Winter Solstice, Von Del Chamberlain
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Festivals of Light Usher in the New Year

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

December 23, 1998

Two inter-related questions define, for me, the significance of this time of year. First question: Why is it that we turn on so many festive lights during December? Second question: Why do we choose to establish the transition from one year to the next at this particular time?

Most might answer the first question with "Christmas, of course. We like to put up lots of colorful lights to visually shout the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ." But look around. Christmas is only one of many celebrations involving lights and bright decorations held during December. For Jewish people it is Hanukkah and candles. In Sweden it includes Saint Lucia's Day with lights to compensate for dark of winter. Zoroastrians celebrated the festival of Sada, lighting huge bonfires at sunset, the blaze of fire representing victory of light over darkness and good over evil. Latvian homes are brightly decorated to commemorate the return of light following winter solstice. Ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a wild weeklong unrestrained party. Here in America various Pueblo groups make elaborate preparations and perform sacred rites that relate to the reversal of migration of the Sun so that life might continue.

When we get down to fundamentals, the reason people in the Northern Hemisphere have always felt the need for additional light in what we now call December is the fact that solar light has waned. With the Sun moving lower in the sky, each day becomes shorter and dimmer. What light does flow down is noticeably weaker, hitting our part of the world from a lower angle, becoming diminished and spread out over larger areas. Weather responds, and all life feels the change.

Many plants lose their leaves or wither and die. Some creatures burrow into holes or find shelter deep inside caves to wait out the colder months.

Humankind seeks solace in numbers. We huddle together around our hearths in comradeship, song and prayer, feeling each other's warmth and love more intimately and intensely than we do at other times of year. We tend to feel greater need for each other now than at times when abundant solar energy comes down from heaven. And in all our celebrations of life, of faith, and of each other, we light electrical and other fires to compensate for the solar energy we depend upon. Our religious reasons for all of this might differ, but buried within them is the need to rekindle our faith that the Sun will turn on the horizon to bring back warmth, abundance and the conditions we need for survival on this planet.

Today we know that longer and brighter days will return following winter solstice, but humans have not always known that. Not so very long ago the fires were lit in belief that if we did not do such things the Sun might keep right on going south until daylight vanished. Indeed, people had learned that regions farther north had no daylight at all during this season of the year. Call it superstition, call it celebration, call it whatever you wish; the fact remains that we cling, in ever changing forms, to rituals with roots in the long ago when people did not comprehend that these cycles of nature resulted from the tilt of Earth's axis and its movement in a great orbit around a star.

This brings us to the second question: Why do we celebrate New Years--completion of another trip around the Sun--at this time of year. Some groups have marked the change of year at other times, usually one of the equinoxes or solstices.

But some American Plains tribes thought of the year beginning with the first snow, running through the winter, spring and summer and ending when the snow flew again. Still others have marked the new year with the first signs of spring. Both of these involve beginning the year with what is called a "cross-quarter date," that is midway between a solstice and equinox. This has been true throughout much of Europe as well. In that part of the world you still hear people refer to what we call winter solstice as "mid-winter," and summer solstice as "mid-summer."

So why does most of the world now celebrate New Years with the coming of January? The fundamental reason is that in the Northern Hemisphere where such traditions developed and spread even into the southern hemisphere we have just passed the shortest, coldest and darkest days that culminate with the December solstice. Once we have moved through that critical date we can observe the growth of solar energy in the Northern Hemisphere. We have chosen to celebrate one more trip around the Sun at the time of transition from increasing darkness and cold to brightness and warmth.

Thus, the answer to both questions--the reason for festive lights and for the turn of the year--is the same: this is the most critical transition we observe each and every year. This is the time when waning light changes to waxing light, when shortening days shift to lengthening ones, and all of this will be followed by warmer days, by reappearance of colorful flowers, songs of birds and abundant food. There is no question about it: for those of us residing north of the equator, this is the time of year that most of all deserves to be celebrated with lights and songs of faith, of love for each other and for all the forces and blessings that power our lives.

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