Welcome the light

Giacomo Bartalesi/Flickr

Giacomo Bartalesi/Flickr


Here it comes, bells a-jingle, balsam-scented and candlelit, the most anticipated and most widely celebrated holiday of the year. 

You're thinking of Christmas, of course, since that's what we've called it for roughly two centuries. But our year-end holiday has roots deep down in the human psyche, roots older than the story of the babe born to redeem the world.

In the times before our time, when the cold hush of winter settled on the land, our early ancestors counted the days and anxiously watched the heavens. They were awaiting the moment when light began to gain over dark, hope over despair, life over death -- and these were no metaphors.

It was the warmth and brilliance of the sun they longed for, those Norse and Celts in their snowy forests, those Romans in their chilly villas. The assurance they sought was that the world would again become green and giving. The winter solstice was the pivot around which the wheel of the natural year turned, and they held it sacred.

We think we are so sophisticated in our plugged-in, turned-on world, but it took some keen observation and a big leap of faith to identify that moment when slumbering nature stirred toward the eventual awakening of spring. To know, in the heart of winter, that summer, still so distant, had been born.

Oel, the Germanic tribes called it -- pronounced "yule," and sounding much like hiul, their word for wheel. The noise of the feast, the burning log, the songs, the ale and the evergreen-draped halls were all meant to help the sun turn in its wheeling course and return to renew the land.

The Yule log was dedicated to Odin, who rode the heavens on his flying steed Sleipnir, bestowing gifts on the worthy and meting out punishment to the wicked. Odin is a distant ancestor of Santa Claus, checking his list of the naughty and nice.

Down in Rome, the December feast of Saturnalia was meant to recollect the golden age of Saturn, when man and woman went naked in a fruitful garden and the lion and lamb lay down together. True, the week of feasting grew rowdy and licentious over time, and came to be associated with a Persian god of light, Mithras, whose chief holy day on Dec. 25 (the solstice, by the Roman calendar) was known as Natalis Invicti Solis, Birth of the Invincible Sun.

The devotion of the people to this festival was reason enough for the Christian church to co-opt the day as the birth of Christ in the fifth century. (And don't we have our own homonyms in "sun" and "son?") In turn, the bawdy character of Saturnalia, never completely abandoned, was reason enough for the Puritans of Massachusetts to ban the observance of Christmas in 1659. The law, which could not long stand, was repealed in 1668.

You would think the Puritans might have learned from the English the futility of their cause. In 1643, the Parliament under Oliver Cromwell forbade celebration of Christmas as "unacceptably pagan." Charles II, a libertine fond of wine, women and song, restored Christmas in 1660, to the people's great relief. How, really, can we do without Christmas, sacred and profane?

Like a moss-gathering stone, this one special day carries effortlessly the mythic and the spiritual, the pagan and the Christian. It coaxes us toward a vision of the world made whole, a world more merciful than the one in which we otherwise live. The babe in the manger, the human face of generosity that is Santa, the ever-green tree that reminds us of our place under the sun -- all have resonance on this day.

How could we do without Christmas Eve? It is a night when the deepest darkness must give way to a newly kindled light, when something wonderful and mysterious is born as mortals sleep. Animals speak of miracles at the stroke of midnight and reindeer fly through the starry sky as the Yule log burns to ash and carols echo in the streets.

Michael Judge speaks wisely in his book "The Dance of Time: Origins of the Calendar" of this hushed and holy night:

 "Christmas in its essence remains, and will always remain, despite pandering businessmen and fashionable need, a quiet and cold night, redolent of sacred air. Its stars shine brighter than most nights' stars, and the musk of fir and newborn sanctity attend its carrying breezes. It waits on the wanderer, comforts the forlorn and promises a blessed manger to the weary. It obeys nothing more or less than the dictates of the generous heart and expects, in return, nothing less."

Merry Christmas, my friends -- let it ring, make it shine.

Published in the Star-Ledger, December 2007 by then-staff writer Valerie Sudol. Available as a text file at nj.com.