of his Holy Roman Empire, Pope Julius 1 decreed Dec. 25 as the celebration of Christ's birth. Converting the holiday to a Christian one was reckoned a good way to convert the people to Christianity. It was an easy fit, with Christ a "son-god" who rose from the dead after three days. Like the Northern Europeans, the Romans also used evergreens in their rituals.

When the Germanic and Scandivanian people were introduced to Christianity, their symbols of life, death, rebirth and eternal life came with them into the Christian tradition, and evergreen wreaths, Christmas trees, holly, gift-giving and Yule logs are part of most European and North American Christmas celebrations.

The Puritans objected to the "Christianization" of a pagan celebration and its traditions, such as Christmas trees and reveling, which they considered not Christian at all. They managed to outlaw the celebration of Christmas for a few years in England and its New World colonies in the late 17th century. Some groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, still do not celebrate Christmas.

But, Yule-log lighting ceremonies celebrate the season in many places, ironically, including a local university with a "Christian" history, held Dec. 7, the beginning of the winter solstice season.

The lighting of the Yule log brings light into the dark of the long, winter night, which has meaning in both Christian and pagan traditions.

"It's a symbol of light and life," said the university president, in his welcoming remarks, adding that the ceremony brings together people of different faiths.

Christ was the light and life who came into the world, defeating the darkness. It is meaningful to me that so many religious traditions have the same thrust, of light, life, promise and rebirth after death.

Celebrants gathered around the burning Yule log, and after singing Christmas carols, threw holly sprigs, representing the sins of the past year, into the fire, combining these traditions.

Hot chocolate and pastries replaced the festival dinner of wild boar.

One of the university professors, explaining the Yule log tradition, said, "We link ourselves to generations and generations who came before us to beat back the night."

The circle of another year, the earth's complete rotation around the sun, and the tilting of the earth on its axis to bring the longest night, is complete again. It's Christmas time once more.

Christ, the light of the world, is coming. He will come again.

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