An Alternative View: Happy Winter Solstice!

December 23, 2019

The Rev. Bro. Robert Barker is a retired clergyperson with BSc and MDiv degrees.

The winter solstice occurs when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt from the Sun.  This year in our northern hemisphere it occurs on 21 December and is the beginning of the lengthening of daylight and the shortening of nights.  For us on Eastern Standard Time it will occur at 11:19 p.m.  Daylight hours grow shorter as the winter solstice grows nearer and grow longer after it occurs.

To the early societies the shortening of daylight, bringing with it the inevitable winter as well as a possible lack of food, would have caused them a foreboding sense of insecurity. These Pagan (not meant as a pejorative but merely a word to refer to persons holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions) societies observed rites and celebrations of the Winter Solstice revering the death of the Old Sun and the birth of the New by lighting great fires and burning Yule logs symbolically welcoming back the lengthening daylight hours.

In pre Christian Scandinavia/Germanic Paganism Yule celebrated the rebirth of the sun for twelve days.  The Winter Solstice in ancient Rome was observed as the Feast of Saturnalia, 17 December, honoring the agricultural god Saturn.

These two Pagan winter holidays, the Scandinavia/Germanic Yule and Roman Saturnalia, and their traditions were usurped by the early Christian church when it chose to observe the birth of Jesus on the twenty-fifth of December in 336 C.E. (Common Era) and the twelve days of Christmas associated with the Feast of the Nativity, as a way of proselyting Pagans and bringing them into its fold.  Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, their Christ, during the Winter Solstice connecting to Yule the birth of the Sun god, the child of a goddess. 

There is no evidence that Jesus was born on 25 December.  December in Palestine is very cold.  Shepherds, according to Luke’s gospel, were in the fields.   In the winter shepherds would not have been in the fields but would have been between March and October.  Evidence points to Jesus’ birth being sometime between September and October.

The traditions of Pagan Yule have been adopted wholesale by Christians in their celebration of their Christmas.  Pagans cut Evergreens, which symbolize life and renewal, and brought them indoors to decorate.  Their green never faded and was believed to have power over death and encouraged the return of the Sun.  Holly was used to decorate doors, windows and fireplaces, representing the masculine and its leaves symbolized the Holly King.  Mistletoe represents the feminine, its green leaves representing the fertility of the Mother goddess.  Sprigs of it were hung over doorways as protection.  Ancient Scandinavians burned the Yule Log to honor Thor and Celts kept a continual hearth fire.  The longer it burned, the sooner the sun would return to bring warmth to the earth again. 

Candles, wreaths, bells, elves, gingerbread, caroling, and the colors of red, green, silver, and gold are also traditions of Yule that have been co-opted by the church as traditions of Christmas.  So Blessed Yule and Happy Winter Solstice. 

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