When I wake up briefly in the middle of the night, as we old folks tend to do for you know what, it’s always a guessing game what time it is. The first time I awoke was around 2 a.m. and the second time, it was still almost as dark. I was ready to guess 4:30 and then discovered it was 6:45! And then I remembered—today is the shortest day of the year.
The Winter Solstice is on Dec. 21st this year (sometimes it’s the 22nd), a day when the night is the longest and the day is the shortest. Solstice means “sun stands still,” for from our perspective, it appears to me moving in one direction as the days grow shorter between June and December and then for one moment, “stands still” and then starts going (or rather, appears to) in the other direction as the days gradually lengthen until they hit the Summer Solstice.
Before the rise of monotheism, most major celebrations had to do with the cycles of nature and it is no coincidence that early Christians decided the Jesus was born on December 25th. I don’t think they found a birth certificate in the manger or had records stored in files at City Hall back then and the date is never mentioned in the Bible. But as they proceeded north and trying to convince those pagan folks that Jesus was their guy, they cleverly chose a birthday close to the solstice festivities and began to meld the traditions. After all, Joseph and Mary didn’t kiss under the mistletoe, the Three Kings didn’t bring ornaments for the Christmas tree, no reindeer, elves and jolly fat men dashed through snow and down chimneys to deliver Nikes and Nintendos.
The first recorded Christmas celebration was in 336 and it was Pope Julius the 1st who first proclaimed it a holiday, a time to celebrate Christ with an evening Mass (hence, Christ-mas).
Until Medieval times, Easter was a much more important holiday, with Resurrection as the central tenet of Christianity. My theory is that the thousand years called the Dark Ages, of which we know very little (name five important events from that period! Go!) was somewhat uninspired partly because of the one-sided Patriarchal Masculine stranglehold that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost had on the collective psyche. Somewhere in the Middle Ages, Mary, a very minor figure in the Bible, ascended to new stature, bringing the feminine element into the mix. Now Cathedrals like Notre Dame (Our Lady) were built, paintings of Mary and Jesus proliferated and the story of the Virgin Birth moved to the top of the best-seller list. The innocence of the baby and the tenderness of the mother humanized the whole mythology, made it more easy to relate to and unleashed a tidal wave of art, music, poetry and literature.
Some early Christmas traditions like caroling and modest gift-giving began in the late Middle Ages, though more attention was usually paid (and until recently, still was in many countries) to Three Kings Day on January 6th, 12 days after Christmas. During the reformation, the festivities of gifts and feasting was frowned upon by those dour Calvinists and such and it wasn’t until the early 1800’s that Christmas began to make a comeback in the Western world. Santa officially joined the party with the popularity of Clement C. Moore’s Night Before Christmas poem, a century later, Rudolph and Frosty joined the story and from an obscure 2,000 year old story about an unusual birth in a barn, we evolved to the Black Friday Walmart Trample.
Meanwhile, the Solstice holds steady and at 2:23 today (some sources said 5:23pm or 10:23), we will reach the zenith of our darkness and begin the long walk back toward the light. Being the imaginative creatures we are, we tie our hopes of the moral and spiritual return to the light (aided by Robert Mueller) to the physical. May it be so!!