Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On the shortest day of the year, hope for brighter days to come

Since the time they migrated to the cold northern latitudes of Europe so very long ago, our ancestors from that part of the world faced the long winter months with a mixture of dread and hope. Slaughtering most of their animals so as not to have to feed them during those months when feed for livestock would be scarce, they held one last banquet at this time of year before steeling themselves for the hard months of starvation and cold that lay ahead. I imagine, as they gathered in their great halls to feast on meat washed down with mead and beer, that they faced the shortest day of the year with some sense of hope. They would perform their propitiating sacrifices to the gods in the hope that the days would grow longer, that the sun would once again warm the earth, and that its life-giving rays would sow the seeds for new life in the coming year.

This, the shortest day of the year, thus came to represent the wheel-like motion of life on earth, moving from decay to growth back to decay again. And so it is that most civilizations in the northern hemisphere have come to identify this time of year with the cycle of death and rebirth and have marked it with celebrations such as the Yuletide of the ancient Norse and Germans or the Lenaia of the Greeks or the Saturnalia of the Romans. That the relatively new religion of Christianity adopted this time of year for Christmas is therefore hardly a coincidence. No matter what form our celebrations may take, the ancient roots of this day remain and echo a time when our ancestors saw the world as an endless cycle of death and life. They looked upon the sun as the male fructifying power of nature sowing the seeds of future life in mother earth, a power that would grow stronger from this point forward until it bore fruit in the spring.

So with that hope of warmer, brighter and longer days to come and with the bursting forth of new life in the coming year, I wish all my friends in these cold northern regions a joyous and hopeful Winter Solstice.