Home » People & Culture » Light a Single Candle

Light a Single Candle

Winter Solstice arrives right on schedule this Friday, 21 December, at 11:12 UTC – 5:12 in the morning here by mythical Central Time.  It’s being celebrated as the end of the world, probably not because anyone believes that’s going to happen.  No Mayan actually predicted such an event, but it is the end of their 13 Baktun cycle.  My guess is that the Mayans would have used this as an excuse to celebrate too, although their idea of a “party” often involved horrific acts of violence.  It’s a staple of the day.

What really happens is that this is the moment when the North Pole is pointing directly away from the sun and starts its wobble back.  The exact moment of change in the orbit is also the moment when the long nights change the least, in keeping with the nature of cycles.  Light defines the season for us even more than dark notions of destruction because it is the light that will return.  That is more worthy of a party to me.

sylvesterWe have a Solstice Tree in the house, in keeping with the ancient German tradition.  The kids named it “Sylvester”, which I approve of given that New Year’s Eve is also the feast of St Sylvester, as it is known in many Catholic nations.  The very idea of a tree itself has a fascinating history, too.  The ancient Teutons would tie bits of meat and other offerings to a tall tree and set fire to it on the Solstice, in order to coax the Sun God to come back. It apparently worked. Many years later this would evolve into another German tradition, which is to periodically set fire to neighboring countries. Also, they took the trees indoors and called it Christmas.

There is something about fire and violence deep in the midnight of the year.  Darkness puts us all on edge, so a few candles make all the difference.  Making this a season of light is what makes it a season of hope.

There are those who see a “War on Christmas” being waged between the religious and the secular.  I find this utterly hilarious for many reasons.  First of all, Christmas has always been a pagan holiday loosely adapted to assign the parts of the Gospel that describe Jesus’ birth to some particular part of the Christian Calendar.  The time was chosen in part because of the need for hope among darkness, but also because 25 December was Natale Sol Invictus, or the birthday of the invincible sun.  It was celebrated with parties largely left over from the earlier Saturnalia, or feast of Saturn.  The Romans largely ditched their Greek-borrowed pantheon of Gods by 200AD and took up the Persian-borrowed cult of the Sun.  When Constantine declared Christianity the Roman faith in 380AD, it was easy to replace the Sun with the Son and continue on the partying.

The need for a birthday for Jesus is a very Catholic concept in that it fixes the passing of time into one year-long celebration of the life of Christ and the saints, each day being some reminder of the True Path of faith and righteousness.  The very calendar, with nearly every movement in life, was tied to faith in a “catholic” (comprehensive and universal) outlook on life.

The reformation found Protestants generally opposed to all the odd pagan stuff that had worked its way into the established Catholic (big “C”) Church, and Christmas was generally banned or diminished.  Atheists often point out that the early US Congress met on Christmas, but this was far from a demonstration of the separation of Church and State – it was actually a standard Protestant practice to go about life as usual on 25 December.

War on Christmas?  Well, yes – it’s rather obviously pagan.  Or Catholic.  Or consumerist.  It’s always been a holiday that was hard to pin down as one “thing”, even as people have taken sides one way or the other.

Not Solstice.  It’s an astrological event that we can time to the minute.  It’s not the end of the world but the end of the year, the way the day ends at midnight.  It’s 10 days off from the actual end of the year only because the Romans were really lousy at devising astronomically accurate calendars, unlike the Maya.  You can always blame the Romans for everything – especially any solid idea of what “Armageddon” is that has been handed down.

And so the stories all run together, like the wobble of a tiny planet around an ordinary star.  Blame one or more ancient civilizations for the odd traditions any of us have, as you can blame your fellow human for the way they feel about public celebration of any given tradition.

Then again, it’s always better to light one single candle than to curse the darkness.  Especially on Solstice.

14 thoughts on “Light a Single Candle

  1. It is the holiday season. The darkness is a big problem especially for people with seasonal disorder which is really common. A celebration is a good thing but too many obligations wears on everyone. Its best to enjoy it if you ask me.

    • Thanks, I agree. It’s the best excuse for a party there is, and that’s the real ancient tradition. Part of the reason that Puritans and other Protestants actually banned Christmas is that it was always a drinking holiday. Eh, screw them. 🙂

  2. I always remember this day as the day that the days started getting longer- thanks to Joe Soucheray. Or maybe he was talking about the summer solstice and when the days started to get shorter. Either way, the short days are a problem and we need as much to celebrate as possible. Bring on Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and even Festivus to make it through the dark days.

  3. Growing up in a (barely) Jewish household I asked a similar question of my dad as to why we had a tree, what we were celebrating there, with a menorah right next to it.

    “Christmas. Hanukkah. Whatever you want
    If nothing else, we’re celebrating that everybody is celebrating, which beats a lot of the alternatives.”

    So, in the spirit of celebration I’ll bypass my astronomy nitpicks and wish you a Happy Merry.

    • That is just beautiful! For the record, your dad was about the coolest adult I knew as a kid, and he’s the one that took us to see “Life of Brian” in the theater – back when that’s where we saw movies (that’s the way it was and we liked it).
      Thank you. I am sooo going to use that. 🙂

  4. It is better to light a single candle, but you can always light a whole lot of them while you are there. XD Have a happy solstice or whatever the right greeting is for the day!

    • The greeting is now “Have a Happy Merry!” 🙂
      Yes, let’s light a bunch of candles and have a warm glow to sit in quietly while we have tea (or something stronger). It makes for a great holiday.

  5. The amount of drinking that German and Irish immigrants engaged in during the nineteenth century always disturbed the country club Protestants. The crowded, drafty tenements. Working class immigrants to some extent had their own separate neighborhoods and places of support and recreation.

    Fast forward to now and hardly anyone goes out for a beer after work. They have to pick up their child from school. Bo-ring, but responsible. At least we have lots of beer and wine and liquor to choose from these. Twenty years ago young adult males were frowned upon if they drank wine. Fortunately some ideas change. Malbec is in, try it.

    • Our nation did change as immigrants came in, particularly Catholics. The history of Christmas seems very complex and worthy of a lot more research than I’ve put into it so far. Just here in America it’s clearly changed a lot!
      And yes, the way we drink and why is interesting. My daughter is into “The Twilight Zone”, and one of the most interesting features is that people often come into a bar that has no tap handles and about 5 kinds of whiskey to get a drink. It was a very different world.
      Today there are so many beers and yes, women drink beer and men drink wine. It’s all OK. There are zillions of mixed drinks, too. Much more social. But it’s also more of an event, not something you just do on the way home from work. Another topic worthy of a longer piece, eh?

  6. Pingback: 12/21/12: What’s Making Me Happy This Week « WalkieTalkieBookClub

  7. Pingback: Solstice Day: Mayan Endings, New Beginnings, and the Rebel Jesus

Like this Post? Hate it? Tell us!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s