I’ve been receiving questions about the Winter holy days: when did they start? Where did they come from? What’s Santa and the Christmas tree have to do with Jesus?
Here’s an article I wrote for the local paper a couple years ago that will answer some of those questions:
Season of Light
‘Tis the season to light up the world! For Americans in the Christian tradition, it’s time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Savior, Light of the World. For many Americans, though, the lights of the season have a different spiritual meaning.
At this time of year, with its long nights and short days, the sun, our source of light and warmth appears to be traveling further and further south each day. Then, one day, about December 21, it seems to stop. We call it the Winter Solstice, which comes from the Latin: sol meaning “sun” and stice meaning “standing.” It rises and sets in the same place, far to the south, for 3 days, until December 25, when it rises a little northward on the horizon—the beginning of the return of the light.
Ancient peoples tracked this movement, and those who used a calendar based on the sun often suspended time for those 3 days and held feasts and religious rituals to honor the return of the light. Many people today, calling themselves Pagans or Wiccans, still follow those ancient traditions.
Somewhere between 1600 and 1200 years before the birth of Jesus, a man named Zarathustra (the Greeks called him Zoroaster a thousand years later), in the area we now call Iran, had a vision that there is only one divinity, all good and all wise. He called it Ahura Mazda, which means “Wise Lord.” To explain the difficulties of life, he described twin offspring of that One, who chose different paths: the Light and the Lie. His ideas became the dominant religion of the Persian empire for over a thousand years, and the “fire temples” of Zoroastrian priests, who were often called Magi, may still be found across Central Asia and in northern India, where believers are called “Parsees.” Today, thousands of Zoroastrians light candles on their holy days, including the winter solstice, to remind them to choose the path of Light. They also honor twelve divine qualities: wisdom, power, life, etc. with stories of saints (meaning “holy ones”) who embody them, one of whom was called Mithras.
About 500 years before Jesus’ birth, Jerusalem was conquered by Babylonians and its people were exiled. They were restored to their homes when Babylon was conquered by the Zoroastrian Persians. An emperor who recognized their one God as no different from his helped them rebuild the temple, replacing the sacred menorah, in which oil-lamps were kept lit—the flames reminding people of God’s presence in the temple.
Two hundred years later, Alexander took over the Persian empire, including Israel. Later Greek emperors wanted to have their gods and goddesses worshipped in the Jerusalem temple as they were everywhere else.
The Jews revolted, and one group, the Maccabees, wrested the temple from the Greek soldiers. There they found the menorah nearly empty—only enough oil for one day! They prayed and held off the Greeks for 8 days, and the whole time the flames remained lit! This miracle is the basis for the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which moves around a bit, since the Jewish calendar is based on the moon, but is usually in December.
The Romans took over the Greek empire about 100 years before Jesus’ birth. Roman religion combined traditions from all over the Mediterranean, and an important holy day for the Roman soldiers was the birth of the Zoroastrian saint, Mithras, on December 25. The Roman calendar was based on the sun and for many years, to make the calendar work, a festival called Saturnalia (because the planet Saturn was visible then as a bright star) lasted 12 days, starting December 25th.
The Roman Empire lasted around 500 years. The Roman emperor was considered a son of Jupiter, the greatest god, and was head of their religious life. Then, when the empire became Christian, much of the emperor’s religious power was transferred to the Bishop of Rome, il Papa, whom we know as the Pope. It was his job to bring the people of many countries into one ecclesia catholica (meaning “universal church”). So, over the next several hundred years, the Roman church taught the people all over the empire about Christ. In the process they adopted and adapted many local traditions, turning gods and goddesses into saints, and making popular holy days fit into the Christian story—including the birth of the Light of the World before dawn on the fourth day after the winter solstice.
Martin Luther and his followers broke away from the Roman church in the late 1400s, protesting the many ways the church didn’t honor the Bible (so they were called “Protestants”). They gave up most of those adapted traditions—except the birth of Jesus on December 25. In fact, Luther is often credited with having created the first Christmas tree, lighting candles on an evergreen to remind us that Jesus is everlasting life and the Light of the World. (My grandmother used to read me a story saying that the first Roman missionary to Germany found the villagers dancing around a giant old oak on the 3rd day of the solstice and he was so angry he hacked it down—and found a small fir tree living in its heart!) Prince Albert, who was from Germany, brought a lit tree to his wife, Queen Victoria, in England in the mid 1800s.
In the 1960s a group of African Americans, seeking to reclaim some sense of heritage and place as a people, decided to adapt a West African harvest festival. They named the six days following December 25th Kwanzaa and created rituals based on lighting candles and feasting. Using Swahili words, they gave each day a focus: Imani, Faith; Umoja, Unity; etc. The idea took hold and now millions of African Americans celebrate both Christmas and Kwanzaa, each year.
By whatever name, we all seek the same thing, the peace and light and love of God. And at this season, especially, we honor the birth of the Light of the World in our hearts.