Three nights ago -- December 22 -- was the longest night of the year.
In the northern hemisphere, where that long dark night (and the lengthening days that follow it) mark the beginning of the slow trudge toward springtime's miraculous return, the winter solstice is observed almost everywhere a celebration of light, celebrated with light.
In ancient Japan, the solstice marked the emergence from her cave of Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun, and one of the creators of Japan. The gods gathered at the mouth of the cave and made a racket to lure her out, and then persuaded her to stay with them, thus returning sunlight to the world.
For those shivering in Europe, the solstice was an occasion to light candles, burn a Yule log, and deck the halls with greenery to herald the coming of spring. In Germanic countries, the ancient rite of Wassailing entailed going from house to house, singing seasonal songs. (This was probably derived from an even older practice of singing to apple trees to ensure a plentiful crop of fruit, since apples could be stored and eaten throughout much of the winter.)
In the first century BC, Julius Caesar set the "official" date for the solstice as December 25. By that time, people in what is now Iran and other places throughout the Middle East had long identified the solstice as the birthdate of various sun gods, including Ahura Mazda, the central deity of Zoroastrianism; and Mithras, a Persian deity also associated with the sun.
During the first century AD a Mithraic cult sprang up in Rome, especially among the troops of the Roman army. The Roman legions took Mithraism, conflated with Caesar's official solstice date of December 25, across Europe, exercising the conqueror's right to impose the holiday of Mithras' birth atop more ancient festivals of light and greenery. The Roman Mithraists built temples everywhere, most of which were later buried beneath Christian cathedrals that were built directly on the stones of the older religion, just as Christmas Day was superimposed on the Mithraic feast day/solstice date of December 25.
But whatever the holiday, Christmas, like Hanukkah, is a festival of light. Candles shed a glow that is both optical and spiritual, and probably nowhere is this illustrated more beautifully than in Sweden's Festival of Santa Lucia ("Lucia" is derived from "light."), illustrated in the photo above.
Beyond the lights that sparkle on houses and gleam in Menorahs and decorate trees, the solstice -- however it's celebrated -- is an opportunity for all of us to honor the light of the world, to acknowledge the light that shines upon us and within us, and to resolve to share that light with others. As the ice of winter shivers and cracks, and the miraculous multiple rebirths of spring draw near, the world's festivals of light offer us a moment when we can join with others all over the globe in promising to burn a little more fiercely on others' behalf and to be true to, and respect, the light in each of us.
And whether we believe in a deity or not, surely something holy saturates any brief period of time when so many are focused on what's best in us all.
Happy holidays. May your days be merry and bright.