“The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them has light shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and
This morning I find myself a little sad that Christmas day has come and gone. When I turned on the radio in my car today, I found myself hoping that the Lite FM music station would still be playing Christmas carols, and to my delight they were. There was such a swirl of activity and commitments leading up to Christmas that it has come and gone without giving me the chance to fully appreciate it, and I want to hold on to this special day and its special meaning. I want it to mean something more than just giving presents and getting together with family and friends. I want to hold on to the sense of hope and possibility that Christmas offers.
I want to hold on to that hope because winter is one of the toughest times of the year for me with the bitter cold and the long hours of darkness. You would think that after living in Chicago for four years and having survived college in the mountains of Vermont that I would be used to these chilly months, but honestly, I’m not. I don’t enjoy the cold, and I am especially not a fan of the dark. I never have been. I can remember that as a child I would build a wall of stuffed animals around myself in bed at night to keep me warm and to protect me from the dark. In this season of cold days and long dark nights I look forward to Christmas as a bright spot ahead. Once it is over, it is more challenging to keep my spirits up, thinking about the days to endure before Spring.
To lift my spirits, I remind myself that I have made it through the darkest part of the year, and even though it may not seem like it, more light is here and more light is coming. People around the world have been reminding themselves of the same thing for thousands of years through celebrations of the winter solstice. The winter solstice occurs exactly when the Earth’s tilt is farthest away from the sun. This is the shortest day and longest night of the year. Until this point, days get shorter and nights get longer, but after this night it is reversed, and there is a gradual lengthening of days and shortening of nights, less dark and more light. Depending on the shift of the calendar, the winter solstice occurs on December 21 or 22 each year in the
Northern Hemisphere. The 2010 winter solstice occurred on December 21, at 6:38 pm Eastern Standard Time. Worldwide, interpretation of the event has varied from century to century and from culture to culture, but most cultures have held a recognition of rebirth and renewal that includes celebration of holidays, gathering for festivals or other rituals around this time.
We enjoy our celebrations of Christmas and New Year’s, coming together for candlelit worship, sharing special meals, giving and receiving gifts. Thousands of years ago their celebrations were of a much simpler nature. If we go back to neolithic times, there is evidence that the winter solstice was immensely important and cause for celebration because communities were not certain of living through the winter. It may have actually been the last time that all their family members would be together. The midwinter festival was the last feast celebration before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time. Historians believe that starvation was common in winter between January and April which were also known as the famine months, and so the winter solstice celebration was literally the feast before the famine. Maybe my own gloominess in the face of winter is a basic human link I have to those ancestors thousands of years ago fighting for their survival during the dark, cold months.
Solstice celebrations developed differently all over the world throughout the ages. Since the event is seen as the reversal of the Sun’s ebbing presence in the sky, concepts of the birth or rebirth of sun gods have been common and, in cultures using calendars based on the winter solstice, they celebrated the birth of another year and a time of new beginnings. For example in Iran, Shab-e Chelleh is celebrated on the eve of the first day of winter in the Persian calendar, which always falls on the solstice. Yalda is one of the most important Iranian festivals in modern-day Iran and it has been celebrated in Iran for many millenia by all ethnic/religious groups. According to Iranian mythology, this night honored the long-expected defeat of darkness against light. The presence of dried and fresh fruits is reminiscent of the ancient feasts to celebrate and pray to the deities to ensure the protection of the winter crops. Watermelons, persimmons and pomegranates are traditional symbols of this celebration, all representing the sun.
In Peru, the Inti Raymi or Festival of the Sun was a religious ceremony of the Inca Empire in honor of the sun god, Inti, marking the winter solstice and beginning of another year. One ceremony performed by the Inca priests was the tying of the sun so that it could not escape now that it had begun to show itself more again. In Machu Picchu there is still a large column of stone that was used in the ceremonies called an Intihuatana, meaning “hitching post of the sun.” The Spanish conquistadors, never finding Machu Picchu, destroyed all the other intihuatana, extinguishing the sun tying practice. The Catholic Church was threatened by other religious practices and managed to suppress all Inti festivals and ceremonies by 1572, but they could not destroy the sense of significance the sun and its cycles had in the indigenous people’s lives.
In the Roman Empire during the 3rd century the Emperor Elagabalus (218–222) introduced the festival of the birth of the Unconquered Sun (or Dies Natalis Solis Invicti) to be celebrated on December 25 with great feasts and merriment. The celebration of the birth of the Unconquered Sun reached the height of its popularity under Aurelian (270-275) who promoted it as an empire-wide holiday as part of his emphasis on the unity of the empire with “one empire, one God.” With the growing popularity of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth came to be given much of the recognition previously given to the sun god, thereby mixing the traditions of the celebration of the birth of the Unconquered Sun and the birth of the Son of God. A thousand years later this connection was obscured when the early Catholic Church condemned the association between Jesus Christ and the sun and worked to disconnect Christian traditions from what were seen as pagan traditions.
Although the Catholic Church put great effort into disconnecting Christianity from its possible pagan past, they clearly recognized the importance of connecting cosmic symbolism and religious rituals. The December 25 date for celebrating Christmas is believed to have been selected by the church in Rome in the early 4th century when they were creating a church calendar and also matched other holidays with solar dates. Many Christians believe that Christmas is the actual date on which Jesus was born. It is taken for granted that we celebrate on this day because it is Jesus’ birthday, but there is widespread scholarly agreement that Jesus was not actually born in December. In the early 18th century, Isaac Newton argued for the idea that the date of Christmas was selected to correspond with the winter solstice. In 1743, German Protestant Paul Ernst Jablonski argued Christmas was placed on December 25 to correspond with the Roman solar holiday Dies Natalis Solis
Invicti. There is still significant debate as to the origins of the date of Christmas. We do not and cannot know for certain when and why it began, but we do know that for us here and now Dec. 25th is a special time and a special day.
We celebrate the birth of the Son of God, and harkening back to our ancestors we find inspiration in the sun as well. At Christmas we have cause to celebrate that God is with us in the world. The Christmas message tells us that our God is not a distant, far off God but a very present loving one who lived life as we do, walked among us and knows us in an intimate, incarnate way. This is what gives us hope and joy. But sometimes that message feels too good to be true. Sometimes we do not feel God’s presence and we struggle with doubt and darkness. We wonder how we can carry on in the face of loss, anxiety, pain and challenges that weigh us down. At those times we can remember, we have faced darkness, deep darkness and we have made it through. The darkness was not too much for us, and now there is more light. More light is coming. It is really so simple but also so powerful. That is a physical reality in our lives and it hints at the spiritual reality in our lives as well. The darkness is not too much for us. There are times when there will be more darkness and we long for the light that feels far off, but we do not have to give up because the light is coming. Like dawn, sometimes it is hardly noticeable at first, but slowly everything lightens and the world is made bright and clear again.
We are inspired by creation, and in its mysteries glimpses of God are revealed. That is what has been happening for people worldwide as far back as history reaches. Humans look to the creation and see in it the wisdom of the creator. In life there is light and darkness, but the light shall overcome because, as Christmas teaches us, God is with us. As it says in the Isaiah passage “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” Amen.