Monday, December 20, 2010

The Solstice Is the Reason for the Season

“All that lives must die to be reborn again.”

 As far back as I can remember, this time of year felt sacred, even otherworldly. At first, I thought it was the fairy tale atmosphere of Christmas, the lights, the music, the colors, the gifts. And because my family didn’t celebrate this holiday, this special time became one of sheer misery, a party everyone else had to which I wasn’t invited.

Always the “bookish” type and at the same time a rebel, I decided at about 11 or 12 to use the encyclopedia we had at home to look up the origin of celebrations at this time. That was when I learned why others have felt, recognized, and commemorated the solemnity of this time for as far back as 10,000 years—the Winter Solstice.

Because I live on Earth and experience the seasons as much as anyone, I realized with a surge of joy that the Winter Solstice is my party too. No one is “not invited.”

By now, it is well known that just about all of the trappings of the holiday season, everything from wreaths, evergreens, and most of all the new birth, originated well before Christianity ever existed. Yet because Christianity so completely co-opted just about every aspect of Winter Solstice celebrations, the original meaning of the season has been lost to so many people. This is in no way meant to offend those who celebrate the Christian holiday. No one around today was involved in the suppression of the Solstice celebrations, which happened centuries ago.

Hanukkah never really did much for me personally. Maybe it’s because many Jewish leaders take part in a similar attempt to dissociate it from the Winter Solstice, which is somewhat disingenuous. While it commemorates events that took place over several years, Hanukkah clearly is rooted in seasonal celebrations representing the waxing light of the Sun. In fact, the one candle that lights all the others has the very same name as the Hebrew word for Sun.

Those who told me that holiday has nothing to do with the Winter Solstice only made me less interested in it. The same is true of those who described it as a “minor” holiday. Nothing about this time of year is “minor.” Such sentiment runs completely counter to everything I authentically feel inside.

In the last 20 years, there has been a revival of Earth spirituality, and abundance of books on the seasonal festivals, and a growing movement to go back to our roots in nature and celebrate them. Along with the Internet, this has been a godsend to so many of us who know in our gut the profundity of the season and long to not just celebrate it but be part of it.

People sometimes ask me, why celebrate the rebirth of the Sun since as an amateur astronomer, you know the Sun doesn’t change at all; rather, it is the Earth that moves.

To me, science does not negate every bit of mysticism and symbolism in the universe. The Sun might not literally die and be reborn, as the old myths describe, yet from our perspective on Earth, it certainly appears that way. Knowing it is all caused by the Earth’s axial tilt does not diminish the magic represented by the apparent birth of life from death. Nature appears dead; the trees are barren; the seeds lie hidden and buried underground. Yet life does not end. The growing strength of the Sun from the day of the Winter Solstice forward is the spark that kindles new life in everything. Seeds germinate underground, growing to the strengthening light until at last they break through the frozen surface at the Spring Equinox. Dormant trees eventually grow new buds that become leaves. Hibernating animals rest only to return as the warmth grows stronger.

The “comfort and joy” of the Solstice is in knowing that it is a time of sleep, but sleep does not equal death. Even physical death, which appears to us as an end, may be just a time of rest before a new birth. The seasonal cycle may very well be nothing less than a reflection of a much greater, much more profound cycle. It provides us the hope that, as stated in one Solstice story, “everything lives and dies and lives again. There is no end to life.”

Skeptics will jump on that last statement, calling it a fairy tale and wishful thinking. Maybe it is, but maybe it is not. The Winter Solstice provides an opportunity to not just understand the mechanics of an astronomical event, but to allow awe, wonder, and magic into our lives. It is something everyone has a right to celebrate and honor. Limiting the joy of the season to only Christians is a disservice to everyone else.

I live for the day when, instead of having the “Christmas talk” with their four-year-olds, or feeling like December is a “dilemma,” non-Christian parents—and Christian parents too—instead share with their children the mystery, beauty, and even sanctity of the real reason for the season.

The words of this song, "Winter Solstice," by Ruth Elaine Schram, express well the hope of this time of year.

"In the Midwinter when the air is chill,
on the horizon the Sun stands still.
After December's full Moon so bright,
soon it will be the year's longest night!

Stars will align, and they will leave their mark
showing the point of the Sun's new arc!
From this day forward, its path will ascend!
Hours of daylight grow longer again!

This is the Winter Solstice!
Winter Solstice!
Follow the path of the Sun!

This is the Winter Solstice!
Winter Solstice!
Now a new path has begun!

Follow the path of the Sun!"

Happy Winter Solstice!

And Happy Summer Solstice to all in the Southern Hemisphere!

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