by Tony Palermo
Everybody knows that in December, people celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah (and now, the newly minted African-American holiday, Kwanzaa), but how many realize just how closely related these different celebrations are? There's a bit of controversy lately about "Happy Holidays" versus "Merry Christmas" but these supposedly separate celebrations are actually connected to the Winter Solstice. As metaphors they remarkably share a message thousands of years older than their respective religions. Furthermore, the explanation for these similarities is more Ice Age than New Age.
What's a solstice?
Thousands of years ago, people noticed the days getting shorter and the sun traveling lower in the sky. They were alarmed. Many thought this was the end of the world. In Northern Europe at Winter, there would be up to 35 days without any glimpse of the Sun. As the Sun waned, people saw everything dead and dying. Without sunlight, there would be no plants, no animals and soon, no humans. In the spiritual realm, many thought the darkness brought out ghosts, trolls, and evil spirits. It was frightening. Imagine our modern world experiencing a 35-day eclipse!
In the Northern Hemisphere, the Winter Solstice occurs every December 21st. It marks the beginning of winter and is the shortest day of the year, but more importantly, it marks the point where the number of daylight hours begins to increase.
In Ireland, Newgrange is a huge circular stone structure similar to Stonehenge. Newgrange is a marker for the Winter Solstice. It is built to allow a shaft of sunlight to penetrate its central chamber only at dawn on the Winter Solstice--a giant celestial clock, built over 5,000 years ago. To put it in perspective, please note that the Egyptian pyramids are only 3,000 years old. Hopi and Pueblo Indians in pre-historic America constructed similar structures called kivas. Throughout the world, ancient peoples marked the solstice and were reassured that daylight would not end.
Solstice means “the Sun standing still.” It signaled the return of the Sun and gave hope to early man. This was a cause for celebration and much of our winter holiday comes from solstice festivities--many aspects of which are related to fire and light and the rebirth of hope. Solstice festivals have been observed around the globe throughout history.
The re-birth of the Sun
So why is the solstice on December 21st and Christmas held on December 25th?
The New Testament specified no date for the birth of Jesus, so about 366 C.E., the Roman empire state church selected December 25th--the Roman calendar's Solstice--which was already a traditional "God's Birthday" across the empire for the many religions it contained. Having Jesus born on the Solstice also lent him credibility. It helped convert pagans to Christianity, since the new god was a version of their old god (Mithris, Saturn, Mordoc, Horus, Sol, Apollo, Osiris, etc .) Of course, this similarity to other gods of light and eternal life is truer than most Christians realize.
Everyone has so focused on the literalness of the events (menorahs, divine births) that they fail to see through the metaphors to the truly cosmic relevance of the Solstice. The Sun god and menorah miracle derive from the Solstice, and on one level signify ancient man’s need for the Sun to survive, but these symbols of light predate either religion and have a deeper spiritual message--they symbolize life after death.
Light = Life
The Solstice provides hope for the rebirth of Spring after the “death” that is Winter--in other words, life, in this world, and Christ provides for a rebirth in the next world. However, over the millennia, people stopped interpreting their religions metaphorically and instead began seeing them as historical events, holy in themselves. This obscured the connections to the Solstice, but they can easily be uncovered again. Take the Christmas tree, for example.
A Judeo-Christian-Pagan Rite
The pagans also placed candles in the branches of their trees, similar to the Hanukkah menorah and hearkening back to the Solstice bonfires and Yule logs of everyone from the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks, to the Druids and the Norsemen. The Christmas tree is far more pagan than Christian and directly tied to the Solstice--although it also echoes the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden, and the Cross, but those interpretations came later, as justifications for these obviously pagan symbols. The use of holly and mistletoe are similar borrowings from pagan Solstice festivals.
The Santa Claus Angle
“Old Nick” was a Danish sea god, and the early Christian bishop, Saint Nicholas, was attributed a power over storms and possessed a magic cauldron to resurrect the dead (a power both very pagan and also Christ-like). The visitor came at night and left gold coins in stockings and shoes. In the Netherlands, he was called "Sinter Klaas"--a name later Anglicized to "Santa Claus." The old Danish gift-bringer known as Julemanden has elves as helpers, arrives in a sleigh drawn by reindeer and sports a sack of goodies on his back.
Santa is most famously portrayed in the anonymous early 19th century poem “A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” popularly known as “The Night Before Christmas.” Santa Claus appears totally of pagan origin. Charles Dickens’ "Ghost of Christmas Present" from his "Christmas Carol" story is clearly another version of this Santa character--right down to his jolly laughter.
The Real "Real Meaning of Christmas"
Christ was considered the son of God, but also God, himself. Traditionally, God and Santa Claus are both depicted as wise old men with white beards who know if people have been bad or good and judge them--dispensing or withholding gifts. Those gifts could be a toy, another good harvest, or life after death. If you are bad, Santa Claus brings you a lump of coal. If you lead a bad life, the Christian God sends you to Hell, the land of coal. But don't fret, because, doesn't coal produce light when lit? And light is what the holiday is really all about--a light of redemption, another chance.
In ancient societies, light meant life--without it, there was none. The light symbolized the afterlife, Heaven, Valhalla, Nirvana, Happy Hunting Grounds, even reincarnation. Today, people who have had near-death experiences report seeing a bright light. The Winter Solstice marks the re-birth of the Sun. The return of light means there is always hope. And our celebrations validate faith. Believing in Santa Claus is no child's deception, no more so than believing in God is an adult's deception. They are both articles of faith.
The shared message of the solstice festivals of Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa--that life will go on--is more universal than their Jewish, Christian, or African origins would lead you to believe. As long as there are children, there will be a Santa Claus. As long as there are people, there will be a God. And as long as there is a Winter Solstice there is the promise of life renewed. The Winter Solstice festival is the world's greatest holiday, a celestial celebration.
From cavemen to spacemen, it's been the same festive occasion. So have a
happy Solstice! Don't belittle it. When you say "Happy Hanukkah," "Merry
Christmas," "Season's Greetings," or "Happy Holidays," the Solstice is what
we've really been celebrating all along. They all reflect a moment of hope
amidst a time of darkness. So walk into the light and shine on!
by Tony Palermo
Our modern Christmas celebration is only about 160 years old and can be directly traced to the appearance of Charles Dickens’ 1843 story, A Christmas Carol. At the time Dickens’ Carol appeared, few celebrated Christmas; few employers gave workers the day off; there were few family reunions, little seasonal charity or goodwill towards men; no Christmas turkeys, no feasts, no office parties, no Christmas trees, and not much of a jolly elf in red. The history of the holiday will astound modern day revelers who think our way of celebrating dates back very far.
In England, before the coming of Christianity, over 1500 years ago, there had been a strong paganism. They celebrated the Winter Solstice with Yule bonfires, feasts, and tales of ghosts and fairies. The Winter Solstice was a scary time in Northern Europe--dark days brought out fears of the end of the world and evil spirits. (See my Solstice essay above for more. ) In the 6th century, Pope Gregory I asked English bishops to merge the pagan celebration with Christ’s nativity to aid in converting the populace and this cross-cultural tradition flowered for centuries. Here were the “Twelve Days of Christmas” (December 25th to January 6th--Christ’s “official” birthday), manorial feasts, feudal games, the Lord of Misrule, holly (fairy catchers), mistletoe (the golden bough) and other pagan rites, all woven into a festive/faithful “Christmas” stew.
However, the Calvinistic puritans of the 17th and 18th centuries disdained all celebrations and especially anything related to pagan rites. Their dour fundamentalism didn’t see the relation of the Yule and Nativity. America's cherished Pilgrims hated Christmas and fined those who celebrated it. By 1800, the Puritans of England had largely reduced Christmas to a staid religious holiday--resembling the modern Easter--church and some gifts for children. This is the so-called “true meaning of Christmas,” but it actually reduces the ancient Solstice festival to such a meager glory as to be miserly.
Another factor in smothering the old English celebration was the mass migration of country folk to the cities of industrializing Britain. Uprooted from their traditions and mixed with people from all over, the newcomers’ country traditions died out and Christmas was purged of jollity. By 1800, the "good old days" were gone and a solemn religious holiday knelt in its place.
A nostalgic Sir Walter Scott recalled the ancient mysteries of the old feasts in his 1808 Marmion. American author, Washington Irving, visited England in the early 1800s and found some that still remembered the old Yule celebrations. In his 1820 Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., Irving wrote of “Christmas at Bracebridge Hall” detailing the long forgotten customs of a "merrie English Christmas." These accounts contributed to William Sandys’ Selection of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (1833) and Robert Seymour’s The Book of Christmas (1837). They, in turn, shaped a vogue for medievalism in the 1830s that hearkened to a merrier England and a society undivided between rich and poor. Movements arose to counter the Calvinists and Evangelicals’ spartan Christmas and it fell to Charles Dickens to turn the Yule-tide with his short book, A Christmas Carol, in 1843.
Dickens took Ebenezer Scrooge, a modern, puritan miser, to task for his stern practicality and disdain of frivolity and charity. Scrooge's "Bah, humbug!" regarding Christmas, was a caricature of the Calvinist rantings. Dickens' “Ghost Story of Christmas” used memory, example and fear to show Scrooge how to really “keep Christmas”--with charity, goodwill, family togetherness, holiday, feasts, parties, and children’s games. The book was immensely popular--so much so that it re-invented how Christmas was celebrated. After reading Dickens’ Carol, Scottish writer, Thomas Carlyle, ordered a turkey and invited some friends for Christmas dinner. Dickens’ Christmas book was translated into a dozen languages and became famous world-wide--an instruction manual for our modern Christmas.
Nearly all aspects of the way we celebrate modern Christmas stem from the popularity of Dickens book--the feasts, office parties, games, carolers, family get-togethers, geese (turkeys), gifts. The wonderful anonymous 1822 poem, A Visit by St. Nicholas, popularly known as “The Night before Christmas,” fluffed up Washington Irving's earlier St. Nick. Who in turn, was later echoed by Dickens’ jolly Ghost of Christmas Present--his horn of plenty is both Santa's pipe and bag of toys. The beard, the flying, the spreading of goodwill were further popularized by Dickens' benevolent ghost. Only the Christmas tree is missing from Dickens’ story, but that is because it had just been introduced to England, from Germany, by Prince Albert in 1841, and hadn’t been widely adopted, yet--and wasn't in the American "Visit" poem either.
Some people object to Dickens’ Carol for it’s lack of references to religion, but they fail to see it's many metaphors. Tiny Tim stands in for Christ--Tim’s crutch is his cross, his death redeems Scrooge, his creed is “God bless us, every one”; Marley’s ghost and the chained phantoms are damned souls to whom Christ is unknown; Scrooge is a "wise man" who travels far before bestowing his gifts, etc. Dickens was too much an artist of symbol and myth to tell his story any more directly than he did. Those who can’t see Christ in this Christmas story, have perhaps a bit too much fundamentalism clouding their eyes.
Over the years, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has become a cultural-text and people only dimly recall the actual story. They think it a quaint entertainment for children--just another stray bit of folklore contributing to the holiday. Look again and you will see many of our "timeless" traditions of Christmas--all popularized in the last 150 years. Man’s imagination invents a fascinating mythology that allows us to transcend our existence and Christmas is one of our greatest inventions. “God bless us, every one!”
Try to forget the endless parade of bowdlerized Scrooge’s in commercials, parodies, or botched retellings, most notably, the syrupy MGM Christmas Carol (1938) or the musical Scrooge (1970), or Bill Murray’s Scrooged (1988). If you think you know the story from these travesties, get yourself to a book or video store and see what you’ve been missing. God save us, every one, from the Ignorance & Want of these mis-begotten children of Dickens' original fable.
TONY PALERMO is an audio
theatre producer, performer, and educator living in Los Angeles, California.