Winter Solstice arrives precisely on December 22nd at 05:30 GMT, or 11:30 CDT on the 21st. At this moment, the northern hemisphere will be at its darkest. The axis of the planet is pointing directly off into space, but it is also starting its wobble back towards the sun that brings all life to this humble planet. We celebrate it by turning off all electric light and enjoying a few moments with quiet and candlelight – just the music of the spheres to contemplate. This is our holiday for the season.
I gave up on Christmas several years ago. It’s not a matter of giving up on Christianity, although I firmly believe that if Jesus came back today he’s have a hard time calling himself “Christian” in any form we’d recognize. The problem with Christmas as we know it is I cannot see how something called a “holy day” (holiday) can possibly be equated with a major spending binge and a nearly complete lack of introspection. It would be for the best to have the small voice of wisdom that Linus gave us in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, but I tend towards the cynical as the dark closes in. I’ve dug this little parody song every year for over 20 years now:
Hark, the Herald-Tribune sings,
“God is dead, now buy some things!”
Headlines tell of death and war
And of sales at some big store.
Read how all the children fall!
Feel the horror of it all!
Since there’s nothing you can do,
Why not buy some stuff that’s new?
Hark, the Herald-Tribune say,
“The Grace of God has passed away.”
Rather than wallow in that bitterness to much, I found it easier to start over with the Winter Solstice. As holidays go, the Solstice at least has a long history. The ancient Germans would tie bits of meat and other offerings to a tall tree and set fire to it on the shortest day in order to coax the Sun God to come back. It apparently worked. Many years later this would evolve into another German tradition, which is to periodically set fire to neighboring countries. Also, they took the trees indoors and called it Christmas. But I like it better the ancient way, when practicable.
That’s what’s so funny about our culture and how we think about ourselves. Long ago, the ancients had holidays based on real, astrological moments – events that genuinely meant something in their lives. Somewhere along the line, we became more sophisticated and crafted holidays about salvation and karma and all kinds of other social constructions that are far more abstract.
Even that became a bit too heavy over time, gradually giving way to a time for a lot of shopping without so much introspection.
It has become fashionable among some people to talk about a “War on Christmas”, a rebellion against the use of terms like “Happy Holidays” to make the season generic and not exactly Christian. The sentiment is understandable, but misses the point completely. Religious faith is not about what words you say but about what you genuinely feel inside and express through your actions. Our culture stopped having a real “Christmas” in any kind of public sense years ago – if there ever was such a thing at all. The War on Christmas was won by commercialism many years ago.
It would be nice to truly reclaim Christmas as a time when charity is given to the poor on the Feast of St Stephen (their patron saint). The darkness lends itself to introspection and old fashioned quantity time together as a family. There are many things about Christmas that are indeed good and decent, but so much of it was lost years ago it’s not in our culture any longer. It has to be actively re-invented from bits and pieces no matter what.
That’s why I stay with the Solstice, a day apart from the holiday everyone else has. You can join us at the exact moment when Earth wobbles over and points us right out into space, away from the warmth of our sun and into our own imagination. It is a good time to celebrate that life is what we make of it – peace and joy and justice all start with ideas that move with each heartbeat to arms that make them real.
We are small and fragile compared to the great forces that sustain us, but that is no excuse for not taking what we have and making the best of it.