Celebrate the Winter Solstice? You probably do!
The Winter Solstice is December 21, bringing with it a different significance to many people. An American school child may remember that it is the shortest day of the year, the first day of winter. To the ancients it was the most powerful day of the year, of great astrological significance. Pagans did (and still do) view it as a day for celebrating renewal. The early Christian church saw it as an enemy to be conquered.
To be sure, they did conquer it. In fact, the church was so successful at overtaking the pagan customs, and wrapping them in new clothes, that you may celebrate the Winter Solstice and not even know it! The following Christmas traditions are, in fact, lifted wholesale from various Winter Solstice celebrations.
- Gift giving:
Although Christians give gifts to represent the gift that God gave his people (Jesus), the Romans gave winter gifts long before Christmas was started. The Roman holiday of Sigillaria was celebrated by giving children rings and seals.
Burning a yule log was seen by the Scandinavians as a way to fight off the cold and dark, as well as to bring good luck. Oak represents the waxing (or, coming) solar year, and holly represents the waning (or, closing) solar year.
The Scandinavians are also responsible for bringing us the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. In Norse mythology, the god of evil (Loki), gave the god of winter (Hoder) an arrow made from mistletoe. He used the arrow to kill the god of the summer sun (Balder). His mother was so happy that she kissed everyone who passed under the tree. Her tears of joy became the berries on the plant.
Candles are used symbolically for Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa celebrations. It is a custom started by the Romans, who lit candles to convince the sun to shine again and to ward off evil.
Christmas celebrations often include bells—ranging from bold church bells in steeples to tiny silver bells on shoes. This idea came from Pagan celebrations, which were noisy affairs, including bells and other noisemakers intended to frighten away evil spirits.
Christmas trees and other greenery:
Germanic cultures celebrated the solstice by lighting an evergreen, the “tree of life”. The Romans decorated their homes with green plants, as did European pagans, believing their magic powers enabled them to live when other things died. Many Christians use evergreens as a symbol of eternal life.
In Europe, many pagan cultures constructed megaliths as part of Winter Solstice worship. Although Stonehenge is NOT likely a place of worship for the solstice, it is the best-known example of this type of engineering. One place in Ireland, known as Newgrange, was built for this purpose. It is so perfectly aligned that even thousands of years later, the rising winter solstice sun shines through a “key hole” and down a passageway to illuminate an engraving (the triple spiral) on an upturned stone. Nothing in contemporary religious celebrations mimics this feat. And since they could not integrate this aspect of winter celebration into their culture, the medieval church simply ignored these ruins and let them fall into obscurity.
Of course, many non-religious people continue to enjoy Winter Solstice festivities today. Do you celebrate the solstice? Whether it is instead of or in addition to a modern religious holiday—tell us how!