This is the season of many traditions and celebrations. Sometimes our differences cause conflict because we don’t realize all our traditions come from the same roots. Winter celebrations started in the beginning of human history when people began acknowledging the solstice – when the sun appears to stop its southward journey and daylight hours are at their fewest. In fact, the word solstice means “sun stands still.” So the “reason for the season” is the winter solstice in our Northern Hemisphere.
Early humans worried that the sun might just disappear all together. They thought gods controlled everything and that pleasing the gods was essential to the sun returning. Fear and uncertainty are powerful motivators, so people performed rituals to keep the gods happy so they would return the sun. Once these superstitions started, very few people were brave enough to test them by not doing the rituals. Spiritual leaders of the time, wanting power and control, encouraged these false beliefs by keeping the knowledge of astronomy and star calendars to themselves. Thus, people were kept ignorant of the causes of natural events and accepted superstitions as truth. These false beliefs eventually became religions.
Centuries before Christianity evolved into a major religion, many cultures had solstice festivals that included eating, drinking, gift giving, and community rituals involving bonfires, yule logs, lights, trees, holly, and ivy. The ancient pagan name for the Yuletide festival was matrum noctem or Night of the Mother, symbolizing the mother-child relationship. By symbolizing that universal human relationship, solstice celebrations elicited our most powerful emotions of security and comfort.
During Roman times, Mithra was one of the gods associated with the solstice. According to legend, Mithra was born of a virgin on December 25; his birth was witnessed by angels, shepherds, and three Magi; he performed miracles and assembled twelve disciples representing the signs of the Zodiac; and he died and was resurrected at the vernal equinox, which the Celtics named for the springtime goddess, Eostra (Easter). Christianity eventually incorporated all of these details. In fact, most Christian mythology was borrowed from other legends.
We now know from science that seasons need no human or magical help to continue their cycles. We no longer need to view nature with terror and bewilderment. We are learning to understand and predict natural events and to accept that we can’t control them, even with superstitious appeals to deities. We can now use our December rituals and traditions for the real opportunities they offer to experience gratefulness, love, generosity, compassion, and joy. Mythology and symbols can be meaningful if we don’t confuse them with reality.
Our many different seasonal traditions and rituals have common origins and serve a common purpose – to bring people together for comfort, joy, and wonder. Our nation is special in its emphasis on accepting diversity, and we preserve and protect that diversity by keeping our public places religiously neutral. If we stop fighting over whose words and customs are right, and stop trying to require others to do things our way, we can practice whatever personal traditions we want while allowing others to do the same.
The summer sun will return no matter what we do in December. However, celebrating together still makes winter more enjoyable. Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Happy Hanukkah. Seasons Greetings. Feliz Navidad. Mele Kalikimaka. Joyous Yule. Sunny Solstice.