I have a distinct memory of sitting in my fourth grade classroom, studying geography. We were learning about the northern and southern hemispheres. The teacher told us that seasonal weather in the southern hemisphere is opposite of the northern hemisphere, meaning that in December instead of the beginning of winter they were experiencing the beginning of summer. My first thought was, “How can you have Christmas in the summer?” I was so sad for those southern hemisphere people. You would think that I was from a northern climate where Christmas was celebrated on a snowy winter day, but in fact, I was growing up in North Carolina, where temperatures are often in the 60s and 70s on Christmas Day. With that knowledge began the unraveling of my understanding of the symbols of our holiday season.
Dec. 21 marks the Winter Solstice, which is also called “The Shortest Day.” In ancient times, as now, people mourn the passing of the light into darkness. In fact, we now have an illness that is attributable to this time of year called “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” which is all about depression related to lack of sunlight. The old religions celebrated the shortest day, knowing that the days would get longer. In fact, they built many of their religious sites so that they could see the sun on the shortest and longest days of the year.
Many of us experienced the uncertainty of being dependent on the sun just a few weeks ago, when we found ourselves without power for many days. Many of my friends experienced a lot of anxiety and anger over the loss of power. Although what we really lost was electricity, there is an empowerment that goes hand in hand with being able to do what you want when you want, and not being dependent on daylight to accomplish your goals or cook your food.
During the days of the old religions, people would place holly and evergreens around their windows to keep out the evil spirits. That tradition has been enhanced in so many ways for our December Holidays. Now we have both living and artificial greens, and my favorite, the sparkly lights. All these elements conspire to make us feel festive, excited, and filled with anticipation.
The Jewish Festival of Hanukkah is also celebrated during December, and is another festival about light. The story, retold each year, is about the Maccabees (or rebels) who had been able to retake the temple from the Syrian-Greeks. The temple had been defiled by rituals honoring Zeus, and by the sacrifice of pigs. The Maccabees wanted to purify the temple, and as part of the ritual, wanted to burn the menorah (small candelabra) for eight days. They discovered, however, that there was only enough oil for one day. They lit the menorah anyway, and to their surprise the oil lasted for eight days.
In the Christian tradition, the celebration of the birth of Jesus is symbolically represented by Jesus being the light of the world. If you believe in Jesus, and follow him, you will no longer walk in darkness. The celebration of Jesus’ birth was established in late December because the Christians were a minority among the Romans. By celebrating during the Saturnalia, they were less obvious to the enemy that surrounded them.
Whether you follow a religious tradition, have a specific celebration or simply celebrate because everyone else does, this time of year is filled with memories. For me, feelings of excitement and anticipation are nearly all related to previous celebrations. This year as I stood at the Santa Walk and watched my teens perform with the Marching Band, I remembered them as little boys, getting excited as I held them in tired arms, watching them watch Santa’s arrival. Those warm fuzzy memories help to keep the season special.
And yet, there have been years when December was not so special—it was just one more thing that needed to be done; times when the effort to go out and get a tree, or cook a meal, felt like too much. I remember those holidays, too!
However you celebrate the end of the year, the holy days of your particular faith, or the adventure of having a week without school, I hope you take a moment to remember the roots of our winter solstice celebrations. Welcome Yule!
The Rev. Paula Roper is an Independent Interfaith Minister in New Providence, New Jersey. She is available for spiritual counseling, weddings and other life cycle ceremonies.
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