THE NORTHERN hemisphere, the summer solstice marks the longest
day of the year and on that day until the winter solstice, the
days get progressively shorter. The winter solstice is the moment
when the days begin to get longer again. Just the reverse is
true in the southern hemisphere, but the two solstices themselves
occur at exactly the same moment for everyone on earth.
The winter solstice in the northern hemisphere
is close to the same time as Christmas, and many of our Christmas
traditions originated from the days before Christianity, when
the solstice was celebrated. Traditions for celebrating the end
of shorter days and the beginning of longer days have been practiced
around the world for many thousands of years.
At Stonehenge on the British Isles, for
example, the huge stones are arranged in such a way that they
frame the setting sun on the day of winter solstice. The ancient
Brits had a tradition of tying apples to the branches of oak
trees in the dead of winter to affirm that summer would come
again. The Celts put mistletoe on their altars.
The ancient Romans celebrated the winter
solstice by giving gifts. And they feasted a week. Servants traded
places with their masters the masters serving their servants
during the feast. They also had a tradition during winter solstice
of bringing evergreens indoors.
In the Scandinavian countries, the sun
disappears in the dead of winter. In the far north, it
disappears for as long as 35 days. The ancient people of the
far north had a tradition of feasting when the dark days were
over and the sun once again shone on the horizon. They celebrated
with what they called a Yuletide festival. They feasted in a
long hall while a Yule log burned in the fireplace. They thought
of mistletoe as sacred. Kissing under mistletoe was a fertility
ritual. Holly berries was considered to be the food of the gods.
The solstice celebrations were officially
replaced with Christian ceremonies during Roman times as a way
of overtaking the ancient traditions, even though Jesus wasn't
really born in December. It was a political act. December 25th
used to be the solstice with the old calendar. Now it almost
always happens on December 21st with the modern calendar.
But the Christian usurping of the celebration
was a long time ago. We could celebrate the solstice instead
of (or in addition to) our other celebrations. We could celebrate
the turning of the season. We could celebrate longer and warmer
days ahead. We could keep our celebrations, but change the date,
and that way more people could celebrate together. People
of different customs could celebrate their customs but also
celebrate the solstice with all people.
The solstice has nothing to do with religion,
race, or nationality. Every one of us relies on the sun for our
warmth, our sunlight, and our food. The time and date of the
solstice can be accurately determined and it occurs at the same
moment everywhere on earth.
The solstice might some day become an international
holiday. This could be the beginning of something wonderful:
a point of unification, a place of agreement, a universal tradition.
You can begin this year by celebrating
the solstice in even a small way. Take any of the traditions
normally associated with the holiday season and do some part
of it on the solstice. Give a gift. Eat a feast. Be kinder to
your fellow human beings. Invite people of all faiths to your
home to celebrate the end of the longest night and the beginning
of longer days. The celebration of the solstice in your own home
could actually and concretely work for peace on earth and goodwill
toward men and women.