Thursday, December 21, 2006
HAPPY MIDWINTER SOLSTICE:
Midwinter Solstice ("solstice"- the sun stands still) occurred yesterday, Dec 21st at 7:22 EST (6:22 CST here in Winnipeg). The solstice is defined as the EXACT moment in the year when the Sun reaches its greatest northerly (the Summer Solstice) or southerly (the Winter Solstice) point in its annual movements. The effect is due to the annual tilt of 23.5 inclination of the Earth as it revolves around the sun. This is separate from the "wobble" of the Earth that is responsible for "precession", the reason why astrology is so at variance with astronomy in terms of the positions of the constellations. As the Earth revolves around the Sun first one and then the other hemisphere is presented towards the sun. The hemisphere tilted away from the Sun experiences winter, and the other experiences summer. The definition of "solstice" is the minimal noontime height of the Sun. This means that "somewhere" on the Earth at the times mentioned above the Sun is EXACTLY in its lowest position at noon in the sky. Counting backwards from Manitoba this would place the event somewhere over the mid to Eastern Pacific.
Throughout human history people have seen the Winter Solstice as a cause for celebration, a promise that the lean days of winter will end, even if the "hungry moons" are yet in front of them. The Chinese have traditionally celebrated the DongZhi Festival around Dec. 21st. One of the traditional activities in South China that occurs during the family get-togethers around this Festival is the making and eating of Tangyuan, balls of glutinous rice, that symbolize reunion. In North China people typically eat dumplings on DongZhi. This relates to a "Good King Wencelas"ort of story from Chinese tradition. According to this Zhang Zhongjing of the Han Dynasty saw the poor suffering from chilblains on their ears on a cold winter day. He ordered that dumplings shaped like ears should be distributed amongst the poor to keep them warm. Zhang named the concoction "qu han jiao er tang" or "dumpling soup that expels the cold".
The first monotheistic religion to institute a midwinter festival were the Zorastrians of ancient Iran/Persia. This festival, called Yalda, is still celebrated in modern Iran under an Islamic guise. It is traditionally celebrated on December 21st to hail the victory of light over darkness, of Ahura Mazda over Ahriman. Throughout the night fires would be burnt to help in the struggle of light over darkness. The next day the festival of Daygan was celebrated to mark the victory of Ahura Mazda. There would be acts of charity (Christmas gifts ?) and payers to Mithra (the equivalent of the Son in the orthodox Christian trinity). During this festival there was a temporary suspension of the hierarchy of Iranian society. Masters and servants would exchange roles. A "mock king " was crowned just as in some medieval festivals.
The Persian custom merged with and influenced the Roman celebration of Saturnalia. In Rome they followed the custom of inverting the social order. Children became the heads of the families. Businesses and courts were closed. Masters served slaves. Cross dressing and masquerades were common. The Romans accepted the proto-Christ figure of Mithra under the heading of 'Sol-Invictus' (the "invincible sun"). Mithra contained a good portion of the Christian mythology, from a proto-trinitarian aspect down to the nitty gritty of a virgin birth. The popularity of Mithraism paved the way for the ability of Christianity to spread amongst the Roman population. The general outlines of the myths were well known. It should be noted that the festivals of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus were totally separate events.
In Iran today the religious significance of 'Shab e Cheleh' has been lost under the influence of Islam. It is still, however, a time when family and friends get together to feast and play.
Then we come to the traditional Yule celebrations of Northern Europe. These go under various names in various languages; Geol, Jol, Jul, Julfest, Mitwinternacht. These are the festivals of Nordic and Germanic people from which many of our Christmas traditions are derived. Yule logs were lit to honour Thor, God of Thunder. Feasting would continue until the Yule Log burned out which could take as much as twelve days. A sacrifice of a pig to the God Freyr became the origin of the Christmas ham, first a Scandinavian custom but later to spread across the world. In Norway the expression "jul" is still the most common way to express Christmas.
Linguists have debated the origin of the various terms that signify "Yule" in English. It may relate to the idea of "wheel" as in the "wheel of the year". It may be connected to the adjective "yellow" as in the colour of the Sun. In may even be a borrowing from Finnish. The actual details of northern pagan yuletide festivals are rather obscure beyond the fact that it was a time for feasting. This has led to a divergence amongst modern neo-pagans. "Germanic neo-pagans" attempt to reconstruct the actual historical festivals insofar as there is evidence. Others, best descibed as Wiccan or 'New Age', pay little or no attention to what is actually known about pagan religion, Germanic or Celtic and attempt to create new solstice festivals with more than a little "poetic licence".
The existence of neo-pagans has added a little spice to an annual Christmas ritual amongst Christian believers in North America. This ritual would, of course, appear to be utterly insane to the vast majority of Christians living outside of North America-as it is to me as an ex-Roman Catholic sharing the prejudices of the vast majority of Christians who see the American evangelicals as "primitive". It, however, plays out every year without fail, though not with the vehemence surrounding Halloween. Almost all Christian festivals are "take-offs" on previous pagan festivals. It is a matter of "1/10th education" amongst certain fundamentalist sects to know about the pagan origins of Christmas traditions, whether they be Saturnalia or Germanic/Scandinavian traditions. The nine-tenths of the matter that they DON'T know is the origin of Christian theology in Roman mystery religions, the way that the accepted Bible came to be, and the destruction of alternative forms of Christianity.
So...each Christmas they denounce the traditional forms of celebration from a position of pseudo-erudition. One can also see a great contrast between the early missionaries to Northern Europe and the pseudo-missionaries of modern evangelism. In those ancient times missionaries struggled to adapt the ideas of Christianity to the customs of the people that they preached to with a full and EDUCATED knowledge of the difference between "form" and reality. The truth of what they did, usually without the military support that modern evangelicals enjoy courtesy of their close relations to the American Empire and its neo-fascist clients (see Guatamala), is plain and evident in the present, where the symbols that they expropriated are in the minds of 98% of the population NOTHING but Christian symbols.
The Roman festival of Saturnalia is one of the "origins of Christmas" that fundamentalists denounce. One really wonders whether it is because of the pagan connection (they hardly denounce the Trinitarian concepts inherited from paganism whereby polytheism can be said to be monotheism) or because of the social "loosening" that accompanied Saturnalia. This loosening of social hierarchy later got transferred to 'Carnivale' celebrations in Christian cultures while the Christmas season retained only its festival and gift-giving aspects. Saturnalia was originally only a day long festival but it later became a week long occasion for celebration despite the efforts of more than one Emperor to restrict its duration.
There are two different explanations as to why Dec. 25th was chosen by Christians in the 4th century as the birthday of Christ. One is that it is (was) the winter solstice on the Julian calender in use at that time. The second, however, is that it was an extrapolation of a Jewish idea of the "integral age" of the prophets ie that they died on the same day as their conception or birth, combined with a miscalculation of the date of Jesus' death. All these complications,however, are alien to the tiny view of the world held by "kindergarten Christians" who attempt to denounce the season each and every year.
Meanwhile there are many other midwinter celebrations across the world. The pre-christian Slavs celebrated 'Korochun' (Karachun, Krachun) in a manner similar to Halloween in Western European tradition. The Slavs burned fires at cemetaries to keep their dead warm on this most evil night of the year, lit wooden logs at crossroads and organized feasts in honour of the dead. On Dec. 23rd the old Sun Hors was resurrected as the new Sun Koleda. There are also numerous midwinter festivals documented amongst North American natives.
In summary midwinter has always been an important event for humanity. It transcends our own time and place. So...
Happy Midwinter Solstice From Mollymew