Today is the first full day of the Winter Solstice, which began mid-day yesterday, December 21.
Because the earth's axis is tilting the northern hemisphere away from the sun, the winter solstice is the shortest day and the longest night of the year. The sun is at its lowest and weakest at this time. For several days before and after the solstice, the noon sun does not even appear to change position in the sky; hence, the word "solstice," which means "sun stoppage." After the solstice, the days begin to grow longer while the nights grow shorter.
Ancient peoples celebrated the solstice as proof of the sun's victory over winter. The Romans adopted the Persian god of light, Mithra, and celebrated the eve of the solstice in his honor, calling it the "Dies Natalis Invicti Solis," or the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun." Wikipedia describes Mithra as the son of God sent to earth to defend humanity from evil and from the Adversary. The parallels to Christianity are obvious.
The winter solstice was the perfect time of year for a celebration. According to the History Channel: "At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking." As with most pagan celebrations, there was much feasting, merry-making, dancing and singing. The only thing missing was John Belushi shouting, "Toga! Toga! Toga!"
When Christianity came along, the most important holy day of the Christian calendar was Easter, which celebrated Jesus' resurrection. Since no one actually knew the date He was born, Christ's birthday was not celebrated.
The early Christian church was anxious to eliminate pagan celebrations. For this reason, the Church frequently replaced ancient pagan festivals with Christian holy days. It's no accident that the Christian celebration of Christ's birth coincides with the ancient pagan festival of the sun/Mithra. Somewhere around A.D. 350, December 25 became the official holy day for Jesus' birth or Christ's Mass.
The History Channel says, "[b]y holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced, but gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated." Many of the ancient pagan traditions were simply absorbed into the new holy day. Mistletoe, yule logs, holly and evergreens were pagan traditions that became a part of Christmas.
The Puritans later argued that December 25th had no historical legitimacy and gave that as a reason for cancelling Christmas around 1645. Fortunately, Charles II was restored to the English throne and brought the holiday back.
So, this week, as you hang your mistletoe and decorate your tree, realize that you are carrying on a tradition that dates back long before the birth of the Christ child. When you switch on the lights decorating your tree and house, you are commemorating a time when pagans lit candles as sacrifices to the gods so that the sun would return once again to light their dark, wintery world.
God bless us, every one!