We are quickly approaching the shortest day of the year, a day celebrated throughout history as a moment of mystical and religious awe, the Winter Solstice. Although it may seem like a rather depressing moment, the day with the shortest amount of light, the longest night of the year–December 21–the Winter Solstice is in fact one of the best moments of the year: it is the first signs of the eventual spring, for after today the days will start to become longer. Slowly but surely, and over a period of a few months, more and more light will gently descend into our world, and warmth will eventually overcome the chill and frost of winter. The subsequent rebirth of all of nature will only be the final flowering of such blessed light and warmth.
But until that time, still seemingly and painfully far off, we must live through the dark days of Winter. This can be difficult, especially during the gloomy days of late January and early February. Still, the Winter Solstice and the celebrations associated with it are a time of the year to help us prepare for those worst days to come.
What I particularly enjoy about the Solstice is the physical and cultural play of light and darkness, best represented by the Christmas Holiday, and particularly expressed by the Catholic season of Advent. A roughly thirty day period, Advent is that part of the liturgical year which anticipates, and then celebrates in the feast of Christmas, the birth of Christ. Most of our Christmas traditions, at least in the West, are in some way the product of this ancient Catholic season. Various cultures throughout different times and periods have each contributed to what today is the conglomeration of all our Christmas decor, from Christmas gifts to trees, lights, ornaments, and some of the most beautiful music ever created (not to mention, of course, all the delicious food and feasting).
And yet this season itself was originally part of the pagan, pre-Christian world of Roman and other religions or cultures. The solstice, for those societies that understood the astronomy behind the day, has always been celebrated as a day of importance. Despite whatever religious or cultural significance was eventually attributed to this time, it is in effect a celebration of the shortest day and the longest night of the year. I have always found the simple, basic nature of this celebration, the continuation of what must be a very ancient sense of wonder of the natural world around us, something which was celebrated even in neolithic times, fascinating.
There is just something about the play of light and darkness at this time of the year. The artificial display of lights in Christmas decorations on different homes, throughout neighborhoods and businesseses only adds to the ancient charm. Who has not enjoyed the different displays, sometimes quite elaborate if not downright gaudy, that people present this time of the year? I particularly enjoy lights that are big and colorful, those old fashioned Christmas bulbs that are fat and thick and filled with a multiplicity of wonderful colors. At a time when the world is becoming more and more gray, cold and cloudy, such lights are soothing to the soul. The sun is low in the sky, often a cloudy sky, and the few beams of light that seem to trickle through the greyish welkin do little to lift our spirits. The wonderful display of Christmas lights helps to relieve this burden of what is during winter a dull and lifeless world.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language is Christmas Eve. What wonderful connotations this has for those fortunate enough to have grown up in a world where gift giving and family ties are important. It is true that many people have not been fortunate enough to enjoy such a blessed time, but that does not negate the basic joy of such a night. Even for those who do not celebrate Christmas or believe in Christ, this is still a time of the year of holiday, freedom from work, and general merriment. Everyone can enjoy Christmas regardless of their own personal beliefs. And then of course there is always the best expression of the meaning of Christmas Eve ever created, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which is still as strong a staple among all the Christmas entertainment this time of year as ever.
And it all goes back to this ancient, primordial celebration of the Winter Solstice. What is it about man that he feels the need to express in some religious way these basic movements of nature? After all, as we all know, the Solstice is only a shift of the Earth, a movement that is can seem little more than a fundamental law of nature, devoid of any meaning beyond the physical. And yet we still endow this time with great religious significance. Why?
I don’t have the answer, except to say that it is part of our innate need to find some beauty in the world, some sense of the Divine and beauty inherent in that, and to celebrate such beauty as a way to bring meaning into our often chaotic existence. The need for beauty is one of the most powerful, and often underappreciated elements in man’s nature. Whether we express this through the religious ritual of Christmas, or just an appreciation of the ancient pagan roots of the Winter Solstice, we continue, in all our modern technological sophistication and arrogance, to be the elemental creatures of nature that we have always been for tens of thousands of years.