Just like our ancestors, we’ve been watching the sun get weaker and lower in the sky. Today, just like our ancestors, we hope to see the sun rise a little farther north and the days start to get a little longer. It’s been almost in the 60s so we aren’t looking forward to a stronger, hotter sun. But our ancestors lived in a colder, more northern climate had lots of reason to celebrate this time of year.
The Blue Hole, our favorite swimming hold at Meadowcreek, is still cold since our narrow valley doesn’t get much sun in winter. It doesn’t even get over the tops of the trees at 3 pm. Then it slides behind Angora Mountain at 4. It’s still light till 5:30 or so, so work continues in our greenhouses.
But now we have hit the winter solstice and days are geting longer!
The solstice is an astronomic event on December 21, but it takes a few days to really notice the days get longer. About December 25 is when it really sinks in. Great coincidence that that is Christmas.
I guess it makes sense to celebrate the stolstice if you are a real Naturfreunde, but I think Christmas will do. After all, most of the traditions of Christmas were taken from pagan celebrations of the solstice.
It’s undeniable that the date of Christmas was chosen to offset pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti. Some believe that celebrating the birth of the “true light of the world” was set in synchronization with the December solstice because from that point onwards, the days began to have more daylight in the Northern Hemisphere.
Saturnalian banquets were held from as far back as around 217 BCE. The festival was held to honor Saturn, the father of the gods and was characterized by the suspension of discipline and reversal of the usual order. Grudges and quarrels were forgotten while businesses, courts and schools were closed. Wars were interrupted or postponed and slaves were served by their masters. Masquerades often occurred during this time.
It was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit (a symbol of fertility), dolls (symbolic of the custom of human sacrifice), and candles (reminiscent of the bonfires traditionally associated with pagan solstice celebrations). A mock king was chosen, usually from a group of slaves or criminals, and although he was permitted to behave in an unrestrained manner for seven days of the festival, he was usually killed at the end.
I don’t think we’ll reinstitute that tradition at Meadowcreek. The Saturnalia eventually degenerated into a week-long spree of debauchery and crime – giving rise to the modern use of the tern saturnalia, meaning a period of unrestrained license and revelry. Not exactly what we want at Meadowcreek.
In Poland the ancient December solstice observance prior to Christianity involved people showing forgiveness and sharing food. It was a tradition that can still be seen in what is known as Gody.
In the northwestern corner of Pakistan, a festival called Chaomos, takes place among the Kalasha or Kalash Kafir people. It lasts for at least seven days, including the day of the December solstice. It involves ritual baths as part of a purification process, as well as singing and chanting, a torchlight procession, dancing, bonfires and festive eating.
Many Christians celebrate St Thomas’ Day in honor of St Thomas the Apostle on December 21. In Guatemala on this day, Mayan Indians honor the sun god they worshipped long before they became Christians with a dangerous ritual known as the polo voladore, or “flying pole dance”. Three men climb on top of a 50-foot pole. As one of them beats a drum and plays a flute, the other two men wind a rope attached to the pole around one foot and jump. If they land on their feet, it is believed that the sun god will be pleased and that the days will start getting longer.
The ancient Incas celebrated a special festival to honor the sun god at the time of the December solstice. In the 16th century ceremonies were banned by the Roman Catholics in their bid to convert the Inca people to Christianity. A local group of Quechua in Cusco, Peru, revived the festival in the 1950s. It is now a major festival that begins in Cusco and proceeds to an ancient amphitheater a few miles away.
Yule is also known as Alban Arthan and was one of the “Lesser Sabbats” of the Wiccan year in a time when ancient believers celebrated the rebirth of the Sun God and days with more light. This took place annually around the time of the December solstice and lasted for 12 days. The Lesser Sabbats fall on the solstices and equinoxes.
The idea of Santa Claus may have come from the story of the first shamans who were said to climb high into the upper worlds and return with gifts of wisdom and prophecies.
No matter where the traditions came from, we will have fun celebrating Christ’s birthday, seeing long lost relatives, and burning some logs in the fire place.
Santa lovers might read about Tony Van Renterghem’s research in When Santa Was a Shaman. You might also like Phyllis Siefker’s Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years