I don’t like Christmas very much (I’m a mean one, I guess), but I certainly have learned to dig the winter solstice.
While plenty of good folks are campaigning to “keep the Christ in Christmas,” a pursuit I happen to think is actually a worthy one on its own terms, it seems that not as many realize that, long before anyone had ever heard of Jesus Christ, the astronomical/-logical event known as the winter solstice already played a starring role in human civilization. Were this not the case, Christians might very likely celebrate the birth of their savior in March, May, or just whenever.
So Jesus isn’t the only reason for the season. Far from it. Give me that, and we’ll be okay forever and ever.
What is the winter solstice?
The winter solstice can be defined celestially as the point at which the Sun appears at the greatest distance on the other side of the equatorial plane from the observer. In the northern hemisphere, it is the instant at which the sun could be said to ‘stand still’ (Lat. sol “Sun” + sistere “to be still”) at its southernmost point in the sky before beginning the return track northward towards summer. This happens sometime between December 20-23 in the northern hemisphere, and between June 20-23 in the southern hemisphere. Reverse those dates, and you have the dates of the opposite phenomenon, the summer solstice, for each hemisphere.
The cause of the solstices is that, at the instant of solstice, one hemisphere of the Earth is at its maximum tilt away from the Sun. This is why the day of the winter solstice is the shortest, in terms of daylight, of all the days of the year (again, from the perspective of those in the North—it naturally marks the longest day in the South).
Why is it culturally significant?
Because people didn’t always have supermarkets and refrigerators. These are, in fact, extremely recent developments!
In the cultures of the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice marks the onset of ‘deep winter.’ In primitive societies, particularly hunter-gatherer and early agrarian societies which had not yet developed means of harvesting and storing surplus food, it was not always a given that a community would survive through the winter. Cattle were slaughtered at about the time of the solstice so that they would not have to be fed through the winter, creating a temporary supply of fresh meat—this is why we associate winter holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas with feasting.
Aside from such practical concerns, the winter solstice was ceremonially important as an astrological event of spiritual/ritual significance. On the night of the solstice, the stars of Orion’s belt form a line with Sirius, the ‘Dog Star,’ which points to the exact spot where the Sun will rise the following morning. This fact was well-known to the skywatching ancients; important Celtic religious sites such as Stonehenge and New Grange are obviously aligned with the solstice sunrise or sunset, and we see similar reverence for the solstice in even completely unrelated cultures, such as those of neolithic Mesoamerica.
Symbolically, because the winter solstice marks the point at which the Sun reverses course and begins to climb back toward its summer posture, it was associated with the concept of spiritual renewal and with the birth dates of certain Sun deities, such as the Roman god Sol and the Persian god Mithras. According to many scholars, this is both why the birth of Jesus, the son (read: “Sun”) of God, is celebrated near the winter solstice, and why the Western New Year falls just behind it.
The winter solstice is culturally significant in and of itself even today because of the effects of deep winter on the minds and lifestyles of people in the more extreme latitudes. Winter is a dark, cold time in which people tend to spend more time indoors, are generally somewhat more sedate, and can sometimes even suffer seasonal depression—although it should be noted that many others claim the winter months as their favorite time of year (most of them own ski passes, no doubt). Having a celebration of feasting and communal fellowship to look forward to is a nice way to add spark and charm to a bleak season.
What is the relationship of the winter solstice to Christmas?
December 25 was the date of the winter solstice on the old Julian calendar; this date was known as Dies natalis Sol invictus (“Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”) in Rome, and conveniently allowed people in various parts of the Roman Empire to celebrate the birth of their sundry Sun deities together. In Rome itself, the solstice marked approximately the end of the festival of Saturnalia, during which masters and slaves swapped roles for a time, there was much feasting and licentious merry-making, and the giving of gifts and alms was encouraged. Aside from the obvious similarities between the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun” and the “Birthday of the Unconquered Son,” meaning Christ, the Christian celebration of the Nativity very likely inherited the tradition of “merry” gift-giving from Saturnalia.
We know that, as late as the 3rd Century A.D., at least some Coptic Christians in Egypt celebrated the Nativity in May. The earliest known reference to a Nativity feast corresponding to the winter solstice comes from an illuminated Roman manuscript dated from 354 A.D., although, at least through the early Middle Ages, the celebration of the Nativity in and of itself was not usually distinguished from the early January celebration of the Epiphany.
Many of the traditions of Christmas were undoubtedly incorporated through the assimilation of other cultures into the Roman Empire. We have already mentioned that Saturnalia likely passed certain traditions into the Christmas holiday; the Germanic winter solstice festival of Jul (Yule), marked by feasting, decorating with greenery and candlelight, visits from a gift-giving demigod, and the burning of the infamous Yule Log, made a particularly strong imprint on Christmas traditions both because the Germans were the last major culture in the Empire to be christianized, and because Christmas as a holiday first became popular in Western and Northern Europe at approximately the time of Charlemagne, who was crowned on Christmas Day of 800 A.D.
It was not until about this time that Christmas became the major Christian observance of the Nativity, and this was a development that was later challenged throughout Christianity. Early American Puritans particularly disapproved of Christmas, and ever since, there have been religious movements, especially in North America, which have sought to disentangle Christmas from its primarily non-Christian origins and heritage.
What are some other winter solstice celebrations around the world?
A small sampling:
- Wayeb (Maya) – the five unnamed days completing the end of the Maya solar calendar, thought to be an ominous and unlucky time in which divisions between the mortal and immortal worlds were partially broken. People often avoided leaving their houses during this period.
- Amaterasu (Japan) – in ancient Japan, the winter solstice was celebrated as the reemergence of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, from her hibernation in a cave. The celebrations were marked by observances for the dead and theatrical performances, among other events.
- Yalda (Persia) – dating from as long ago as the 2nd millennium BCE, this Persian festival originally marked the birth of the Sun-god Mithras. It is roughly synonymous with the modern Shabe Celle, associated with socializing and feasting on nuts and dried fruits.
- Şeva Zistanê (Kurdish) – this winter solstice observance dates to ancient times and is marked by feasting and the giving of sweets to children, similar in nature to Halloween in America.
- Beiwe (Saami) – the Saami, the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia, have worshipped this goddess of the Sun and of fertility since antiquity. On the night of the winter solstice, many Saami would sacrifice white female animals and paint their doorways with butter for Beiwe to eat, nourishing her for her return from the solstice to the heights of the summer skies.
- The Jewish holiday of Chanukah is not specifically related to the winter solstice, although it roughly coincides with it. However, because Chanukah is a celebration of the rededication of a holy temple (similar to Saturnalia), it may be associated de facto with the more ancient traditions of the midwinter feast.
I hope to have amply shown than, while Jesus may be the reason for Christmas proper, He is not the only reason for our celebrations of the winter solstice. The winter solstice is of a deep, broad, and ancient significance which touches on biology, ecology, psychology, sociology, astronomy—practically all aspects of human existence—and has been interpreted in many ways by many cultures.
So, by all means, put the Christ back in Christmas. Just remember that ‘Happy Holidays’ is far more warm, welcoming, and inclusive.
Deputy Dog, working from a variety of sources, put together earlier this month a collection of 11 breathtaking photos of the Earth from space. My favorite happens to be this one, a capture of the transit of the moon’s shadow across our planet during the solar eclipse of August 11, 1999, taken from the space station Mir:
It could rightly be said that, in this modern age, our civilization is struggling to come to grips with the achievements of science and the exponential growth of our species in ways personal and societal, in terms of today and of the outlook for the decades and centuries which expand before us in our imaginings of the tapestry of forever. These are disorienting times. It is good for us, then, I think, to spend whiles with images such as these. I am reminded of Carl Sagan’s apt commentary from a 1994 Cornell lecture, which he paired with the following photo, then (and probably still) the most distant photograph of Earth, taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 at a distance of four billion miles:
“We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
Those are severely illuminating words from one of the greatest of modern minds.
Skymania News reports that astronomers working at California’s Lick Observatory have isolated the identity and certain characteristics of an Earth-like planet orbiting 55 Cancri, a star 41 light years distant from our own Sun and remarkably similar in physical characteristics such as core composition, spectrum, and temperature.
The discovery of this planet, approximately 45 times the mass of Earth and located within its star’s “habitable zone”—the orbital stratum in which conditions for the formation of Earth-like life would be optimal—demonstrates concretely what astronomers and philosophers have speculated for centuries: that our own star system, while quite special to us, is far from categorically unique.
While it would certainly be “jumping the gun” to assume that such a planet harbors life simply because of the existence of an optimal configuration, the most profound implication of the discovery—in harmony with other discoveries about extrasolar worlds which continue to surface as technology and techniques improve—is that, in its ability to support life, our own world is hardly the beneficiary of a singular providence of chance or “design.”
It is the fifth planet to be identified in orbit around the star 55 Cancri, a star very similar in type and age to our own Sun, making it a virtual twin of our own solar system.
The star, which is dimly visible to the naked eye in the constellation of Cancer, now holds the record for the number of worlds in orbit, after our own Sun. It lies just 41 light-years away – right on our cosmic doorstep.
Scientists said the new planet is 45 times the mass, or size of the Earth, and has a year 260 days long – the time it takes to orbit 55 Cancri. It was found by measuring the tiny wobble it causes to the star as it orbits. Detecting this was a triumph for the astronomers and took them 18 years of study from Lick Observatory, California, because it had to be separated from the effects of the other planets.
The planet is 72.5 million miles from 55 Cancri, a little less than the distance of the Earth from the Sun, but at an ideal distance for the warmth that life as we know it would need to exist.
Geoff Marcy, of the University of California, said last night: “The discovery has me jumping out of my socks. We now know that our own Sun and its family of planets is not unusual.”
He said that if there is a moon going around this new planet, it would have a rocky surface. Water could form lakes or seas and produce the conditions for life to begin. But he added: “Then all bets are off as to how life could evolve on that moon.”
Fellow discoverer Debra Fischer, of San Francisco State University, said she expected that other Earth-like planets could exist in the star’s habitable zone.
She said: “I bet that gap is not empty.”
She added: “55 Cancri is very much like our own sun. It is about the same size and the same age. It is a solar system that is packed with planets. It has profound implications for how we search for Earth-like planets.”
She went on: “The gas-giant planets in our solar system all have large moons. If there is a moon orbiting this new, massive planet, it might have pools of liquid water on a rocky surface.”
Just a bit ago, I stepped outside to notice that a full Moon, Mars, and Venus were all in the sky, and aligned across it from west to east in a nearly perfect line.
Considering the difference in the distance between Earth and Mars and the distance between Earth and the Andromeda Galaxy, I’d say that’s quite the family moment.
Soon Dad will come stumbling and grumbling over the eastern horizon, and it’ll be time to cook breakfast.
Check out Aussie photographer Steve Selbst’s incomparable capture of the moon during last month’s total eclipse (pic links to artist’s page on Flickr).
The eclipse of August 28, 2007 was especially noteworthy because of its unusual length, clocking in at over an hour and a half in the depths of the shadow. It was not visible throughout Europe, Africa, and western Asia; in the Americas we caught it just as the moon was setting and the sun was coming up in the morning, while east Asia and Australia had been treated earlier, at moonrise. No one really got to see this eclipse in full glory, but it was very interesting in its orientation near the horizon, nonetheless.
The next total eclipse of the moon will occur on February 21, 2008. Its totality will last only about 51 minutes, but it will be at least mostly visible to the entirety of the world except east Asia and Australia.
If you caught wind of those ridiculous emails claiming that, on August 27, the planet Mars was going to be so close to Earth as to appear “about the same size as the moon,” et cetera, ad nauseum, take heart—snopes.com has a thorough exposé on the subject. Mars did come unusually close to Earth in August of 2003, but even at such a unique perigee, the red planet still appeared as little more than an auspiciously bright point in the heavens. If you ever do happen to catch a moon-sized Mars in the sky, well . . . it’s probably fair warning to have that last beer for old times’ sake.