Sunday, December 25, 2011

Festival of Light

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.

Tim -- Sundays


  1. You, too, Tim.

    And from our house to your house:


  2. A perfect post for Christmas! Same to you, Tim.

  3. Happy holidays to you and yours! May the best be yet to come!

  4. How beautiful! May light and love for you shine through the New Year.

  5. As one who believes in the Deity, Christmas commemorates the birth of Christ, the first step in the salvation of mankind after Adam and Eve messed things up. It is the beginning but salvation required His suffering and death on the cross and His Resurrection from the dead three days later, Easter.

    As Tim explained so beautifully, Christians chose to celebrate on a day already known to the world as a day that began the seasonal trek to spring, the time of rebirth in the natural world.

    While no one knows the exact date of the baby's birth in the stable, historically there was a requirement that those who were descended from the house of David had to register for the Roman census in Bethlehem. So, Mary and Joseph has to make the trip from Nazareth. There are reports in histories written at the time of an astronomical event that included an unusually bright star at the time of the winter solstice.

    Faith or no, Jesus is an historical figure as attested to by Roman history. For Christians and Jews, "people who were in darkness have seen a great light."

    Blessings on all.

  6. Wishing you all a very happy & healthy holiday season and a big thank you for the books I've read and loved and the ones I'm looking forward to reading next year.


  7. I think I have said this before, but Christmas in the Trollip household, when I was growing up, was fashioned on the winter Christmases of our foreparents (Scotland x2, Wales x1, Norway x 1). In the heat of summer, we ate turkey and ham with roast potatoes and accompanying vegetables near a tree we had sprayed with artificial snow and which had Santa on a sled careering down its side. We pulled Christmas crackers and dug through our plum pudding for charms and cash. The plum pudding, curtains drawn in the dining room, was piped in by my cousin Murray MacGregor. After enjoying this sweltering feast we, the youngsters, retired to lie and groan next to the swimming pool, which on occasion contained a large watermelon that we had surreptitiously injected with vast quantities of vodka or cane spirits.

    December 22 was the longest day of the year for us, beginning the slide into winter.

    Yesterday, with my nephew's family, and my new grand daughter, we celebrated in shorts and teeshirts around a braai (barbeque). No plum pudding was in sight, but we doffed our caps to the north by ending the feast with a trifle.
    Merry Christmas to all, and may 2012 be happy and healthy to you , your families, and friends.