This year, the Winter Solstice occurs tonight just before midnight. It is an auspicious moment for Northern Hemispherians. For the past few months, the days have been getting shorter and the nights longer. The solstice marks the day of longest night. On subsequent days, daylight begins to return with its promise of eventual springtime.
That astronomical pattern is not lost on us. We use the solstice to mark the beginning of winter. In more northern climes, where cold weather begins earlier, the solstice marks midwinter.
Many ancient cultures measured the timing of the Winter Solstice with careful precision. The early months of winter often meant starvation and death. The sun had seemed to desert them. The return of the sun meant eventual salvation from winter’s harsh realities.
As a result, most cultures in our hemisphere have some solstice celebration or another. Christmas is a prime example.
In fact, many of our Christmas traditions predate Christianity to ancient solstice celebrations. The early Christians were clever propagandists. When they made their move into a new region of the world, they often adopted a few harmless customs of the old celebrations. As a result, their beliefs were more palatable to practitioners of the older religious traditions.
Ever wonder why we cut down an evergreen and carry it indoors during the holiday season? Ancient Germanic cultures believed that a tree spirit inhabited the evergreen. Rapping on its bark would release the spirit and bring prosperity to the dwelling. We “knock on wood” to this very day to get the same kind of good luck.
Christianity celebrates the birth of its savior near the solstice, but the timing seems odd. At the birth of Jesus, shepherds were “abiding with their flocks.” In the Middle East, shepherds would most likely do so in the spring when the new lambs were born. The shepherds would stand guard all night to protect the helpless babes from attack by hungry predators.
So why do we celebrate Christmas near the Winter Solstice? As Christianity spread through Rome, the church elders were likely looking for a Christmas date to replace another solstice celebration – the infamous Saturnalia.
Around the Winter Solstice, Romans honored Saturn, the Titan who fathered some of the gods, including Jupiter, the king of the gods. During the Saturnalia, Rome went through a reversal of cultural roles. Masters became slaves and slaves masters. Old grudges were forgotten, and the law courts were closed. Notably, gifts were exchanged, a practice we continue to this day.
By the time of the growing Christian Church, criminal acts had become common and debauchery rampant during the Saturnalia. Christians were looking for a replacement, and what better one existed than the celebration of the birth of an innocent child who would go on to save the world?
We still sometimes call Christmas “Yuletide.” The name derives from the Scandinavian solstice celebration of Juul. When Europeans place a Yule log on the fire, they reproduce the old Norse custom of lighting bonfires to symbolize the returning sun. A log was brought inside and burned on the hearth to appease Thor, the god of storms, and diminish the harshness of the winter months after the solstice.
Christianity even recognizes the ancient practice of astrology. The Magi ask in Matthew: “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”
The Magi may have seen an auspicious close alignment of planets – most likely Venus and Jupiter as they appeared in 7 BCE – and thus recognized from that portent the birth of the Jewish messiah.
From there, the events become astronomically miraculous: “ … and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”
Now, I don’t mean to sound irreligious here. To their credit, Christians incorporate the best of the religious and cultural practices that surround the solstice. They seem to recognize that long before the birth of their savior, people looked up at the sky in search of succor in a world that begs for answers.
Long ago, the Druids stood among the giant rocks of England’s Stonehenge and watched the sun set on the solstice as the longest night of the year began. They perhaps prayed that the days would lengthen, and after a cold, dark time, the cycle of life would begin again. They must have known in their heart of hearts that their prayers would be answered.
Like the Magi, we have always looked to the heavens for a sign of hope in a seemingly hopeless world. Like the Druids, we look up and know that even during the coldest and darkest times, the sun will return and bring with it the promise of spring.
And thus I wish you a wondrous solstice in whatever way you mark its passage. May you, like the Romans, exchange gifts and, far more importantly, forgive old grudges. May you, like the people of the far north, warm your souls in the iridescent glow of a burning Yule log. May you, like the Magi, have occasion to rejoice “with exceeding great joy.”
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.