Christmas is a time of wonder; a time for festivity and lights; a time for gathering together with friends and family in celebration. In the shelter of our warm houses, the dwindling days of winter are a curiosity –if noticed at all.
But for many ancient cultures, the death and rebirth of the sun was not cause for celebration. The sun represented life itself. Without the sun, crops did not grow and you could starve. Livestock were slaughtered, not for celebration but because there wasn’t enough silage to feed them through the winter. The emergence of the sun from the winter solstice gave hope that food supplies would last until new crops could be planted.
In contrast, for the ancient Romans the winter solstice had a carnival-like atmosphere with banquets, gift-giving and partying. It was a time to honour the god of plenty, Saturn.
I used dread Christmas because of that carnival atmosphere: the unlikely birthday of Jesus, the crass commercialization. Now I anticipate Christmas because of its connection with the natural cycles of the Earth.
As a youth, I belonged to a religion that did not celebrate Christmas because of its pagan origins. It was really awkward for me when all my school friends were looking forward to the gifts they would receive and the celebrations. Meanwhile, no lights at our house, no Christmas tree, no gifts.
Christmas celebrations, like birthdays, were disapproved by our religion; we were made to feel guilty if we attended them. It put a wedge between our family and our extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. Because these get-togethers were one of the rare times we could get together, my mom and dad and I would attend conflicted, under a dark cloud of guilt. The tension so palpable that mom would throw up.
Now I find comfort in the shortening days. It’s like Mother Nature is pulling a blanket over the land and whispering: “Hush, hush, it’s alright. Go to sleep now.”
The waning and waxing sun also reminds me a partial solar eclipse in slow motion. It has a disturbing effect on those viewing it. Total eclipses have a profound effect on people, some breaking down in tears at the spectacle.
Not everyone finds comfort in the shortening days. Many are affected by Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression in the winter months. For them, the seasonal funk of the “winter blues” is no cause for celebration.
If COVID was a religion, it would certainly disapprove of Christmas. As a puritanical religion, COVID would frown on gatherings. COVID promotes -without any support- solemn, solitary contemplation; a time to give thanks you are still alive. COVID tells us not to celebrate at a time when we most need it. Large family gatherings are taboo. To gather together generates guilt at the risk we put to ourselves and our loved ones.
While we may not be overtly conscious of the winter solstice, it has a deep visceral effect on our psyche. At a gut level, it generates awe and alarm, sobriety and giddiness, hope and fear.