INTRODUCTION: ANCIENT AND RECENT INFLUENCES
For the members of any culture, it can be easy to take for granted their customs and traditions of today, as if they are now as they have always been and will always remain; but because cultures evolve over the years, this is usually not so. Drawing back the curtains of time can bring to light the formation of a tradition's character -- revealing its origins and tracing its journey through time.
This is the case with celebrations at the time of the Mid-Winter Solstice. Throughout the world and throughout the ages, people have had celebrations at the time of the year's longest night. The power of this time of longest dark miraculously transforming into increasing light has spawned many beliefs and mythologies. All of the celebrations of this time incorporate in some way the idea of and the experience of light. The word "light" is often included in popular name of the holiday, such as the Jewish holiday of "Hanukkah, a Festival of Lights," and the Christian holiday of "Christmas, the Season of Light."
The festivals around this time of year have evolved and changed over time, and the discussion in this article will be about how the holidays of Christmas and New Year came to be in Western cultures. Rather than being the same now as they have always been, the road taken by these holidays has been long, with many twists and turns along the way. As an example, one of these twists was that in 575 AD, Bishop Martin of Bracae in Germany forbade all decorating with evergreens as a dangerous heathen custom. It was hundreds of years before greenery was again seen in churches. Another twist of fate for Christmas was that for a while, its celebration was nearly stamped out: in the 1600's, the Puritans of England prohibited all Christmas festivities, considering them too irreverently joyous. The Puritans who came to New England brought along this attitude about Christmas, which spread to the other colonies also. It wasn't until the 1840's that celebrating Christmas was restored to respectability in England and America. Since then it has developed into the immensely popular holiday it is today.
Tracing the roots of the winter holidays of Christmas and New Year goes back many centuries BC to the ancient tradition of holding seasonal festivals at the eight corners of the year. These eight festivals are the two Solstices or "sun stillness" at the longest and shortest days of the year; the two Equinoxes or "equal nights" when the days and nights are equal; and the four points half-way between the Solstices and Equinoxes: Imbolc (Ground Hogs Day), May Day, Lugnasad (on August 1st), and Samhain (Halloween). These eight seasonal festivals come around in the rhythm of one about every 6 1/2 weeks or so, keeping time with the cycles of the agricultural year. They highlight the ebb and flow of Life on the Earth: fallow time, the Earth beginning to awaken, the sowing of seed, the glory of flowers, flourishing abundance, early harvest, late harvest, then the Earth turning within once again to rest and restore during fallow time.
MID-WINTER SOLSTICE FESTIVALS OF NORTHERN EUROPE
The peoples of England and Scandinavia gave the name Yuletide to their Mid-Winter Solstice Festival. The word "Yule" means "wheel" or "whole," and "tide" means "time." Yuletide is "the Time of Wholeness," "the Time of Holiness," or "Holytime." To their Mid-Winter Solstice Festival, the people of Germany gave the name "Weihnachten," which means "the Holy Nights."
Holytime happens every year when the Great Wheel of the Seasons comes around full circle, finding rest in the wholeness of its source: the Mid-Winter Solstice, the deepest dark of the longest Winter night. This is the time of deepest inner rest in the world of nature and also in the hearts of people. For thousands of years, quiet, peace, and loving kindness have reigned during Holytime. At last year's Mid-Winter Solstice was born the year just ending. Now, a year later, the old year comes to its rest. With a sigh of fulfillment, the old year lies down, dissolves into Solstice silence, and for a magical moment, time stands still. . .
Then, from within this same timeless stillness, Life finds renewal: in deepest Dark is born the Light; from within the depths of silence, the spirit of the New Year stirs. The light of the Sun returns, and from this day on, the days once again grow longer. In this eternal rhythm of the birth, death, and rebirth of Light, Life finds renewal, and the Great Wheel of the Seasons spirals ever onward in time. . .
These Northern Old Europeans held that after the initial Mid-Winter Solstice stirring of the New Year's Light, it took 12 days for Life to be completely re-created, for the New Year to completely awaken and be born. This time of re-creating and awakening is the 12 Holydays of Yuletide, the 12 Holynights of Weihnachten. This 12-day period begins on the Mid-Winter Solstice, and continues through New Year's Eve: 12th Night. On Twelfth Night, the re-creation of the world is complete, and Holytime gives birth to the New Year.
Yuletide begins with the Solstice Bonfire, symbolizing the Birth of the Light of Life. After the Bonfire, the Light of the Solstice is brought indoors in the form of the Yule Log. In a torch-lit procession, the Yule Log is ceremoniously dragged from the forest into the fireplace of the community's Great Hall. Here it forms the foundation of the Yuletide Fire, burning the entire 12 days of Holytime.
Also at this time, evergreen Trees of Life -- also called Trees of Paradise -- are brought into homes and into the Great Hall to be festively decorated. A star is put at the top representing the Light of Life rekindled in the Solstice. Other ancient Yuletide and Weihnachten symbols and customs include decorating with candles, swags of evergreen boughs and ivy, and with the fertility symbols of holly and mistletoe.
Another tradition at Yuletide -- and the other seasonal holidays also -- is doing ring dances accompanied by singing, performed within a circle of stones. This circle of stones, dancers, and singers is called a "carole."
A traditional food for this holiday is the Yuletide nut and fruit cake, accompanied with hot spiced cider. These are served on Solstice Night and on New Years' Eve -- Yuletide's 1st and 12th Nights -- marking the beginning and ending of Holytime.
Yuletide ends with the New Year's Eve Bonfire, made from all of the community's Trees of Life. At this Bonfire the 12-Day re-creation of the world is proclaimed complete, and the New Year's arrival is announced. The next day, New Year's Day, the ashes of the Trees of Life and of the Yule Log are ceremoniously spread over the fields to fertilize them.
In a natural connection with the Birth of Light, the Mid-Winter Solstice is also "Modran Nicht," meaning "The Night of Mothers." It is one of the major times of the year to celebrate the miracle of giving birth, to honor the Creative Force of the Divine Mother flowing within her Earthly Mothers -- the renewers of life on this Planet.
MID-WINTER SOLSTICE FESTIVALS OF SOUTHERN EUROPE
Parallel in ancient times with Northern Old Europe's eight seasonal festivals of the year, the people of Southern Old Europe held their own corresponding eight festivals. Their annual celebration of the Mid-Winter Solstice was "Brumalia," from "bruma" meaning "Winter Solstice." Brumalia eventually merged with the celebration of "Saturnalia," which began a few days earlier and is the old Roman holiday most known about today. The name "Saturn" is related to the root of the Latin verb "serere," meaning "to sow," as in the sowing of crops. This was a time of joyous revelry, feasting, gift-giving, and decorating with the greenery of holly and laurel, and with lights. The festivities began on Saturnalia, moved along through Brumalia, and ended on the "Kalends of January," on which they held an exuberant celebration to usher in the New Year.
In addition, the Mid-Winter Solstice was "the Return of the Invincible Sun" - - the Roman celebration of the birth of and Roman sun-god Sol Invictus
- - the "Unconquered Sun" (literally, "Sun Invincible") .
THE NEW RELIGION FROM THE NEAR EAST - - CHRISTIANITY - - SPREADS TO EUROPE:
THE CELEBRATION OF JESUS'S BIRTH IS ASSIMILATED INTO EUROPEAN MID-WINTER SOLSTICE FESTIVALS
In the 100's and 200's AD, a new religion from the Near East - - called Christianity - - began to spread to Eastern and Southern Europe. There is no record of the month or year of the birth of the focus for this new religion, Jesus of Nazareth. But Biblical scholars generally agree that it was probably Spring of the year 6 or 7 BC. There are no known written records of any celebration of Jesus' birth in Southern Europe or the Near East during the time of the Apostles. Nor are there records from the 100's and 200's of official decrees from any centralized political or religious hierarchies mandating a time for the celebration of Jesus' birth.
However, by the early 300's, Christians in Rome had begun to celebrate the birth of Jesus during Rome's Mid-Winter Solstice Festival of "Sol Invictus" -- the Invincible Sun. This development does make sense. It probably came about because within the minds of the people, it seemed most easy to enfold the celebration of the birth of one hailed as the "Light of the World" into their already-existing celebration of the Birth of the Sun. "God the Sun" was easily transformed into "God the Son." In addition, for thousands of years BC, this holiday had been the time of year when peace and loving-kindness had reigned. Jesus' message of peace, love, and goodwill toward all fit well with this aspect of the old holiday.
WINTER HOLIDAYS OF EASTERN EUROPE
5000 years ago, the people of Eastern Europe and Alexandria, Egypt worshipped the Holy Virgin Goddess Kore, holding her to be the inner soul of Mother Earth, the female spirit of the universe. Her festival, the Koreion, was held on the Winter Solstice's shortest day, which by their calendar calculations was January 6th.. The Koreion Festival celebrated Kore giving birth to the New Year god, the Aeon. At this festival, the priests announced to the public that the Holy Virgin had brought forth the Savior, the Aeon, whose image was decorated with gold stars and the sign of the cross, and was carried seven times around the temple.
3000 years later -- in the early centuries CE -- Eastern European Christians superimposed a new holiday onto the ancient Koreion Festival of the Holy Virgin Goddess. They transformed Kore's January 6 festival into a holiday they named "Epiphany," meaning "to manifest," "to show," "to appear." The new Christian meaning for the January 6th holiday was as a commemoration of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. These Christians held that at this event, God appeared in the heavens to announce he had manifested Jesus as the Messiah. Over time, these Eastern Europeans Christians began to celebrate Epiphany as also being the time of Jesus' birth. This may have been because they held baptism to be the time of birth in the Spirit, with the physical birth being of minor import.
Later, possibly for the sake of Christian unity, the Eastern European Christians changed Jesus' birth celebration away from January 6 and instead to the Southern Europeans' date of December 25th. Eastern European Christians continued to keep Epiphany's January 6th date as the celebration of Jesus' baptism. For the Roman Christians, Epiphany eventually evolved into the commemoration of the first time Jesus was shown to any Gentiles: the Wise Astrologers from the East. To this day, one country of Eastern Europe - Armenia -- shuns the December 25th date for Jesus' birth, and continues to keep it on January 6. Some of the other Eastern European countries celebrate both dates as Jesus' birth, but lean more toward January 6th, calling the December 25th celebration "Little Christmas."
THE 300's AD: THE ROMAN EMPEROR CONSTANTINE MERGES POLITICS AND CHRISTIANITY
In the 1st century, the 100's, and the 200's AD, the numbers of Christians grew rapidly. Because they refused to worship the Roman Emperor and observe his religious customs, their existence seriously disturbed the Empire's political authority. Therefore, for nearly three centuries, from the years 64 to 311 AD, Christians were persecuted.
In 306 AD, Constantine the Great was proclaimed Emperor of Britain and Gaul (France), taking over his father's reign when his father died. He had been born ca. 280 AD into a wealthy and powerful Roman family in the Roman province of what is now Serbia. Throughout his lifetime he was a follower of the Sun God -- Apollo, or Sol - - and only personally embraced Christianity on his deathbed as extra assurance of salvation. However, throughout his time as Emperor, Constantine played a pivotal role in the spread of Christianity.
In 312 AD, Constantine defeated the emperor of Rome in battle, and became master of the Western half of the Roman Empire. Legend has it that on the day before this battle, Constantine had a vision in the afternoon sky of a bright cross inscribed with the words, "Hoc signo vince!" meaning "In this sign conquer!" He is said to have reported having a dream that night in which Jesus appeared, telling Constantine to use the cross on his war flag. This vision and dream may have actually happened, or maybe they were Constantine's pictorial expressions for his flash of inspiration to use Christianity as a conquering tool. Whatever was the real case, during the rest of his reign, Constantine used Christianity for his own political advantage.
By 323 AD, Constantine had also incorporated the Eastern part of the Empire into his reign. The entire Roman world was then under his rule. This empire was widely scattered, stretching from western Asia to Britain, and peopled by tribes who had warred among each other for centuries. Ensuring his hold over this far-flung Empire required that peace should reign instead of the divisiveness of war. He needed something to unite the warring factions, binding them together under a single worldview strong enough to draw them away from their historic tribalism.
Constantine was an astute opportunist who recognized the political potential of a trend when he saw it. Such a trend was Christianity, a powerful wave sweeping the land and showing no signs of subsiding. Constantine's opportunity with Christianity lay in Jesus' worldview of peace through brotherly love toward all, including toward those who wished one ill. Constantine exploited Jesus' approach to life, using it as a means to further his own ends: his enormous political ambition of empire-building.
Toward this end, Constantine issued imperial proclamations about his people's religious practices. In 311, his predecessor in the Eastern part of the Empire, Emperor Galerius, had issued an edict permitting Christians to worship as they pleased. Constantine expanded on Galerius' ruling, and in 313 issued his Edict of Milan. This proclaimed the principle of religious tolerance by giving everyone the freedom to practice their preferred religion. In the year 324, Constantine issued a second edict, mandating that from then on, Christianity would be the Empire's official state religion. This second edict was particularly striking, in dramatic contrast to the very recent times of Christians dying for their beliefs.
Constantine made these political changes as part of a calculated strategy to put himself at the top of the hierarchical pyramids of both the state and this fledgling -- but growing -- religion. He united these two institutions under one banner: the Christian cross. Closely scrutinizing Constantine's new banner, a colleague of his remarked on the striking similarity between the old design of a spread-eagle and the new design of a cross. He only converted to Christianity as he lay dying, and did then because he was convinced he would thereby become immortal, sitting forever in heaven at the table with Jesus' 12 disciples: six at his one side and six on the other.
During his time as Emperor, because Constantine was himself neither a Christian nor a particularly charitable person, he personally felt under no obligation to abide by Christianity's fundamental teaching of peace. One example of this was, suspecting his son and one of his wives of treachery, he had them put to death. However, this act was to later cost him his own life. Another example is the way he persuaded his people to adopt Christianity: using the very un-Christian-like method of offering acceptance of the new religion, or death.
By this time of Constantine's crucial influence over Christianity's development, the Christians had moved their day of worship away from the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday and had firmly established it on the next day of the week, Sunday. Sunday was also the day of the week honoring Constantine's god, the Sun, and whose namesake that day was. This fit well into Constantine's plans of blending the new religion into the old under his political authority.
By this time in history, there had developed another parallel of a Constantine-sanctioned blending of old ways with Christian ways. This one involved the time of celebrating the birth of each religion's God. By the early 300's, the Mid-Winter Solstice Festival had emerged as the time Southern European Christians celebrated Jesus' birth. As this Festival was the annual celebration of the birth of the Sun God, Constantine also approved and furthered the blending of this new Christian event into an important event of his own religion. In 326 he ordered the building of a grand cathedral over the grotto in Bethlehem of the supposed site of Jesus birth, and named it the Church of the Nativity. He had this cathedral built despite not being a Christian himself.
Constantine tolerated the simultaneous celebration of all of the old and new holidays and the keeping of Sunday as the day of worship for the both the old and new religions. This toleration aided in the assimilation of the new religion. It also prevented potential philosophic schisms among the people, and the unrest and warfare which could have resulted. It was enough for Constantine that the people said they had converted to Christianity, swore allegiance to him as their sovereign, and didn't fight each other. The finer points of whether the people were in actuality following the old or new ways was minor. All of these actions further solidified Constantine's role as both the political ruler and the symbolic religious ruler at the head of both the old and new religions.
THE CULTURAL OVERLAY OF CHRISTIANITY ONTO OLD EUROPE: THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE EIGHT ANCIENT SEASONAL FESTIVALS INTO CHRISTIAN HOLIDAYS
The Christian Church officials of the time, however, held in primary importance the finer points of people's religious convictions. They considered it their responsibility to fulfill Constantine's 324 AD mandate that Christianity become the official religion of the Empire. They accomplished this by superimposing Christian meanings onto the customs and symbols of the old holidays. They then diligently made certain the people observed these new forms of the holidays. Eventually, the church officials completed their work: all eight of the old seasonal holidays of the year have been transformed, bearing today the mantle of Christianity.
The church officials' transformation of Southern Europe's Mid-Winter Solstice Celebration into a Christian holiday took the form of attempting to turn it into a solemn occasion. They tried to tone down the merriment by instituting a Mass to be held on the Solstice, called "Christ's Mass," later shortened to "Christmas." They reinterpreted the Saturnalia custom of giving gifts as symbolizing the giving of gifts to Jesus by the Three Wise Astrologers visiting from the East. They attempted to dampen the revelry of New Year's Day by superimposing a church service onto that day also, this one commemorating the Day of Jesus' Naming and the Birth of the Holy Mother. The Christmas church service has continued to be a widely held Christian event, while the New Year's Day service is kept primarily by Catholics.
When the Roman imperial forces forcibly imposed Christianity onto Northern Europe, the people there also assimilated the celebration of the birth of Jesus into their ancient celebrations of the Mid-Winter Solstice. There also, the Christian church officials superimposed Christianity onto the old ways. They reinterpreted as Christian the ancient symbols and customs of the 12-day Yuletide and Weihnachten celebrations. Eventually the holidays of Yuletide, Weihnachten, and Christmastide merged into one celebration. Today, these names are used interchangeably, as if all along they have referred to the same holiday.
Church officials also reinterpreted the tradition of the Solstice as being "Modran Nicht." This "Night of Mothers" formerly honored the miracle of all mothers giving birth. The church officials reinterpreted it instead as the night honoring just one mother: Mary, the mother of Jesus.
In Northern Europe, bonfires are still held, as are torch-lit processions and the bringing in of the Yule Log. But they are held on Christmas Eve, not Solstice Night. And torch-lit processions now lead to Christmas Eve services in churches.
INACCURACIES OF ROMAN ASTRONOMY
Christmas is no longer held on the Mid-Winter Solstice because an an astronomical inaccuracy made 2000 years ago had become a habit.
In 46 BC, the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar saw the need for a more accurate, official calendar to standardize the activities of Empire life. He had his astronomer, Sosigenes, formulate such a new calendar, named it after himself - - the "Julian Calendar," and enforced its adoption throughout the Empire.
Astronomer Sosigenes was a little off in some of his calculations, including his formula for the reckoning of leap years. It seemed to be only a small innacuracy at first, but over time the disparity grew, and would eventually prove the undoing of the Julian Calendar's prominence.
In addition, Sosogenes mis-calculated the times of the Solstices' longest & shortest days and the Equinoxes' equal day & night as falling every year on fixed dates, with the Mid-Winter Solstice mis-calculated to fall the fixed date of December 25th every year. This day was the celebration in Rome of the birth of the Roman god, Sol Invictus - - the Invincible Sun.
The mis-calculated date of Dec. 25 for the Mid-Winter Solstice also became the beginning date for the 12-day period of Yuletide and Weihnachten. The earliest known written recorded mention of the celebration of Jesus' birth dates to 354 AD, which states that in Rome in the year 336, Jesus' birth was celebrated on December 25. Interestingly, the numeric system of Dec. 25 being the start date for Yuletide's 12 days made January 5th be 12th Night. This allowed the next day, January 6th -- the date of Eastern Europe's older holiday of Epiphany - - to become integrated into the Western Christmas festivities.
Because of the Julian Calendar's inaccurate leap-year formula, over the years, its innacurate calculations increasingly diverged the calendar from the actual astronomical occurrences of the Solstices' longest & shortest days and the Equinoxes' equal day & night.
After 1500 years of accumulated divergence, it had become obvious that a new calendar system had to be formulated, so in 1582, the Roman Pope Gregory XIII had astronomer Christopher Clavius do re-calculations. The result was a new calendar named after this Pope: the Gregorian Calendar. Astronomer Clavius' formula for reckoning leap years turned out to be remarkably accurate, and the Gregorian Calendar is still in use today, its timekeeping continuing to keep good pace with the actual astronomical events of the Solstices and Equinoxes.
Another of astronomer Clavius' discoveries was that the Solstices' longest & shortest days and the Equinoxes' equal days could fall anywhere within the range of the 19th-23rd of their months, these dates varying every year. This knowledge could have made Yuletide a "movable feast" - - reckoned according to each year's falling of the Mid-Winter Solstice. The Jewish holiday of Pesach (Passover) and the Christian holiday of Easter are examples of movable holidays -- reckoned according to each year's falling of the Spring Equinox and the full moon that follows.
However, in 1582, even though astronomer Clavius and Pope Gregory knew the Mid-Winter Solstice could fall from Dec 19-23rd, they didn't incorporate this fact into their new calendar. Instead, they kept as a hold-over from Julius Caesar 1500 years earlier of considering it to be Dec 25th. Out of habit, that date continued to be the date kept for Christmas and the 1st Day of Yuletide.
Even though we now know the history and the actual astronomy, the habit still prevails of shifting the 1st day of Yuletide's 12 days onto December 25th, instead of its original time at the Mid-Winter Solstice.
THE WINTER HOLIDAYS: THE SEASON OF LIGHT
The Winter Holidays of Christmas and New Year as we know them today are a combination of customs of the Northern Old European holidays of Yuletide and Weihnachten; the Southern Old European holidays of Saturnalia, Brumalia, and Kalends; Biblical New Testament accounts of Jesus' birth; the Eastern European holiday of Koreion which became Epiphany; and customs from other cultures. Despite their widely ranging geographic histories, the customs of these celebrations have blended together, with time blurring both knowledge of their ancient origins and knowledge of their merged edges.
Silent Night, Holy Night
In Deepest Dark is Born the Light
In whatever Light this
time of year is viewed, it is "the Time of Wholeness,"
"Holytime," the Holydays," "the Holidays." It is the time of
celebrating Life's wholeness
and unity -- the deep knowing that all of Life is whole and holy. It is
the time of experiencing peaceful golden
transcendence. It is the time of celebrating the peace, joy, and
renewal emanating from the silence of Mid-Winter
Holytide. It is a reminding time to look beyond outer differences in
custom and belief, and instead to look within, and offer peace,
goodwill, and brotherly love to all. It is the time of celebrating
Light conquering Dark, of Life invincibly renewing
itself from within, to recognize the strength of the Light of our inner
In the end, the majestic beauty of the Season of Light lives on.