Note—Resurrected from a blog post last December 22.
“Everybody celebrates Solstice,” the smug pagan said, “They just don’t know it.”
Don’t you hate a smug pagan about as much as an outraged Bible thumper or a self righteous atheist? O.K. maybe not. Especially since the pagan has a point.
Buried in traditional folklore, swathed in symbolism, and steeped in metaphor, Christmas and Chanukah share the same impulses as Yule and its Celtic and ancient British cousins, Meán Geimhridh and Mōdraniht beloved by contemporary neo-pagans of one stripe or another. At their core there was in each of them a physical or metaphorical re-kindling of the light at the darkest hour of the year offering a glimmering of hope at a time of cold and starvation.
Archeological evidence shows that the event—the shortest day and longest night of the year, when the sun’s daily maximum elevation in the sky is the lowest—was marked, often using physical constructions to capture the rising sun, in Neolithic times across widely separated cultures in Europe, the Near East, Asia, and North America. Stonehenge is just the most famous example.
While the trapping of Christmas—the Yule log, the holly and the ivy, the Christmas tree, mistletoe, wassailing and other customs are commonly known to be borrowed from pagan celebrations, the metaphor of the birth of the Son, bringing light and salvation to the world is often overlooked. Among still nervous orthodox Christians, drawing parallels to pagan belief is still actively discouraged.
The early Church actively squelched efforts to confabulate the Feast of the Nativity with the Festival of Sol Invictus, introduced to the Roman Empire in the Third Century under the Emperor Elagabalus. It was a religious revolution that briefly upended Jupiter as the primary Roman God and put in his place the Invincible Sun, which combined the characteristics and cult practices of several sun gods including Syrian Elah-Gabal, the Greek Apollo, and Mithras, a soldiers' god of Persian origin. The feast was set on December 25, during the Roman holiday of period following Saturnalia. Later, under the Emperor Aurelian as Christianity grew in influence and importance, attempts were made to incorporate worship of the Christ child into the cult as an incarnation of Sol. When the church became ascendant in the Empire, it did all it could to squelch the festival, but like many popular pagan customs, it was so integrated into many daily lives that it inevitably influenced how Christmas, by then assigned to the same calendar day, was observed.
Well more than a millennium later the English poet Christina Rossetti, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, drew the clear connection between Christmas and solstice in her poem In the Bleak Midwinter. Popularized after her death and set to music to become what is considered by many critics as one of the most beautiful of carols.
In the Bleak Midwinter
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
Tonight, I think I will dispose of the obtuse metaphors and with those old pagans—and the smug new ones—kindle some small fire of hope and prayer amid the dark and cold.