It’s the third week of December and Christmas is right around the corner. You can just about count the days left in 2013 on your fingers, you can if you use your toes. For us in the Northern Hemisphere, the hours of daylight are diminishing too, just at a time when many of us could use a few more hours of daylight to tackle all the things we seem to have on our to do lists this time of year. The nights are feeling pretty long right now, and I can feel the chill of winter in the air every afternoon as the shadows lengthen and the sun lowers into the west.
Winter begins on the Solstice, Saturday, December 21st, at 12:11 pm (EST) for folks living east of the Mississippi River, 10:11 am (CST) for the center of the country and 9:11 am (PST) in the far west. Here in Santa Ynez, California, at 34.6º North latitude, there will be a little over 9 and a half hours of daylight. And further north, say above the arctic circle, there will be no sunlight at all.
I know, it’s a little odd that the change of seasons occurs right at 12:11 pm (EST), Saturday afternoon. Our seasons are driven by the clockwork of Earth’s orbit around the sun. As Earth travels around the sun, it wobbles on its axis tilting toward the sun for part of the year and then tilting away from the sun, driving the cycle of the seasons by altering the intensity and duration of sunlight falling on the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. One of the direct ways we can observe this is in the changes of the sun’s height above the horizon during the course of the year.
From the Summer Solstice, June 20th, to the Winter Solstice, the points on the horizon the Sun rises and sets move southward each day; the high point in the Sun’s daily path across the sky, at noon, also moves southward each day. On Saturday, the Sun’s path will reaches its southernmost position and begins is long journey north again. For us in Northern Hemisphere, it is the first day of winter and the shortest day of the year, but in the Southern Hemisphere, it is midsummer and the longest day of the year. However, for a few days both before and after the Winter Solstice, the change in the Sun’s position is so slight that appears to be standing still, which is what the word Solstice means. The word is derived from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still).
No one’s really sure how long ago humans recognized the Winter Solstice and began heralding it as a turning point of the year. Nearly every culture the world over performed solstice ceremonies. At their root: an ancient fear that the diminishing sunlight would never return unless humans intervened with anxious vigil and celebration.
Five thousand years of human history–maybe more–have given this season many layers of celebration, folklore and tradition. Across time, people, not that different than us, have marked this change of seasons with festivals of light and ceremonies of renewal. After the longest night of the year the sun is seen as growing stronger and the concept of rebirth became strongly associated with the Winter Solstice.
Many years ago, I stood in one of the upper plazas of Inca city of Machu Picchu, in Peru, where on the Winter Solstice, the Inca priests conducted an elaborate ceremony to tether the sun to a stone, ensuring that it would return and not abandon the world to darkness. In those majestic surroundings you could still feel their passion for the sun. And unlike other holy days, the Winter Solstice became a cause for great celebration and joy, a party held in the face of earth’s darkest hour. The celebrations in fact, usually lasted for more than a week.
The Yule log, evergreens, colored glass ornaments, lights on our houses and Christmas trees — all of these traditions come down to us from our collective human past. Today, just as in older times, each is designed to make the season bright.
Romans welcomed winter with the festival of Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture. People decorated their houses with evergreen branches and lit lamps all night to ward off the darkness.
Across time, people have marked the change of seasons. The ancient Celts hung golden apples and lit candles on oak trees to celebrate the winter solstice.Around 3200 B.C.E., ancient people in Ireland build a huge knoll called Newgrange. For 5 days over the winter solstice period, a beam of sunlight illuminates a small room inside the knoll for 17 minutes at dawn.
Hanukkah is the Jewish Festival of Lights celebrated in countries all over the world. The date shifts every year because of the Jewish Lunar calendar. But it is still, in reality, a mid-winter festival. In 165 B.C. there was a great battle between the Maccabees and the Syrians. The Jews won the battle and when they went to their temple, they found that the Syrians had allowed their sacred light to go out. They only had oil for one day. The miracle of Hanukkah is that the oil lasted 8 days until a messenger could return with more. There are nine candles in the menorah. One of the is used to light the other candles and the other eight stand for the eight days that the oil kept burning
In today’s Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, Anasazi Indians, who were expert sky watchers, carved spiral designs into rock to track the seasons and record the passage of time.
In this canyon is a petroglyph called the Sun Dagger because of the way the Sun’s wedge-shape beams strike it in midday during the winter solstice.
However, for nearly all of us, Christmas has appropriated nearly all of the ancient practices and customs. I have always been curious about many of the things we do at Christmas time. In fact, this was how my interest in what lies behind our holiday celebrations through out the year. Almost every tradition we observe during the Christmas season has its roots in long-ago times, a fact we’re comfortably though vaguely aware of. Many of us put up a Christmas tree, but we don’t know why we’re supposed to, other than it looks good in our living room and gives us a place to put presents. We know we’re supposed to kiss under mistletoe, but we don’t know why, and we harbor a vague sense of wanting to give something to carolers who come to our door, but offhand can’t think of any reason to other than ordinary hospitality.
In long-ago times when winter snows and cold cloaked the earth, people would gather together around their fire hearths. Though summer, spring, and fall spread out the community, winter brought it back together. The dark months were cold and inhospitable, best shared in the company of others within a circle of both physical and societal warmth.
By the high Middle Ages, Christmas had become an relief of winter’s gray days; a festival of light, warmth, spirit and food, celebrated by noble and peasant alike. It combined the pagan traditions of the common people and the glories of the Christian faith. For medieval people, commoner and royal alike, the season offered a vision of a world made one, where all would sit at a common table, in the blazing light and never know the cold again.
December has long since lost its original meaning of “ten” – Decem, for the old Roman calendar’s tenth month and for those of you still current with your Latin. December is more synonymous today with “decorate.” I know I’ve been decking the boughs of the trees around our house with lights. And “decorate” still resonates with the spirit that our distant ancestors held for this month.
Decorated trees were used in winter celebrations long before the advent of Christianity. Plants and trees that remained green all year had a special significance for people who lived in cold-winter climes. The Yule trees of these ancient Northern Europeans were decorated with natural ornaments such as berries, rosebuds, and cinnamon sticks. Candles or lamps adorned the tree, representing the light of the sun, soon to be reborn. In many traditions, a Yule log is burned throughout the solstice night to provide a light in the darkest night, symbolizing hope and a belief that the sun will return.
The return of the light is the most prominent feature of most midwinter festivals. Yule was celebrated with bonfires to stimulate the ascent of the sun, and lamps illuminated houses decorated with evergreens to simulate summer. Ancient Romans decorated their houses with evergreen branches and lit lamps all night to ward off the darkness.
The ancient Celts hung golden apples and lit candles on oak trees to celebrate the winter solstice.
Most historians agree that the use of the evergreen tree as part of Christian Christmas celebrations started a little over 400 years ago in Germany. However, back then is was the custom hang the tree upside down from a roof beam. It triangular shape was a Christian symbol of the trinity. Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther is said to have decorated a small Christmas Tree with candles. Walking home one night Luther was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling through the evergreens he passed.
He wanted to share his experience with his family he took the tree down and set up right side up in his home and wired the branches with lit candles, to show his children how the stars twinkled through the dark night. However, it took two centuries for the tradition to become widely established. It caught on very early on the continent. However, the English never adopted the custom until the marriage of young Queen Victoria and the German prince Albert. During their first Christmas together, Albert set up a Christmas tree bedecked with flaming candles and hung with sparkling baubles in a salon of the palace. It’s beauty captured the imagination of the public, and it became the fashion during Victoria’s long reign to set up a tree of one’s own. The Victorian Era was the prelude to the modern Christmas as we know it now.
A Christmas tree lighted with candles was enchanting, even though that meant having a bucket of water or sand nearby in case of fire. And there were lots of fires. Insurance companies even stopped paying for fires caused by Christmas trees.
In 1880 Thomas Edison was the first to connect lights with wire but was not the first to wrap them on a Christmas tree. He strung them around his laboratory as an advertisement in an effort to gain a contract to provide electricity to Manhattan. But his partner Edward Johnson was the first to decorate his Christmas tree with electric lights in 1882. He is the “Father of the Electric Christmas Tree.”
The practice didn’t catch on quickly though; it was expensive and Americans were still wary of electricity. That changed in 1895 when President Grover Cleveland featured the first White House Christmas tree lighted by current. Illuminated by more than 100 multi-colored bulbs the president’s tree started a craze across the nation.
Unfortunately they having lights on your Christmas tree required the rental of a generator and hiring a “wireman” to operate them. The cost at the time was $300, which is about $2000 today. Because of this lighted Christmas trees were most often seen in town squares and community functions or homes of the wealthy.
The person responsible for popularizing Christmas tree lighting is Albert Sadacca. A tragic fire in New York City in 1917, caused by candles on a Christmas tree, gave 15-year-old Albert Sadacca an idea. Now it just so happened that Albert’s family, who had come from Spain, had a novelty business selling wicker cages with imitation birds in them that lit up.
Albert suggested to his parents that they begin making electric lights for Christmas trees. They had lots of bulbs on hand, and it would be much safer than using candles. The Sadacca’s thought Albert had a good idea, but only one hundred strings of electric Christmas tree lights sold in the first year. After Albert thought of painting the bulbs red, green, and other colors instead of using plain glass, business picked up sharply. Albert and his two brothers, Henri and Leon became the head of the largest Christmas lighting company in the world for all of the years of its operation up to 1965.
Today we expect to see the holiday season become aglow with electric strands of light. Think of the variety and range of Christmas lights available in today’s market. We can be grateful to Thomas Edison, Edward H. Johnson and Albert Sadacca for illuminating our holiday season and helping hold back the darkness.
Christmas has a magic that is difficult to grasp and even more difficult to explain. It brings together traditions, ideas, and customs from all over the world and from all times.
If our entire human civilization could write its own memoirs and tell the complete story of Christmas past, surprisingly, the tale would not begin in Bethlehem, but two thousand years earlier in the cradle of civilization.
It would be a story involving Christians and non-Christians alike. Babylonians, Greeks and Romans – whose ancient customs became part of the Christmas. The tale would tell of early Europeans hanging fir sprigs and winter greenery to renew life and protect against the cold blasts of Arctic wind. People who had not yet heard of the Christ child would be burning Yule logs. And the tale would continue for another two thousand years after Wise men gathered beside a manger in the a stable, with each generation adding to the customs of Christmas. And in the end, it would be the story of each of us, the story of everyone who has ever hung an ornament on a tree or presented a gift to someone special.
Each of us has our favorite Christmas memories. Images of evergreen trees, colorfully wrapped presents and loved ones arriving home at last for the holidays. We hold in our hearts the stories of a lifetime of Christmases.
I remember my Grandmother, with her arthritic hands, playing Christmas Carols on the piano. I’m four or five and in the midst of singing, with my family, like millions of people before me, I absorbed the joy and solemnity of Yuletide. Life without Christmas would have been absolutely unthinkable to me.
What is so wonderful about the Winter Solstice, is that once we are past that moment of time we can look forward to brighter skies. Slowly at first, then more rapidly as we go into January and February, days get longer and everything around helps us celebrate the increase of light. It speaks well for the human spirit that our greatest religious celebrations take place at Winter Solstice time, as people radiate warmth of fellowship and love on these dimmer days.
May your celebrations of this season of holidays draw deep from the abundant joy, fierce hopes and enduring traditions of all our ancient ancestors.
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Dr. Eric P. Dahlstrom, D.C., L.Ac.
Santa Monica Healing Arts
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