This time of the year is wonderful. It represents an ending, a time of reflection, celebrations, special foods, beautiful music, lovely decorations, friends and family but most of all, new beginnings.
In times past, with attention focused on survival, if all went well during spring, summer, and fall harvest, people could survive another year because of food stored for the dark days of winter.
As the Earth moves around the sun, the northern hemisphere tilts furthest from the sun. The winter solstice has the shortest amount of daylight and the longest period of darkness for that day. From that day on, the northern hemisphere will move so that the sun will start to shine a little longer each day.
This, of course, has happened before recorded human history and continues. This annual celestial event celebrates the knowledge that spring will reappear, entering into a new cycle of renewal: birth, growth and harvest, a necessity for survival.
And as 2022 is in it’s waning days, people across the globe celebrate with the festivities of Christmas: the birth of a child that will light up the world; Hanukkah with eight candles for eight days of enough oil to light the recaptured temple of Jerusalem; Kwanzaa, six candles to remind people of African ancestors about unity, self-determination, responsibility, purpose, faith and creativity and the actual returning of sunlight with the winter solstice.
The festivals of this time of year revolve around light and the lighting of candles to remind people of the hope and light of the new year.
In the early days of Christianity, Christ’s birthday was celebrated with just a mass. It wasn’t until the late 330s CE that Pope Julius 1 designated Dec. 25 as Christ’s birthdate. (Christ’s birthday is not written in the Bible). Pope Julius saw that this date coincided with the winter solstice and the Jewish Hanukkah.
The first documented celebration of Christmas took place in 336 CE under the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who had slowly converted to Christianity. In 529 CE, Christmas Day was declared an official holiday.
Winter festivals evolved into a holiday that include many traditions that make this time of year so festive. The tradition of the Christmas tree is popular across the world.
The Christmas tree came from many cultural and historical practices of northern Europe. Decking the halls with evergreens were common for they represented green all year round and reminded people with the promise of rebirth of the earth from the darkness of winter.
The tree, with the advent and rise of Christianity became more common in the 16th century. In the 17th century, Christmas trees were lit with candles in Europe. Lighted trees also became popular with the advent of electricity in the late 1800s. Lights on trees symbolized lighting up the darkness of the season as it still does today.
The circle of the wreath denotes the spiritual belief in life everlasting and the rebirth of the spirit, signifying that hope of spring. This tradition appears throughout history with the wreath as a manifestation of the cyclical nature of the seasons. The wreath used by early Roman Christians expressed the miracle of the birth of the Christ.
Gift giving also has its roots in celebrating ancient festivals. Rituals during the winter were: Yule in Scandinavia and the Feast of Saturnalia in Rome, where gift giving was a traditional activity. Christianity took these traditions of gift giving and included it in the Nativity story with the Magi. Now gift giving is a huge boost to the economy.
The use of red and green at Christmas actually started centuries ago, when the colors were used to commemorate the constant green of holly and its red berries. Ancient Celtic peoples believed holly was meant to keep Earth beautiful during the dead of winter. For Christians, green denoted renewal in the light of Christ and red foreshadowed his blood on the cross.
In today’s time of Christmas and other winter festivals, we worry about the gifts we buy and that we might overspend. We concern ourselves about all the busyness of the season, which can be enjoyable or very stressful for many. We participate in so many forms of celebration, but in the end, it is all really about a light in the darkness however interpreted.
The celebration of light exists throughout history and encompasses many winter traditions. The light of love, caring, and compassion, for friends, family and others are at the core of those cultural winter activities. Remember that the light does shine brightly in so many different ways.
May that light of joy and love and respect be present in the promise of the New Year.
Gwen Fabert Maitzen
Town of Oregon