Have you ever wondered what an evergreen tree decorated with ornaments and lights, a jolly old man with a great beard and belly wearing a red suit, the exchanging of gifts, and gathering with family and friends over a grande fête have to do with the coming of winter? Surprisingly there are many correlations between these and other traditions that date back to the dawn of mankind.
In the northern hemisphere the sun reaches its southern most point on the horizon between December 21 and 22 each year after six months of steadily traveling south. The actual date is called the Winter Solstice and is the longest night of the year. To the naked eye the sun then rises in the same location on the horizon for three days before it appears to move back northward. The dawn of the third days has been celebrated for eons as the “birth of the sun.”
The prehistoric stone rings found throughout England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland are designed to capture the light of the rising sun on the Winter Solstice and direct it to a center stone or chamber. In ancient Egypt the Winter Solstice was held to be the birth date of the god Ra, whose symbol is the sun. In ancient Rome twelve days were set aside for the Saturnalia festival in honor of the god Saturn and the continuation of life. Since the fourth century current era December 25 has also been honored by Christians as the birth day of the son of god, Jesus of Nazareth. In all the above traditions the central theme is the promise of continuing life at the beginning of the winter season.
To modern people the coming of winter is oft met with apprehension, but nothing akin to the fear ancient man faced when the days grew shorter and the nights longer. When agrarian societies collected the final harvest for the year they knew there would be no provisions other than those they had stored. Add to this the shortened days and the onslaught of snow and one can begin to understand the trepidation with which the coming winter was met. One can also relate to the jubilation felt at dawn of the third day after the Winter Solstice when the sun began to grow in strength and the days lengthen.
To encourage the return of the sun many observances were held. In areas of northern Europe a living evergreen tree, symbolizing everlasting life, was decorated with shiny objects. Candles were placed on the boughs of the tree to simulate the light of the sun. A great log, known as the Yule Log, was set ablaze on the longest night. Candles were left to burn in windows all night. All this was done to entice the sun to return and share its life-giving light.
When all one had to survive the coming winter was what one was able to store, the act of giving away a prized possession was an act of faith. On the eve of the Winter Solstice each person selected something of value to them, wrapped the item in cloth and presented the gift to an elder who was dressed in bright red, the color of life. The old man, usually with a long beard and ample belly, would then distribute the collected gifts to members of the village when everyone was asleep.
At dawn of the third day the village would gather and witness the birth of the sun as it began the long journey north. And although the sun’s light was still weak the people knew there was hope it would grow and return with warmth and life for their village come spring. The villagers would then open the gifts from one another and share in a great feast. The celebrations often continued for another eight days. If we count the solstice day, the three days of anticipation, and the eight days of celebration, we have twelve days of Yule, Christmas, or if you are a Roman, Saturnalia.
Though the true meaning for this time of celebration is claimed by many different peoples and religions, all agree that the Winter Solstice is a time of communal celebration. A time of giving and receiving. A time of sharing. A time of new hope and continued faith in the ever renewing cycle of life.