Santa Lucia Celebration. It's okay to say, "Aaaawwwww."
It's all about light.
Christmas; Hanukkah; Loy Kratong or Yi Peng in Thailand; Tazaungdaing in Tibet; Santa Lucia in Sweden and Norway--whatever you celebrate around this time of year, chances are, you're celebrating light.
Virtually all the world's religions equate spirituality with light, and with good reason. Some of the earliest belief systems worshiped the sun directly, correctly identifying it as the mother and father of everything that lives on Earth. (Now, of course, we know that earlier, long-gone stars were also the source of our planet's inanimate components; all elements heavier than simple gases were forged in the center of stars and then blown through space in supernovas, some of it eventually aggregating into planets like ours. It's literally true to say that the world we know, the world that created us, was itself born in light.)
In Europe, these festivals began to be observed long before the spread of Christianity with the celebration of Yule, a festival of light and warmth associated with Odin. The bringing-in of the massive Yule log, pictured above in a 16th- or 17th-century print, signaled the midpoint of the months of famine--most people who starved to death in Europe did so in winter--and the return of the sun to its righteous place as the lord of the skies.
From this point on, days become longer as nights become shorter, and this will continue until the summer solstice, when day and night are the same length; after that, the days will shorten and the nights lengthen until it's time again to haul in the Yule log.
Christmas was first celebrated on December 25 during the fourth century, A.D., not long after the Catholic Church proclaimed that date as Christ's birthday. The date may have been chosen in part as a convenience and in part to obscure a rival religion. From the first century through the fourth, Roman legionaries spread throughout Europe the worship of a somewhat obscure Persian god, Mithras.
Possibly originally a Zoroastrian (or fire) god, Mithras' greatest feat was slaying a bull of legendary fierceness and sharing the feast with the sun, thereby nourishing it for its return. The Romans celebrated the feast on December 25 (already a date consecrated to various even earlier sun gods) and built Mithraic temples all over Europe. The Church won Rome spiritually and then imposed Christmas (and Christianity) directly atop Mithraism, not only claiming the date but also building some of its earliest churches literally from the stones of Mithraic temples. By the seventh century, Mithraism was a footnote.
It's hard to mourn it. Given a choice between festivities that require cutting a bull's throat and drinking its blood on the one hand, and decorating a tree with light and giving presents on the other, I know which way I'd jump. So anyway, whichever festival of light you enjoy this year, happy holidays.
Tim -- Sunday