Thursday, December 22, 2011

Happy Solstice: Half of the Real Reason for the Season

OK, OK - I'm not here to knock Jesus Christ. I'm a appreciative fan - and am not trying to start a religious war by saying his birth shouldn't be celebrated.  It should... but lets face it, he probably wasn't born at this time of year.  Springtime is most likely when it really happened since shepherds were in the fields day and night only during lambing season - and I don't know the bible very well, but I'm pretty sure that at least Paul mentioned the shepherds were in their fields at night. I have studied neither theology or ancient cultures in any depth, but from my reading I have learned that celebrating Christ's birth in December with Merrymaking and Parties?  Most likely THAT is because of the Winter Solstice. Or, rather, what the Winter Solstice signifies.

Celebrating the day after the shortest day of the year - the passing of the Solstice... welcoming back the sun.  The days get longer, which in our society of electric lighting and central heat isn't such a big deal.  But if you're a peasant or a farmer that can only get stuff done by the light of day, and the nights bring cold and the need to stoke a fire all night long to stay warm?  It's a pretty big deal.  Almost ALL pagan cultures celebrated some form of this passing.  Call it Yule, Hogmanay, Mōdraniht, Sol Invictus, or a hundred other names... it is how the "New Year", the rebirth of the sun was celebrated.  And it was important.  So important there was going to be a lot less converts to Christianity if they were told that this particular celebration wasn't important.  Christianity needed to incorporate it with its own twist in order to get converts.

These weren't societies of instant gratification.  People were willing to make sacrifices of the very currency that sometimes kept them alive, and things didn't get better overnight. It would be months of cold and starvation (things they had spent a lot of time preparing for) before things actually improved enough to make a big difference.  However, every day that they had a few minutes more of sunshine was a reason to be thankful to their gods. 

It isn't groundbreaking to say that the early Church decided that they needed a big holiday to help the pagans over to their side.  The early Church didn't celebrate Christmas the way we do - to them it was simply a "Feast Day."  A day to go to Church (get out of the house in the better of your two outfits), celebrate the Mass, and then have a special meal at home in honor of the feast.  Since celebrating the return of the sun was a pretty big deal, the Church needed a pretty big occasion to nail on to this Feast Day.  The birth of Jesus Christ?  Well, other than the death of Jesus Christ - which is the biggest Feast Day in the Church, the birthday was one they weren't already celebrating and since it had been two or three hundred years since the occasion had actually happened? Who knew the real date?  Following the Winter Solstice was a pretty good day to pin to that Feast. In fact, in the early Church, the feast day of Christmas kicked off the 12 days to the real celebration... the Epiphany.  When the Biblical Magi turned up to celebrate the word of God - the announcement that the savior had been born.  Twelfth Night was, for a long time, the big event. Thus distancing the true reason for Christian thankfulness (the Word of God) from the Feast day of the Birth... yet tying in the pagan celebration day quite nicely. 

So. long story short, they came together.  One half pagan, one half Christian.  And the Feast Day / day of Merriment made everybody happy.  Jesus would have been on board with that, he was all about the happiness of mankind.  And really, when you get to the age he was when he died?  Who really cares about their birthday anyway?  You're kind of over it by then.  Human nature, getting older, looming death - it all plays in to that feeling of "You're only as old as you feel" trumping "Can I have a BIG party this year???"  Actual birthdays cease to really matter.

So, as I sit here watching the snow pile up outside and thank God I am in a house with electricity and heat (and fairly soon, a usable kitchen), I don't want to offend Christianity or dishonor anyone who celebrates the Birth of Christ this week. (My family celebrates Christmas.)  Christianity had to do what it had to do to get converts - they had an agenda... and that it probably really ISN'T his birthday this week isn't all that important. He WAS born at some point during the year, and my kids have had birthday parties a month after their actual big day. I like to think of Christmas as a gift the early Church gave to the Pagans.  They didn't take away their holiday, just gave them a new reason to celebrate... Oh, and eternal life.  Bonus.


Vanessa said...

I'm not going to say anything about the religious aspect for fear of offending someone and being your first comment. I will say I am SO glad we have have reached the turning point in the year where the days will get longer. Today seems to signal that as Seattle is having some of the brightest sunshine we've had in days. I love celebrating Christmas, the festivities, the food, family and friends. The fact that we get more sun is another blessing. And besides, who doesn't love a good party anyway? ;)

tz said...

amen sistah! happychannukhakwanzasolsticechristmas to you! Seriously, so nicely written, I loved it.

PIcklejuice said...

This is why I like you so much... and why I'm happier today as there is a smidgen more daylight and we are one step closer to summer!! And it is why you need not worry that your tree is simply beautiful with light and not ornately decorated. I am going to make Rick read this as he will really enjoy your post and shares your sentiment. We must get together and share a meal (tempted to break bread!)