Before we get to the main event of the season, Christmas, all nature lovers will rejoice as we mark one of the oldest and most universal of human celebrations, the winter solstice.
At precisely 5:23 p.m. Dec. 21 (Eastern Standard Time), the sun will cross over the imaginary line of the equator and head back toward the northern hemisphere. It is the moment when light gains against the darkness and, in a very real way, spring is conceived in the womb of winter. Incrementally, but steadily, we are approaching nature’s rebirth.
It could not have been obvious to our distant ancestors that on the darkest night of the coldest season a new solar year had begun, ripe with summer’s promise of warmth, light and fruitfulness. Not obvious, but so important to the community’s well-being that some of the earliest surviving structures we know were built to make plain that the moment was at hand.
Take for example Newgrange, a 5,000-year-old megalithic stone circle in Ireland predating the Egyptian pyramids. It was built to cast a beam of sunlight deep within a sacred chamber at dawn on the winter solstice. (For a simulation of Newgrange as the solstice dawns, click here.) Half a world away, the Incas celebrated Inti Raimi, a solemn festival of the sun, on the winter solstice of the southern hemisphere — in June, of course.
The winter solstice was marked by ancient Egyptians, Chinese scholars, Hopi elders and Druidic priests swinging golden sickles to cut mistletoe from the sacred oak. The Romans celebrated the solstice as Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, feasting and merry-making in homes decked with evergreens. Sound familiar?
According to the calendar drawn up by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C., the date of the solstice was Dec. 25. More than four centuries later in the reign of Constantine, the early Christian church co-opted this age-old solstice festival, merging it with Christmas and adopting the reborn sun as a symbol of the Christian redeemer.
The interesting thing about the Roman holiday - a weeklong Saturnalia with the solstice at its heart - is that in the pantheon of gods, Saturn ruled agriculture, seed-sowing and the fruitful harvest. There's something deeply knowing about the celebration of the earth's fertility in the dark of winter at the very moment when the pallid sun's strength is rekindled.
I take the importance of the winter solstice across time, distance and cultures as a sign that our ancestors were much more attuned to the cycles of nature than we are today. In our snug houses and apartments, behind closed doors, we often forget that we are all children of the earth, dependent for our very lives on just two things: sunlight and photosynthesis.
Without the sun, earth would be a dark and battered rock. Lacking the alchemy of photosynthesis fueled by the sun's energy, we would be gasping for oxygen and hungry, plants being the basis of the food chain on land and at sea. Sun worship may be a primitive notion, but it has never struck me as at all illogical.
Some folks around my old newsroom referred to me as the "house pagan" for pointing out how closely tied we are to Mother Nature, a link more essential and vital than all our sophisticated philosophies of politics, religion and science. While I was not always sure this was intended as a compliment, I refused to consider the term pejorative since in its original sense, "pagan" simply meant "country dweller" - which in fact I am.
Disparage if you would my fascination with Teutonic goddesses and Norse gods, Druidic rituals and Egyptian rites, so many of which describe the forces of the natural world. I do find something sacred in the living earth and its complex web of life. While I've about given up on today's religions, the source of so much global strife, I believe in the profound secrets of nature and the spirituality of those who celebrate them.
In the mythic history of the human race, there is probably no older saga than the symbolic struggle between light and dark - or goodness and evil, as many will cast it. This ancient dichotomy surfaces at every moral turn and the image of a light shining in the darkness is a powerful metaphor that speaks to us still. On the winter solstice, this ancient truth is written in the stars, splayed across the skies.
Call your interpretation of this metaphor Christmas or Yalda, Dong Zhi or Chanukah and I will be with you. Fire up the candles, ignite the Yule log, hang a tree with twinkling lights and kindle the goodwill of the season. Body and soul, we crave warmth and light, which the heart knows as love and compassion.
Now is the time to begin anew in the spirit of the solstice holidays. Here comes the sun, unconquered still, rising at dawn to shine its light on the only world we know. Rejoice in the moment and celebrate every new day.