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Winter solstice

Beliefs about the diversity of celebrations.
Origins. Ancient and recent celebrations from
Ancient Brazil to Christian countries.

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Note:

For the first time, thanks to a clear sky and the efforts of many individuals, the 2007 Winter Solstice illumination at the passage tomb at Newgrange in Ireland was broadcast live on the Internet. The 60 minute broadcast has been archived and is available at: http://www.heritageireland.ie/  The passage and chamber at Newgrange was illuminated by the rising sun on 2007-DEC-21 between 08:57 and 09:15 GMT.

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Peoples' beliefs about the diversity of celebrations in December:

People view other religions in various ways, and thus treat the celebrations of faiths other than their own differently:

bulletSome people value the range of December celebrations, because it is evidence of diversity of belief within our common humanity. They respect both their own religious traditions and those of other faiths for their ability to inspire people to lead more ethical lives. Religious diversity is to them a positive influence.
 
bullet Others, including some conservative Christians and para-church groups, reject the importance of all celebrations other than the holy day recognized by their own religion. Some even reject their religion's holy days which are seen to have Pagan origins (e.g. Easter and Christmas among a few Christian groups).
 
bulletSome view other religions as being inspired by Satan. Thus the solstice celebrations of other religions are rejected because they are seen to be Satanic in origin.

The United States is often considered to be the most religious diverse country in the world. Southern Ontario in Canada has been described as the most religiously diverse region within any country of the world. Meanwhile, about 75% of North American adults identify with Christianity; about 18% have no religious affiliation, and the rest identify with a non-Christian religion. With some people in North America attributing value to religious diversity and others wanting to recognize only Christmas during December, conflicts are bound to happen. Should store clerks say "Merry Christmas" and thus exclude other holy days and days of celebration? Or should they say "Happy Holidays" or "Seasons' Greetings" and acknowlege religious and cultural diversity?

In recent years, significant conflict has ocurred during this season. This seems to have reached a peak during 2004, and included economic boycotts of some companies that wanted to acknowledge the cultural and religious diversity of their customers. The intensty of the "December Dilemma" (a.k.a. Christmas Wars) has diminished significantly by 2011.

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Origins of solstice celebration

The seasons of the year are caused by the 23.45º tilt of the earth's axis. Because the earth is rotating like a top or gyroscope, it points in in the same direction continuously. At this time, it towards a point in space near Polaris, which is the current North Star.

However, like a top that is slowing down, there is a very slow wobble of the earth's axis. The pole star (a.k.a. north star) changes over time: the star Thuban in the constellation Draco was the northern pole star circa 3000 BCE. Polaris is the current pole star, being only about a half degree offset from the north celestial pole. 1,2 If we wait for about 21,000 years, Thuban will again be the pole star.

Meanwhile, the earth is also revolving around the sun. During half of the year, the southern hemisphere is more exposed to the sun than is the northern hemisphere. During the rest of the year, the reverse is true. At noontime in the Northern Hemisphere the sun appears high in the sky during summertime and low in the sky during winter. The time of the year when the sun reaches its maximum elevation occurs on the day with the greatest number of minutes of daylight. This is called the summer solstice, and is typically on JUN-21 in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the first day of summer.

"Solstice" is derived from two Latin words: "sol" meaning sun, and "sistere," to cause to stand still. The lowest elevation occurs about DEC-21 and is the winter solstice -- the first day of winter, when the night time hours are maximum.

In pre-historic times, winter was a very difficult time for Aboriginal people in the northern latitudes. The growing season had ended and the tribe had to live off of stored food and whatever animals they could catch. The people would become troubled as the life-giving sun sank lower in the sky each noon. They feared that it would eventually disappear and leave them in permanent darkness and extreme cold. After the passage of the winter solstice, they would have reason to celebrate and regain hope in the future as they saw the sun rising and strengthening once more. Although many months of cold weather remained before spring, they took heart that the return of the warm season was inevitable.

The concept of birth and or death/rebirth became associated with the winter solstice. The Aboriginal people had no elaborate instruments to detect the solstice. But they were able to notice a slight elevation of the sun's path within a few days after the solstice -- perhaps by DEC-25. Celebrations were often timed for about the 25th. 

December celebrations in many faiths and locations - ancient and modern

bullet ANCIENT BRAZIL: Brazilian archeologists have found an assembly of 127 granite blocks arranged equidistant from each other. They apparently form an ancient astronomical observatory. One of the stones marked the position of the sun at the time of the winter solstice and were probably used in religious rituals. 1
 
bullet ANCIENT EGYPT: The god-man/savior Osiris died and was entombed on DEC-21. "At midnight, the priests emerged from an inner shrine crying 'The Virgin has brought forth! The light is waxing" and showing the image of a baby to the worshipers." 2
 
bulletANCIENT GREECE: The winter solstice ritual was called Lenaea, the Festival of the Wild Women. In very ancient times, a man representing the harvest god Dionysos was torn to pieces and eaten by a gang of women on this day. Later in the ritual, Dionysos would be reborn as a baby. By classical times, the human sacrifice had been replaced by the killing of a goat. The women's role had changed to that of funeral mourners and observers of the birth.
 
bulletANCIENT ROME: Saturnalia began as a feast day for Saturn on DEC-17 and of Ops (DEC-19). About 50 BCE, both were later converted into two day celebrations. During the Empire, the festivals were combined to cover a full week: DEC-17 to 23. 

By the third century CE, there were many religions and spiritual mysteries being followed within the Roman Empire. Many, if not most, celebrated the birth of their god-man near the time of the solstice. Emperor Aurelian (270 to 275 CE) blended a number of Pagan solstice celebrations of the nativity of such god-men/saviors as Appolo, Attis, Baal, Dionysus, Helios, Hercules, Horus, Mithra, Osiris, Perseus, and Theseus into a single festival called the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun" on DEC-25. At the time, Mithraism and Christianity were fierce competitors. Aurelian had even declared Mithraism the official religion of the Roman Empire in 274 CE. Christianity eventually won out when it became the new official religion in the 4th century CE.
 
bulletATHEISTS: There has been a recent increase in solstice observances by Atheists in the U.S. For example, The American Atheists and local Atheist groups have organized celebrations for 2000-DEC, including the Great North Texas Infidel Bash in Weatherford TX; Winter Solstice bash in Roselle NJ; Winter Solstice Parties in York PA, Boise ID, North Bethesda MD, and Des Moines IA; Winter Solstice Gatherings in Phoenix AZ and Denver CO: a Year End Awards and Review Dinner (YEAR) in San Francisco, CA.
 
bulletBUDDHISM: On DEC-8, or on the Sunday immediately preceding, Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day (a.k.a. Rohatsu). It recalls the day in 596 BCE, when the Buddha achieved enlightenment. He had left his family and possessions behind at the age of 29, and sought the meaning of life -- particularly the reasons for its hardships. He studied under many spiritual teachers without success. Finally, he sat under a pipal tree and vowed that he would stay there until he found what he was seeking. On the morning of the eighth day, he realized that everyone suffers due to ignorance. But ignorance can be overcome through the Eightfold Path that he advocated. This day is generally regarded as the birth day of Buddhism. Being an Eastern tradition, Bodhi Day has none of the associations with the solstice and seasonal changes found in other religious observances at this time of year. However, it does signify the point in time when the Buddha achieved enlightenment and escaped the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth through reincarnation -- themes that are observed in other religions in December.
 
bullet CHRISTIANITY: Any record of the date of birth of Yeshua of Nazareth (later known as Jesus Christ) has been lost. There is sufficient evidence in the Gospels to indicate that Yeshua was born in the fall, but this seems to have been unknown to early Christians. By the beginning of the 4th century CE, there was intense interest in selecting a day to celebrate Yeshua's birthday. The western church leaders selected DEC-25 because this was already the date recognized throughout the Roman Empire as the birthday of various Pagan gods. 2,3 Since there was no central Christian authority at the time, it took centuries before the tradition was universally accepted:

bulletEastern churches began to celebrate Christmas after 375 CE. 

bulletThe church in Jerusalem started in the 7th century.

bullet Ireland started in the 5th century.

bullet

Austria, England and Switzerland in the 8th century.

bullet Slavic lands in the 9th and 10th centuries. 4

Many symbols and practices associated with Christmas are of Pagan origin: holly, ivy, mistletoe, yule log, the giving of gifts, decorated evergreen tree, magical reindeer, etc. Polydor Virgil, a 15th century British Christian, said

"Dancing, masques, mummeries, stageplays, and other such Christmas disorders now in use with Christians, were derived from these Roman Saturnalian and Bacchanalian festivals; which should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them."

In Massachusetts, Puritans unsuccessfully tried to ban Christmas entirely during the 17th century, because of its heathenism. The English Parliament abolished Christmas in 1647. Some contemporary Christian faith groups have refused to celebrate Christmas. Included among these was the Worldwide Church of God (before its recent conversion to Evangelical Christianity) and the Jehovah's Witnesses.
 

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This topic continues on a second essay

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References used in the preparation of this essay:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Amazon 'Stonehenge' found in Brazil," Itar-Tass News Agency, 2006-MAY-15, at: http://www.itar-tass.com/
  2. Charles Panati, "Sacred origins of profound things: The stories behind the rites and rituals of the world's religions," Penguin Arkana, (1996), Page 215 to 217.
  3. B.G. Walker, "The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets," Harper & Row, (1983), Page 166 to 167.
  4. Mike Nichols, "Yule: Circa December 21," at: http://paganwiccan.about.com/
  5. Stephen M. Wylen, "Holidays mark victory of light over darkness," The Bergen Record, 1999-DEC-2. The essay is online at: http://www.bergen.com:80/
  6. Robert Burns, "Paying Homage to the Return of the Sun," LA Times, 2001-DEC-6, at: http://www.latimes.com/

Site navigation: Home page > Religious information menu > Winter Solstice > here

Copyright © 1999 to 2011, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-DEC-03
Latest update: 2011-DEC-02
Author: B.A. Robinson
 
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