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Many today still call the celebration of the Winter Solstice a pagan ritual full of sex, and while a bit of that is true, they don’t realize that the ritual that is Christmas is in itself drawn largely from the ancient ritual that celebrated the earth’s tilting on its axis, where the daytime hours are weaned to a minimum and the night is longer in the northern hemisphere {in the southern hemisphere it’s the opposite}.

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Also called Saturnalia, Yule, the Long Night, and by most, Christmas, the Winter Solstice has a long and varied history. In prehistoric times, winter was seen as a very difficult time. Tribes had to live off whatever they could store and the animals they could catch. The months were long and very cold and the Aboriginal peoples had the belief that as the sun sank lower at noon, they would be left in total darkness. But spring and warmer weather would always return, thus the idea of birth, death, and re-birth was born. The Aboriginal people were able to notice the slight elevation in the sun’s path within days after the solstice, perhaps before December 25th, even without the advanced instruments and equipment used today, hence celebrations were timed about the 25th.

History of the Winter Solstice has been found as far back as the ancient Egyptians, who believed in a god-man and later, a savior. Osiris died and was entombed on December 21st; the passage reading, “At midnight , the priests emerged from an inner shrine crying, ‘the virgin has brought fourth! The light is waxing and showing and image of a baby to the worshippers’”.
In Ancient Greece, winter solstice became known as the ritual Lenaea, “The Festival of Wild Women”. In the ancient times a man would represent the harvest god Dionysus, who was torn to pieces and eaten by a gang of women only on this day. Later in the same ritual, Dionysus was reborn as a baby. By classical Greece the human sacrifice had been replaced by a goat and the women where funeral mourners and observers of the birth.Ancient Rome also had their version of the winter solstice, called Saturnalia; this is the festival where many today still believe, because of the rather smudged history of the Winter Solstice, that the entire celebration is about sex. At about 50 BCE in Rome, Saturnalia began as a feast day for Saturn on December 17th and Ops on December 19th. Later, both were converted into a two day celebration, and during the empire the festivals were combined to cover the whole week from December 17 to the 23rd.

By the third century CE within the Roman Empire, most celebrated the birth of their god-man on or near the time of the solstice. It was the Emperor Aurelian who was responsible for the blending of a number of the pagan solstice celebrations of the nativity of god-men/saviors such as, Apollo, Attis, Baal, Dionysus, Helios, Hercules, Horus, Mithra, Osiris, Perseus, and Theseus, to name a few, into one single eventful festival named, “The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun” on, yep you guessed it, December 25th. However, also during that time, Mithraism and Christianity were rather fierce competitors. Aurelian declared Mithraism the official religion of the Roman Empire in 274 BCE, and Christianity became the official religion of the Empire in the 4th century BCE.
Even Buddhism celebrates the Winter Solstice, sort of. In Buddhism the day is known as Bodhi Day {Rohatsu), and is celebrated on December 8th or on the Sunday immediately preceding. Rohatsu recalls the day in 596 BCE, when it is believed that Buddha achieved enlightenment. He had left his family and all possessions at the age of 29 and sought out the meaning of life. He sat under a papal tree and vowed to stay until he found what he was looking for. On the eighth day he came to realize that everyone suffers due to ignorance, and ignorance can be overcome by following the “Eightfold Path”, which he advocated. This day is now regarded as the birth of Buddhism, where Buddha achieved enlightenment and escaped the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth through reincarnation, the same themes observed in many other religions in December.

The lost record of the birth of Yeshua of Nazareth, who was later known as Jesus Christ, talked about the birth of the savior of Christianity, although it is said there is sufficient evidence in the Gospels to indicate Yeshua was born in the fall, which seems to be unknown to the early Christians. Beginning in the 4th century BCE, the interest in choosing a day to celebrate Yeshua’s birthday was intense. Western church leaders chose December 25th mainly because this date was already recognized throughout the Roman Empire as the birthday of the various celebrated pagan gods, and since there was no central Christian authority at the time, after some centuries the tradition had become universally accepted, but many of the symbols associated with the old pagan solstice remain in the Christian version.
Holly, ivy, mistletoe, the Yule log, giving of gifts, a decorated evergreen tree, magical reindeer, mummeries, and stage plays, all of which are ancient disorders in use now by the Christian Christmas, were derived from the Roman pagan Saturanilan and Bacchanalian festivals. The eastern churches began celebrating Christmas after 375 BCE. The churches of Jerusalem began in the 7th century, Ireland in the 5th century, with Austria, England, and Switzerland hopping in the 8th century. The Slavic lands jumped on the Christmas train in the 9th and 10th centuries. Religions all over the world have their Winter Solstice celebrations. The Druids, Inca, Muslim, Native Americans. In Iran the celebration is known as Shabe-Yalda, which has its roots in the ancient religion, Zoroastrianism, and was the state religion which preceded the religion now known as Islam. Shabe-Yalda refers to the birthday or rebirth of the sun. Followers gather at home around a korsee, {a low, square table}
all night telling stories and reading poetry. The meal consists of watermelon, pomegranates, and a special mix of dried fruits and nuts, and bonfires are lit outside.
In Judaism, the eight day festival of Hanukkah, also known as the “Feast of Lights” is celebrated, and recalls the war fought between the Maccabees for religious freedom. In 2nd century BC, Antiochus, then the King of Syria, conquered Judea and terminated worship in the temple after stealing the scared lamp, the menorah at the altar. Later, at the time of the solstice, they re-dedicated the temple to a pagan deity. Judah the Maccabee led rebels to succeed in retaking Jerusalem, thus restoring the temple, and lit the menorah. Exactly three years after the flame was extinguished at the time of the pagan rite.

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They had only found enough consecrated oil to last 24 hours, but the flame burned steady for eight days. Even though the modern menorah has nine branches, Hanukkah lasts eight days, the ninth branch is for the Shamash {servant light} used to light the other candles. In celebration to give thanks for the miracle in the temple long ago, celebrators eat potato latkes {pancakes made with potato, eggs, onions and milk, fried and served with apple sauce}, exchange gifts and play dreidel games.
So as the Winter Solstice once again is upon planet Earth, look to where your celebration may have come from. Look to others in this time of “Christmas” and see, we are all celebrating the same season. Everyone may not celebrate in the same way but we are all celebrating birth, death and rebirth in our own unique way. A way that our ancient forefathers saw coming thousands of years ago as they huddled in caves watching over their food stores waiting for the snow to melt and the warmth of spring to return. May your observance be merry and happy.

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