THE SOLSTICE, HANUKKAH AND CHRISTMAS 13 December 2009
Humans originated in Africa, but many thousands of years ago some of them wandered out to other continents. Those who came to northern areas encountered something new to them: seasons of the year, and in particular fall and winter. It was alarming to see plants die, and leaves fall off the trees, as well as some animals and birds going into hibernation or migrating south.
Meanwhile the Sun was sinking lower and lower in the sky, with the daily temperature dropping. Would the Sun disappear forever, leaving us to freeze and starve? In that dark, cold time, it became the custom in some societies to bring a green branch or tree into the home or community center, to remind people of Spring and the next growing season that they hoped would come. Also, a fire or lamp, which were specially needed anyway when the nights were so long, symbolized the Sun that they hoped would once again rise high and warm.
Imagine how relieved our ancestors were when they were sure the Sun was really rising higher again! This realization was the cause for joyful celebration, and over the years several customs developed in various cultures, of which the Roman “Carnival” and Viennese “Fasching” are examples. After many thousands of years, people came to take for granted that the Sun would certainly come back, and they were no longer worried about it. But we never like to abandon a familiar ritual: that is, why give up a good party? So the customs continued even though there was no longer a reason for them.
Another detail was that the Sun doesn’t get lower and lower until it suddenly rises higher than the previous day. There is a period when the naked eye and primitive measuring methods can’t tell whether it is getting higher or lower. Therefore the people had to wait and see. Of course this waiting period was retained as a tradition, and different waiting periods became customary in various cultures. One tradition called for a 12 day wait, and this is preserved in the “12 Days of Christmas”. Another was for 8 days, and in the Hanukkah tradition the lamp burned for 8 days. Incidentally, both Carnival and Fasching began not at the Solstice but after the waiting period.
In the earliest centuries of the Christian religion nothing was said about the date of Jesus’ birth. (Since the shepherds were spending the night out in the fields with their flocks, it must have been between May and September.) But the Church later decreed that it be celebrated in December, at the time of the Solstice. Was this a coincidence? I suspect that the Church had tried unsuccessfully to stamp out pagan celebrations of the Solstice, but since the people would be celebrating anyway it told them the celebration was for the Birth of Jesus.
Judaism has a celebration of “Hanukkah” commemorating the rededication of the Temple in 165 BCE, after their victory over the Hellenist Syrians. At some point it was decided to set this festival at the period of the Solstice. So both Christianity and Judaism have placed important events in their calendars at this time that had been important for another reason for tens of thousands of years.
Through all the many traditions and rituals we should remember what are the basic essential elements: Something green and living to represent the world of nature, and a fire, lamp or candle whose light represents the Sun.
Notice the importance of candles in the Christian tradition, and the lamp that burned for 8 days in the Hanukkah story.
---Andrew Linn, 1010 Waltham St., Lexington, MA 02421