Editor’s note: Bart Everson will be presenting at the 10th Annual Conference on Current Pagan Studies in February in Claremont, CA. His paper is entitled “Toward an Ecocentric Program for Faculty Development”. Today we hear from Bart as part of his new regular column, A Pedagogy of Gaia.
Over the years, I have experienced increasing levels of cognitive dissonance around the Christian holiday. Many slough off the religious aspect of the day and focus on the secular attributes, but I could not. Perhaps it’s how I was raised. It is a tradition in my extended family to sing “Happy Birthday Jesus” at Christmas gatherings.
At the same time, I’m turned off by the rampant commercialization of the holiday, just as many Christians are. (We often imagine this commercialization to be a process that happened in the last generation or two, but this trend actually goes back to the early 1800s.) The economic pressure — buy, buy, buy, consume, consume, consume — not only leaves me cold, it actively distresses me.
There has to be something more. There has to be something real to celebrate.
And of course, there is. But what is it?
The solstice is the reason for the season … or is it?
Like many who have wondered about such things, I latched onto the idea of the Winter Solstice. I wanted to shout, “The solstice is the reason for the season!” After all, there are many similar mid-winter holidays all over the world, clustered around this celestial event.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know what more to do with this idea. It was an empty sort of “gotcha” moment. I focused on the mechanics of the solar orb and kind of stopped there, out in space somewhere. I had a vague idea that something more was possible, even necessary, but I didn’t know what. Something was still missing.
The more I’ve studied and learned on the subject, the more I’ve come to realize how simplistic my initial thoughts were. Yes, the solstice is the reason, but then again, no — not exactly.
Let me expand on that. An excellent example comes in the question of why the Christmas holiday was fixed at this time of year by the early church. For the first two centuries after the crucifixion, Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus at all. When the custom finally did begin, some observed it in May, others in April, others in March, still others in January. Indeed, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “there is no month in the year to which respectable authorities have not assigned Christ’s birth.” December finally won out, for Roman Catholics at least; December 25 was the date of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, a Roman festival celebrating the birth (or rebirth) of the sun god Sol Invictus. Accordingly, “the same instinct which set Natalis Invicti at the winter solstice will have sufficed […] to set the Christian feast there too.”
The instinct toward wholeness
So, yes, the solstice, but not exactly. It’s not the solstice per se, but the instinct behind it. It’s “the same instinct” behind Natalis Invicti. What is that instinct?
It wasn’t until I encountered the Wheel of the Year that I started making the necessary connections. In fact, I’d say that the solstice was my key to the Wheel. The Winter Solstice or Yule is often placed at the top in illustrations of the Wheel, and from a calendrical view this makes intuitive sense. (It would be cool if the word “Yule” actually derived from “wheel,” as some aver; however, students of etymology will note there’s no evidence for this.) The other contender for the top spot is Samhain, but I’m not trying to start a contest here. The point of the Wheel is its cyclical nature. It has no beginning and no end. Conversely, one can jump in and start anywhere. (In terms of actual celebration, Lammas was my jumping-in point, but that’s a story for another day.) The cycle of eight holidays arranged equally throughout the year asserts the natural rhythm of the seasons as a supreme value.
The solstice is a discrete moment, but its significance stems from its context in this cycle of the seasons, in the course of Earth’s orbit. Seeing the solstice in the context of the Wheel made all the difference.
This shift in perspective was a shift from fragments to wholeness. It seems so blindingly obvious now, so simple in retrospect. It’s indicative of how limited my earlier perspective was.
Instead of looking at the solstice as a remote event “out there” in space somewhere, I saw that it was intimately connected to life here on Earth. Though we often speak of “solar holidays,” the solstice is not a strictly solar event. It’s an Earth-Sun event. Nothing happens to the sun, after all; nothing changes there, though we seem to see changes from our place here on Earth.
It’s here, Earth, our home and Mother, that I’ve come to understand as both a sacred place and a divine being. Divinity is not “out there,” but right here. As Glenys Livingstone writes in PaGaian Cosmology, “When I speak of Mother, I understand Her as Holy Context, Place to Be.” We are not separate from the Mother; we are a a part of her. She is the place where all humanity lives, and a being in which we all participate.
But even this immense context of the Earth has a greater context. Even this awesome living planet exists in relation to the sun, the stars, the universe. The solstice, then, is that day when the sun appears to “stand still” from our vantage point here on Earth. (That’s what “solstice” means in Latin: sol + sistere = sun-standing.) In the summer, it’s the longest day, after which days get shorter; in the winter, it’s the shortest day, after which days get longer. Thus at the Winter Solstice our world seems to emerge from darkening night.
The solstices are one way, perhaps the best way, for us Earth-bound creatures to mark the fact that a year has elapsed.
Bringing the solstice down to earth
There is evidence that ancient people did this. For example, the Newgrange monument in Ireland is aligned in such a way that the interior room is illuminated on the Winter Solstice. It was built around 3200 BC, which is pretty darn old. It was already centuries old when the Great Pyramid was constructed at Giza. So clearly people have been noticing this event for a long, long time.
Indeed, astronomy is considered the oldest of the natural sciences. Way back when, it was a key to power. Whoever could predict annual recurrence was obviously onto something. Priesthoods were built around this. Letting people know when to plant was vitally important to agricultural societies.
I used to think of the solstice as a transcendentally cosmic event. Once again, I was wrong. Just as my understanding of the solstice was enhanced by bringing it back “down to Earth,” restoring its proper context in the relation of Earth and sun, so too I now recognize the solstice as a fundamentally human phenomenon. To animals and plants, it’s just another day. The days get longer after the Winter Solstice, and the attendant changes will eventually come to our ecosystems. But to notice the event itself, to mark the day, and to understand its significance, to realize what it means, is very human indeed.
Thus, to contemplate the solstice is to meditate upon the very origins of science and religion and the essence of humanity. Can you feel the resonance echoing through the corridors of time? That’s a main purpose of ritual to me: to evoke that resonance. People around the world and throughout recorded history have celebrated this time of the year, as light re-emerges from the darkness, through the use of bonfires, candles, colorful electrical bulbs strewn on a wire, it matters not. When people do this they are participating in an ancient ritual, even if they don’t explicitly acknowledge the solstice.
A humanistic holiday
And so, when I stare into that flame we kindle on the longest night of the year, I’m thinking about so many things: science, religion, light, dark, birth, rebirth, conception, the Big Bang, cosmogenesis, sun, Earth, recurrence, seasons, the calendar, the Wheel of the Year, the passage of time, ritual, nature, Gaia, life, hope.
In thinking about the solstice this way, I’m aiming for what might be called a meta-perspective. That is, I’m focusing my attention on a natural phenomenon which has inspired many celebrations, religious and otherwise, over millennia of human existence. While the phenomenon of the solstice may not be known or directly observed by all, the poetry of the season is undeniable; I strongly suspect that most, if not all, mid-winter festivals found their original source in these poetics of light and darkness. By focusing on the solstice, an Earth-sun event seen from a human perspective, I am directly acknowledging a primal source of these multifarious celebrations.
Think of it this way: The solstice is like the Tannenbaum. Our various celebrations are like the ornaments. By celebrating the solstice, we are aiming to see the real tree for what it really is.
I encourage everyone to learn a few solstice facts. It’s not necessary to become a scholar on the subject overnight. Take your time. Learn a little every year. Talk about it with your friends and neighbors. After all, it’s their solstice too. This special moment is available to all the people of Earth, no matter their religion, no matter their country or continent. Those in the opposite hemisphere will be experiencing the opposite solstice, of course, but at the exact same moment; six months later our situations will be reversed. Even at the equator the solstice can be observed by the angle of the sun. It is truly a global event. Any opportunity that invites us to recall our connections to one another and to the natural universe is worthy of celebration.
The Winter Solstice is the ultimate holiday. Maybe not for you personally, or even for me, but for all of us in common — for humanity.
In addition to writing the A Pedagogy of Gaia column here at HumanisticPaganism, Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband and a father. An award-winning videographer, he is co-creator of ROX, the first TV show on the internet. As a media artist and an advocate for faculty development in higher education, he is interested in current and emerging trends in social media, blogging, podcasting, et cetera, as well as contemplative pedagogy and integrative learning. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Corridor, sometime contributor to Rising Tide, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle.
This Saturday (Winter Solstice)
In lieu of our usual Winter Solstice post, this year we will hear a special solstice story from Meg Pauken, “An Ending, A Beginning”.