Sunday, December 7, 2008

Have Yourself A Merry Little Solstice

Have Yourself a Merry Little Solstice,
Let your heart be light
From now on,
our troubles will be out of sight...

Have yourself a merry Saturnalia,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
From now on,
our troubles will be miles away...

People worldwide observe a multitude 0f seasonal days of celebration during the month of December. Most are based around religious holy days, and are linked in some way to the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. On that day, due to the tilt of the Earth on its axis, the daytime hours are at a minimum in the Northern hemisphere, and night time is at a maximum. In the southern hemisphere, the summer solstice is celebrated in December, when the opposite occurs -the longest daylight hours occur. Which is also cause for much celebration.

JPC Artworks has a selection of free solstice cards available in December that you can Email to a friend. See:

There are approximately 2.1 billion Christians in a total world population of 6.6 billion, making it the largest religion worldwide, But there are many other cultures and religions holding sacred celebrations during December. Though Christianity is the largest religion, the majority of the Earth's inhabitants ( 4.5 billion) are not Christians.

Remains of ancient stone structures can be found in Europe dating back many millennia. Some appear to have a religious or astronomical purpose; others are believed to be burial sites. One can only speculate on the importance of the winter solstice to the builders, but it obviously was significant. Two examples -At Newgrange, in Brugh-na-Boyne, County Meath, in eastern Ireland. It is perhaps the most famous of the 250 passage tombs in Ireland. It covers an area of one acre, and has an internal passage that is almost 60 feet (19 m) long. The tomb has been dated at about 3,200 BCE; it is one of the oldest structures in the world -- and the roof still doesn't leak after 5,200 years! (They sure knew how to make 'em back in the good 'ol days, huh? Above the entrance is a stone "roof box" that allows the light from the sun to penetrate to the back of the cairn at sunrise on the winter solstice. The horizontal dimension of the box matches the width of the sun as viewed from the back of the passage. Believed to have been constructed by neolithic farmers, one must take into account that the Earth's tilt on its axis has changed from about 24 to about 23 degrees since then. As a result, the sun rises farther south today. The monument is surrounded by a circle of standing stones that were believed to have been added later, during the Bronze Age.

Click Here To See Last Years Winter Solstice at Newgrange in Ireland. (click on "view archive").

My own personal view on this is people should value the range of December celebrations, because it is evidence of diversity of beliefs within our common humanity. We can respect our own religious traditions and those of other beliefs for their ability to inspire.

Religion often borrows existing cultural icons and uses them to promote itself.

Though I myself cannot identify any particular system as my own, (I lean towards Nudism (just fooling; Buddhism, though I would not be seen a classical Buddhist) I hold no claim in any deity, deities, or lesser semi-supernatural beings. That being said, I recognize some humans need the threat of eternal damnation of one sort or anther to lead more ethical lives. The radio personality Rush Limbaugh, for instance, could not understand what prevented an atheist from murdering people. ( I must assume then that Rush wants to murder people and the only thing preventing him is his fear of eternal punishment. Why else would he say this?)

Though religion has been the cause of much of the worst harm humanity has had to bear, it also has done some good too. I like the system of writing music we use today which was derived from Pope Gregory's (or his compatriot's) handiwork regarding notating Plainsong.
Many of the teachings of various religions have positive messages (Peace on Earth, Good will towards men, love one another, etc.) these are sadly often trumped by acceptance of dogma injected for political expedience, personal gain, or ignorance over the years.
But at this time of year let's focus on the positive side. If we see religious diversity as an influence that, if viewed in the light of allegory, is a positive force; then we can all find something to appreciate in these diverse and often beautiful customs and celebrations. Here is a look at some of the Festivities that occur this time of year:

In the Roman Empire Saturnalia had begun as a feast day for Saturn on DEC-17th and of Ops on DEC-19th. About 50 BCE, both were converted into two day celebrations. During the Empire, the festivals were combined to cover an entire week: DEC-17 to 23.


By the third century CE, there were many religions and spiritual mysteries being followed within the Roman Empire. Many, if not most, celebrated the birth of a god-man near the time of the solstice. Emperor Aurelian (270 to 275 CE) blended a number of Pagan solstice celebrations of the nativity of god-men/saviors such as Appolo, Attis, Baal, Dionysus, Helios, Hercules, Horus, Mithra, Osiris, Perseus, and Theseus into a single festival called the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun" on DEC-25.

The Romans adapted gods from conquered lands and included them in their pantheon.

At the time, Mithraism was the most popular religion. (Christianity was #2). The Emperor Aurelian had declared Mithraism the official religion of the Roman Empire in 274 CE.
Christianity became the new official religion in the 4th century CE when Emperor Constantine claims to have had a dream in which he was told to paint Christian symbols on his shields, he did, and after winning the battle converted to Christianity himself, though his behavior was not particularly Christian. For example in A.D. 326 he killed his wife by having her boiled alive in a bath and then killed his son too.
Ziggurat of MardukAround 2000 BC, the Ancient Mesopotamians marked the Winter Solstice with a festival celebrating the god Marduk’s victory over darkness. The Marduk ziggurat was set within the vast sacred precinct on the southern end of the town of Babylon, surrounded by the river, a canal, a double wall and a processional way. Its Sumerian name was Etemenanki which means "The Foundation of Heaven and Earth." It was probably built by Hammurabi.

The Egyptians welcomed Ra’s triumph over death which the Solstice symbolized for them.
Ra was the Egyptian sun god who was also called Re-Horakhty, which means Re is Horus of the Horizon. The early Egyptians believed that he created the world, and the rising sun was, for them, the symbol of creation. The daily cycle, as the sun rose, then set only to rise again the next morning, symbolized renewal and so Ra was seen as the paramount force of creation and master of life.

Ahura Mazda

The Persian Zoroastrians dedicated the day after the Solstice to Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom with the Daygan festival.

Maenads prepare to feast on Dionysus

In the Ancient Greek Festival of Lenaea, Often called the "wild women festival", wild women tore the harvest god Dionysus to pieces and ate him, then presided over his rebirth. The lucky guy who got be Dionysus was fortunately replaced with a bull in later times. In Greek mythology, Maenads was the name given to female worshippers of Dionysus, the Greek god of mystery, and wine. The word translates as "raving ones". They were known as wild, insane women who could not be reasoned with. The mysteries of Dionysus inspired the women to ecstatic frenzy; they indulged in plentiful amounts of violence, bloodletting, sex, intoxication and mutilation. They were usually pictured as crowned with vine leaves, clothed in fawnskins dancing with the wild abandonment of complete union with primeval nature.

The Druids

The Druids celebrated Alban Arthuan, (the “Light of Arthur”). They believed that during the 3 days before the Solstice, the Sun God journeys through Annwn, (the underworld), to learn the secrets of life and death.


Shabe-Yalda also spelled (Shab-e Yaldaa) is celebrated in Iran by followers of many religions. It originated in Zoroastrianism, the state religion which preceded Islam. The name refers to the birthday or rebirth of the sun. People gather at home around a korsee (a low square table) all night telling stories and reading poetry. They eat watermelons, pomegranates and a special dried fruit/nut mix. Bonfires are lit outside.

Inti Raymi - festival of the Sun

Solstices and equinoxes figure in to many native American's spiritual beliefs. In South America, The ancient Incas celebrated a festival called Inti Raymi at the time of their Winter Solstice (June). It celebrates Viracocha, the god of the Sun, Ceremonies were banned by the Roman Catholic conquistadores in the 16th century as part of their forced conversions of the Inca people to Christianity. The flogging will continue until morale improves!
A local group of Quecia Indians in Cusco, Peru revived the festival in 1950. It is now a major festival which begins in Cusco and proceeds to the gigantic monolithic ancient site of Sacsayhuaman, a few miles away.

On DEC-8th, or on the Sunday immediately preceding, Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day (sometimes called Rohatsu). It commemorates the day in 596 BCE, when the Buddha achieved enlightenment. He had left his family and possessions behind at the age of 29, and sought to find the meaning of life. Particularly, the reasons for its hardships. He studied under many spiritual teachers without success. Finally, as he sat under a pipal tree and vowed that he would stay there until he found what he was seeking, on the morning of the eighth day, he realized that everyone suffers due to ignorance. But ignorance can be overcome through the Eightfold Path that he advocated. This day is generally regarded as the birth day of Buddhism. We celebrate the point in time when the Buddha achieved enlightenment and escaped the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. An idea adopted by many other belief systems.

If there was a historical record of the date of birth of Yeshua of Nazareth (later known as Jesus Christ) it has been lost. There is in the Gospels some indications that Yeshua was born in the fall, but this seems to have been unknown or completely irrelevant to early Christians. By the beginning of the 4th century CE, however there was a drive to choose a day to celebrate Yeshua's birthday. The western church leaders selected DEC-25 because this was already the date recognized throughout the Roman Empire as the birthday of various Pagan gods. Since there was no central Christian authority at the time, it took centuries before the tradition became accepted:
  • The church in Jerusalem began recognizing Christmas in the 7th century.
  • Ireland began recognizing Christmas in the 5th century
  • Austria, England and Switzerland in the 8th
  • Slavic lands began in the 9th and 10th centuries.
According to the Venerable Bede in his History of the English Church, the legendary King Arthur was crowned by St. Dubricius on Christmas Day, around the very time St Augustine came to Britain with his missionary monks from Rome baptizing 10,000 Brits into the faith on Dec. 25th, 598.

Many of the symbols and practices associated with Christmas are of Pagan origin: holly, ivy, mistletoe, yule log, the giving of gifts, decorated evergreen tree, magical reindeer, etc. were all part of earlier Pagan traditions. Polydor Virgil, an early British Christian, said "Dancing, masques, mummeries, stageplays, and other such Christmas disorders now in use with Christians, were derived from these Roman Saturnalian and Bacchanalian festivals; which should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them." And some Christian faith groups do not celebrate Christmas at all for this reason.

Puritans- frowner's on all things merry, including Christmas.

In Massachusetts, Puritans unsuccessfully tried to ban Christmas entirely during the 17th century, because of its heathenism. Ironically after a few years of life in America most colonists began practicing naturalism and Paganism. Hence the burnings will continue until morale improves! At the time of the signing of the declaration of independence between 5 and 7% of the colonists identified themselves as belonging to any religion.

The Reformation brought about by King Henry VIII did not recognize Christmas. The English Parliament abolished Christmas in 1647. Christmas was actually banned.

Anyone found making Christmas pies was arrested and soundly chastised as an example to others.

During this time all the customs began to die out, because anyone found celebrating was punished. Priests were hiding.

Though light and bonfires are a common theme in winter festivals,
Only Puritans and other fanatic Christian groups stuck people in them.
Few people managed to attend the old 'Christe-Masse.' No singing in the streets; people were forced to work on Christmas Day, and there was no feasting or decorating of houses or streets.

After the restoration of the King (Charles II) in 1660, things improved, but after over 100 years of reformation and puritan brow-thumping, many of the old customs were lost. Mostly, it was country people who held onto them, and although there was an element of the 'Christmas of Olde England' in Georgian England, for many townspeople the customs were just gone. It was not until Victorian scholars began to research old documents, and talk to very old people surviving in villages and hidden areas of the North of England, where change came slowly, that the old customs would be practiced again. Sadly, much of the symbolism and reasons behind the Christianized versions of these customs were lost to history, the custom of mistletoe and kissing for instance. (One can appreciate the the work of Dickens a bit more in this light.)

Jews celebrate an 8 day festival of Hanukkah, (which is also called Feast of Lights, Festival of lights, Feast of Dedication, and spelled Chanukah, Chanukkah, or Hanukah). It recalls the war fought by the Maccabees in the cause of religious freedom. Antiochus, the king of Syria, conquered Judea in the 2nd century BCE. He proclaimed worship in the Temple illegal, and stole the sacred lamp called the menorah, from the altar. At the time of the solstice, they rededicated the Temple to a Pagan deity. Judah the Maccabee took back Jerusalem with a band of rebels. They restored the temple and lit the menorah. It was exactly three years after the flame had been extinguished -- at the time of the Pagan rite. Although they had found only sufficient consecrated oil to last for 24 hours, the flames burned steadily for eight days. "Today's menorahs have nine branches; the ninth branch is for the shamash, or servant light, which is used to light the other eight candles. People eat potato latkes, exchange gifts, and play dreidel games. And as they gaze at the light of the menorah, they give thanks for the miracle in the Temple long ago."
The modern-day celebration of Hanukkah honors the occasion by lighting one candle for each of the eight days the menorah burned. Once viewed as a minor festival, it has been growing in importance, perhaps because of the hype of Christmas.

Most of the midwinter festivities have their roots in light conquering darkness, the return of the sun as days begin to get longer- The winter solstice.

A poem by Robert Frost-

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Sources for the article include:
  • Charles Panati, "Sacred origins of profound things: The stories behind the rites and rituals of the world's religions," Penguin Arkana, (1996)
  • B.G. Walker, "The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets," Harper & Row, (1983), Page 166 to 167.
  • Mike Nichols, "Yule: Circa December 21," at:
  • Ramadan on the Net, at:
  • "Hanukkah: The festival of lights," at:
  • A. Hirschfelder & P. Molin, "The encyclopedia of Native American religions," Facts on File, (1992).
  • J.W. Mavor & B.E. Dix, "Manitou: The sacred landscape of New England's Native Civilization." Inner Traditions (1989).
  • Stephen M. Wylen, "Holidays mark victory of light over darkness," The Bergen Record, 1999-DEC-2. The essay is online at:


Tams said...

Loved the education on religious diversity! Thanks for all the info!

Bruce said...

A wonderful site. While not totally accurate, a fantastic presentation. It is Happy Holidays.