Solstice: the sun stands still. In temperate countries of the northern and southern hemispheres, every year there are two: summer and winter. The northern hemisphere’s summer solstice, which occurs on a day in the middle of the year (June 20 to 22, depending on the year), is the southern hemisphere’s winter solstice. Conversely, the southern hemisphere’s summer solstice, which occurs on a day in the third week of December (December 20 to 23, depending on the year), just prior to the New Year, is the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice. In the tropics, these astronomical events are not physically felt, except for the holiday celebration called Christmas that is associated with the northern’s hemisphere winter solstice and was brought by European Christian religions to countries like the Philippines, where I was born.
Dies natalis Solis invicti: Birthday of the unconquered Sun
Though we are more familiar now with the so-called Christmas season, connected with the winter solstice, there has always been something religious or spiritual about this time of year that antedates the Christian era. The traditions of caroling and midnight service, and common symbols in the celebration of Christmas, like mistletoes, decorated trees, candles and lights, wreaths and hollies, among others, were present in European paganism long before the advent of Christianity. Christmas is therefore the “Christianization” of the winter solstice celebration, whose institutionalization over time has led to the theft of most, if not all, of the major highlights from the pagan world.
In the Hebrew scriptures of the Jewish religion, known as the Old Testament in the Christian Bible, there occurs a single instance of the word “solstice” that is not in any way associated with the annual summer and winter astronomical events. In the book of Joshua, chapter 10 and verses 12 to 14, it is reported that the tribal deity of ancient Israel, called YHWH, caused the sun to stand still in Gibeon to give the Israelites, known to be the people of the said tribal deity, the best opportunity to slaughter and annihilate, in broad daylight, an enemy tribe called the Amorites.
“Then Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, ‘O sun, stand still at Gibeon, And O moon in the valley of Aijalon.’ So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, Until the nation avenged themselves of their enemies. Is it not written in the book of Jashar? And the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day. There was no day like that before it or after it, when the Lord listened to the voice of a man; for the Lord fought for Israel.…”
This Lord, the sadistic tribal deity of ancient Israel, is a far cry from the god of love whose son, Jesus, is mythically believed by Christians to have been born sometime during the winter solstice and in whose honor Christians celebrate Christmas. By contrast to the murderous solstice of the Jewish story, the pagan winter solstice has always symbolized renewed hope, faith in the restorative cosmic forces and most of all, a love of life.
“In the depths of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus
The pagan winter solstice is an exaltation of the human spirit’s rebirth and revitalization, from “the dark nights of the soul” (“la noche oscura del alma”, with apologies to St. John of the Cross) into the energizing warmth of a radiant morning. It is the grandeur of this splendid background that the Christian religion stole for its prevailing celebration called Christmas, to the point of claiming: “It is not the birth of the Sun but rather that of the Son.”
Christianity, whose key figure, Jesus Christ, is a paragon of humility, should be humble enough not to monopolize the significance of the annual December 25 celebration. Deities from other religions whose births, in different periods, have been celebrated on the same date include: Attis and Dionysus, both of Greece; Mithra of Persia; Salivahana of Bermuda; Odin of Scandinavia; Crite of Chaldez; Thammuz of Syria; Addad of Assyria, and Beddru of Japan.
The winter solstice has influenced the lives of many generations of humanity, through the passing of different civilizations. Therefore the universalizing slogan “Jesus is the reason for the season,” is inaccurate. A more logically acceptable statement for Christians is: “Jesus is our reason for the season.” An all-encompassing claim that articulates ownership of the winter solstice celebration, by claiming that Jesus Christ is the season’s only source of meaning, is a blatant audacity of narrow-minded fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. Christians should be more sensitive not to monopolize the winter solstice celebration and should acknowledge the fact that most—if not all—material symbolisms in Christmas originate from the pagan realm. The legacy of the ancient pagans is still carried on by modern pagans who continue to use the ancient material symbolisms inherited from their precursors with comparable spiritual intensity and pomp.
It is tragic that the originally spiritual celebration of the pagan winter solstice has been ruined by the materialism of modern nominal Christianity. The modern winter solstice celebration has become commercialized and has lost, not only the graciousness originally associated with ancient pagan spirituality, but also the magnanimity of Christian virtues exemplified by the teachings of Jesus Christ.
“The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.” – Joseph Campbell
Even Christianity has been made seasonal by Christmas, which has become the only time of the year when nominal Christians affirm their shallow Christianity through their superficial adoration of their so-called Lord. I think that Christians, to be true to their commitment, should draw their inspiration and get moved to action not only during the Christmas season but also on a daily basis by the words of wisdom and example of Jesus. A truer spirit of Christianity might well reside in the pagan spirituality that has animated the ancient winter solstice celebration with its promise of renewed hope, faith in the restorative cosmic forces and love of life.
Merry Yuletide Season to All!
RUEL F. PEPA writes for News Junkie Post.