Today is Winter Solstice

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Today is Winter Solstice.   I have been doing research on traditions and this is one our family will begin actively celebrating.  It will be a tradition that my children will have to remember.  

The Pagan celebration of Winter Solstice (also known as Yule) is one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world.

The Science
Like many science-related terms, the word “solstice” is derived from two Latin root words, “sol” meaning “sun” and sistere meaning “to stand still” (because this is the point at which the sun’s path seems to stand still, then begin moving north). The word was first used in English around 1250.

The science behind  winter solstice goes like this...the winter solstice marks the beginning of winter and is actually the apex of a process that seems to pull the sun lower into the southern sky each day.  The planet’s tilted axis means the sun’s daily path across the sky appears to be retreating to the south for half the year, from June to December, and marching north the other half. That’s because the axis remains tilted in the same direction throughout the Earth’s yearly orbit. For half the year, our hemisphere is angled slightly toward the sun, and slightly away the other half. Thus Wednesday is the shortest “day” of the year, with the fewest hours of sunlight. Curiously, because of Earth’s elliptical orbit, the planet is actually closer to the sun by about 3 million miles right now than at its farthest point from it.

Ancient people were hunters and spent most of their time outdoors. The seasons and weather played a very important part in their lives. Because of this many ancient people had a great reverence for, and even worshipped the sun. The Norsemen of Northern Europe saw the sun as a wheel that changed the seasons. It was from the word for this wheel, houl, that the word yule is thought to have come. At mid-winter the Norsemen lit bonfires, told stories and drank sweet ale.

The ancient Romans also held a festival to celebrate the rebirth of the year. Saturnalia ran for seven days from the 17th of December. It was a time when the ordinary rules were turned upside down. Men dressed as women and masters dressed as servants. The festival also involved decorating houses with greenery, lighting candles, holding processions and giving presents.

Before Christianity, the Winter Solstice was held on the shortest day of the year -- 21st December. The Druids (Celtic priests) would cut the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and give it as a blessing. Oaks were seen as sacred and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months.

It was also the Druids who began the tradition of the yule log. The Celts thought that the sun stood still for twelve days in the middle of winter and during this time a log was lit to conquer the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring luck for the coming year which is now celebrated as January 1 – New Year’s Day.

Many of these customs are still followed today. They have been incorporated into the Christian and secular celebrations of Christmas.

The First Christmas
The Gospels do not mention the date of Jesus' birth. It was not until the 4th century CE that Pope Julius I set 25th December as the date for Christmas. This was an attempt to Christianize the Pagan celebrations that already took place at this time of year. By 529, 25th December had become a civil holiday and by 567 the twelve days from 25th December  to the Epiphany were public holidays.

Christmas is not only a Christian festival. The celebration has roots in the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the festivals of the ancient Greeks, the beliefs of the Druids and the folk customs of Europe.
Christmas comes just after the middle of winter. The sun is strengthening and the days are beginning to grow longer. For people throughout history this has been a time of feasting and celebration.
Holly is one of the symbols most associated with Christmas. Its religious significance pre-dates Christianity. It was previously associated with the Sun God (Saturn) and was important in Pagan customs. Some ancient religions used holly for protection. They decorated doors and windows with it in the belief it would ward off evil spirits.
Judaism was the main religion of Israel at the time of Jesus' birth. The Jewish midwinter festival of Hanukkah marks an important part of Jewish history. It is eight days long and on each day a candle is lit. It is a time of remembrance, celebration of light, a time to give gifts and have fun.
Christmas has always been a strange combination of Christian, Pagan and folk traditions. As far back as 389 CE, St Gregory Nazianzen (one of the Four Fathers of the Greek Church) warned against 'feasting in excess, dancing and crowning the doors'. The Church was already finding it hard to bury the Pagan remnants of the midwinter festival.
During the medieval period (c.400CE - c.1400CE) Christmas was a time for feasting and merrymaking. It was a predominantly secular festival but contained some religious elements.
Medieval Christmas lasted 12 days from Christmas Eve on 24th December, until the Epiphany (Twelfth Night) on 6th January. Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means 'to show', meaning the time when Jesus was revealed to the world. Even up until the 1800s the Epiphany was at least as big a celebration as Christmas day.
Many Pagan traditions had been brought to Britain by the invading Roman soldiers. These included covering houses in greenery and bawdy partying that had its roots in the unruly festival of Saturnalia.
The Church attempted to curb Pagan practices and popular customs were given Christian meaning. Carols that had started as Pagan songs for celebrations such as midsummer and harvest were taken up by the Church. By the late medieval period the singing of Christmas carols had become a tradition.
The Church also injected Christian meaning into the use of holly, making it a symbol for Jesus' crown of thorns. According to one legend, the holly's branches were woven into a painful crown and placed on Christ's head by Roman soldiers who mocked him, chanting: "Hail King of the Jews." Holly berries used to be white but Christ's blood left them with a permanent crimson stain.
Another legend is about a little orphan boy who was living with shepherds when the angels came to announce Jesus' birth. The child wove a crown of holly for the newborn baby's head. But when he presented it, he became ashamed of his gift and started to cry. Miraculously the baby Jesus reached out and touched the crown. It began to sparkle and the orphan's tears turned into beautiful scarlet berries.
From the middle of the 17th century until the early 18th century the Christian Puritans suppressed Christmas celebrations in Europe and America.
The Puritan movement began during the reign of Queen Elizabeth in England (1558 -1603). They believed in strict moral codes, plenty of prayer and close following of New Testament scripture.
As the date of Christ's birth is not in the Gospels the Puritans thought that Christmas was too strongly linked to the Pagan Roman festival and were opposed to all celebration of it, particularly the lively, boozy celebrations inherited from Saturnalia. In 1644 all Christmas activities were banned in England. This included decorating houses with evergreens and eating mince pies.
After a lull in Christmas celebrations the festival returned with a bang in the Victorian Era (1837-1901). The Victorian Christmas was based on nostalgia for Christmases past. Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843) inspired ideals of what Christmas should be, capturing the imagination of the British and American middle classes. This group had money to spend and made Christmas a special time for the family.
The Victorians gave us the kind of Christmas we know today, reviving the tradition of carol singing, borrowing the practice of card giving from St. Valentine's day and popularizing the Christmas tree.
Although the Victorians attempted to revive the Christmas of medieval Britain, many of the new traditions were Anglo-American inventions. From the 1950s, carol singing was revived by ministers, particularly in America, who incorporated them into Christmas celebrations in the Church. Christmas cards were first sent by the British but the Americans, many of whom were on the move and away from their families, picked up the practice because of a cheap postal service and because it was a good way of keeping in contact with people at home.

Christmas trees were a German tradition, brought to Britain and popularized by the royal family. Prince Albert first introduced the Christmas tree into the royal household in Britain in 1834. He was given a tree as a gift by the Queen of Norway, which was displayed in Trafalgar Square.

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