Winter Solstice Mysteries
The longest night of the year is at hand. For three days and nights the sun stations below the rim of the horizon, deep in the underworld. Our ancient ancestors, immersed in, and dependent upon, the fluctuations of natural light and darkness, feared what would happen if the sun failed to return to the upper world, leaving them in perpetual night.
The further north our ancestors lived, the greater was their necessity to insure the resurrection of the sun, yet the sun’s strength was needed in all lands for the growth of the crops , whether they be fields of grain or vineyards.
In the pre-Christian world, people perceived that everything was alive, that all of nature was imbued with spirit; animals and plants were animated by the same divine life force that filled mankind. The planets and stars, remote and shining, were gods, the earth was the fertile mother.
The sun was the most glorious of the heavenly gods, for it provided heat and light and quickened the life in the soil. The sun was thought to be a living being that died and was reborn, whose return from death made the plants blossom, the animals give birth, and gave joy and prosperity to the people. Therefore was the sun considered to be the savior of mankind. Because of this, Winter Solstice has always been a time of encouragement and celebration.
It is interesting to note that in northern climates, where the dark is long and cold, the sun is perceived as exclusively benign, whereas in countries closer to the equator, the sun becomes a tyrant that dries up the land, whose heat and light is oppressive. These qualities are reflected in their religions. The extremes of dark and light mirror the duality of good and evil in Northern Europe, whereas a harsh, angry jealous god who must be placated in the Mediterranean and South America.
The symbols of Christmas come out of the ancient Mysteries. The evergreen tree symbolizes everlasting life. Lights are placed in the trees to simulate the sun shining in the branches, ornaments in the shape of pine cones are added to encourage the trees to bear, shining orbs of all colors are also representations of the sun. Before electricity, candles were lit in the trees; fire stolen from the gods has the power to lure them closer to the earth.
Cultures from ancient Egypt to Northern Europe celebrated the return of the Light of the World around December 21st or just after with feasting, songs, and gift giving. The giving of gifts was not always a commercial activity, but an affirmation, and participation with the earth bringing forth its many gifts to support the lives of the people.
Saturn and Santa
The Romans celebrated Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, god of agriculture, with a celebration of Misrule, turning everything topsy-turvy to break apart the old crystallized pattern of the previous year and create a new order. The tradition of ordaining a peasant King for a Day, and making the real king a pauper, symbolized transformation from darkness into light. This practice also accorded the king the same status as the sun, hidden away in the darkness for one long night before he returns to set things right again.
Santa Clause has his origins in Saturnalia. As God of Agriculture, he gives many gifts in anticipation of the plenty to come. He carries the holly, an evergreen tree with berries that mirror the stages of life, and the mistletoe with its suggestions of Druidic fertility rites. Originally called Saint Nicolas, or Father Christmas, he was slender and dressed in green before the Coca Cola company requested he be dressed in the red and white of their logo and associated with merchandising. He grew fat and greedy, reflecting a more sinister alignment with Saturn as devourer of his own children. With this stroke of marketing propaganda, the true Spirit of Winter Solstice, of Christmas, of Hanukkah, and all festivals of light, has been confined in the darkness of the unconscious of modern people to make way for a frenzy of consumer spending. Yet we, though all of focus on material things, a longing for the return of the Child of Light can still well up in those moments when we stand in the glow of the colored lights on the houses, smell the fragrance of the tree, or are stilled by the sight of candles flaring in the darkness. We may still even pray for the spirits of peace and goodwill to shine over the earth with the rays of the new born sun.
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