While San Antonio families across the city are enjoying the joys of Christmas morning, my family is basking in the glow of our winter solstice gathering held this past Wednesday. We marked the shortest, darkest day of the year and celebrated pagan traditions that predate the Christian faith and holy day by thousands of years.
Christmas on Dec. 25, a younger generation might say, is the world’s greatest act of cultural appropriation. Everyone, everywhere, it seems, celebrates Christmas, but the modern holiday is rooted in commercialism. With each passing year, it has become easier and easier for our family to embrace the solstice and the planet’s seasonal cycles, and let Christmas and its retail madness pass us by.
Biblical historians can find no connection between the birth of Jesus and Dec. 25. Shepherds watching over herds suggests it was springtime when Joseph and Mary took refuge in an animal manger. Throughout the Roman Empire, which controlled the lands where Jesus of Nazareth would dwell, a census was being conducted at the time Joseph and Mary stopped in Bethlehem, an undertaking unlikely to have been conducted in winter.
Pope Julius I, who served as bishop of Rome from 337 to 352 AD, arbitrarily declared Dec. 25 to be the birthday of Jesus, a decree many historians believe was the Church’s effort to co-opt pagan rituals and claim them as Christian traditions.
Long before the birth of Jesus, the Norse and Germanic peoples celebrated Yule for 12 days, welcoming the coming of longer days and the promise of spring with feasting, drinking and debauchery. That tradition became the 12 Days of Christmas.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, Romans celebrated Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, god of seed-sowing. It was the biggest holiday on the Roman calendar, opening with a religious ceremony and then descending into days and nights of unrestrained revelry. Many of the traditions associated with Christmas, including gift-giving, festive meals and parties, the hanging of wreaths and burning of special candles were adopted from Saturnalia, which began with the approach of the solstice and lasted for weeks — with business shuttered and slaves treated, however briefly, as equals.
Beyond all the partying and festive gatherings, the traditions celebrated on and around the solstice are rooted in the cycles of the seasons and people’s reliance on the fall harvest and animal husbandry to sustain themselves through the long, dark winters.
My own family’s spirituality is deeply rooted in nature and the cycle of seasons. We spend as much time as possible at our family ranch on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country. Rising at dawn or sitting at sunset while hunting deer gives me the same sense of peace and introspection and being part of a much greater universe that others find in a church pew attending a service. Listening to the distant bugling of high-flying sand cranes on their migratory routes, or pondering the language of coyotes as different packs howl, bark and yip, reminds me of our moral obligation to protect and preserve the planet. We mark the passage of time not by the liturgical calendar I memorized as a young altar boy, rather by the fall migration of monarch butterflies on their path to Mexico, or their return in the spring.
Our family, like many, is not affiliated with a church or parish or members of any organized religion. We certainly have celebrated our fair share of Christmas mornings, especially when our two adult sons were young boys. But it’s been easy to let go of the day in our family, even if I miss the ritual Christmas tree purchase and decoration. The increasing commercialization of the day over my lifetime has made it easier to quietly mark the solstice instead.
I might sound like Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ wonderful novel, A Christmas Carol, but I say, “Bah, humbug!” to the carols broadcast like white noise in stores starting in mid-November, the last-minute retail mayhem and vehicle traffic, the impersonal nature of holiday cards sent out to client lists, and the focus on material gifts rather than those with greater meaning,
I’d like to see our collective winter celebrations become more in concert with ancient traditions, ones that bind us to our ancestors and the relatively short time humans have lived on Earth. Next year, mark Dec. 21 on your calendar. That’s the winter solstice. Search out more reading on the winter’s shortest day and longest night. You might discover new ways of honoring old traditions. And you can still attend midnight Mass, or the church service of your choice on Christmas day.
Happy solstice, merry Christmas.