Friday, December 20, 2013

The Christmas Solstice

In 2005 I took a three-month sabbatical leave from ministry. Part of that time we spent in England. I was officially a “visiting scholar” at Regent’s Park College, part of Oxford University. It sounds impressive, but all it means is that I had a university ID card, which gave me access to lectures and the Bodleian Library.

We stayed at a flat at the college and took meals with faculty and students. We got addicted to English teatime with real scones and clotted cream. We also did our share of sightseeing. One of the places we visited was Stonehenge.

I was unprepared for the effect that this late Neolithic site had on me.  At first it was a sense of déjà vu, a deep feeling of familiarity. Then it was a feeling of human connectedness to the ancients who constructed it. It culminated in a sense of the connectedness of the earth to the heavens.

What does Stonehenge have to do with Christmas? Both are centered on the winter solstice. The primary axis of Stonehenge is aligned on the position of the sun at the winter solstice. The date of Christmas was originally set to coincide with the winter solstice.

I hate to spoil Christmas for anyone, but Jesus was not born on December 25. There is no historical or biblical mention of the date of Jesus’ birth. Three hundred years after the birth of Jesus, the church selected the winter solstice as the date to celebrate his birthday.

The solstice fell on December 25 on the Roman calendar in those days. When the calendar was later changed, the date of the solstice changed accordingly. Now it falls on December 21st or 22nd. (This year it is on the 21st.) But Christmas unfortunately remained on the 25th. That is how we got our date for Christmas.

The winter solstice was important for people for millennia before Christ was born. It was helpful for agriculture and animal husbandry. It was also significant for the religion of ancient peoples. Because the winter solstice was the reversal of the sun's decline in the sky, concepts of the birth or rebirth of the sun were common.   

When Christianity came on the scene, it was natural for Christians to connect the resurrected sun to the Resurrected One, whom the Scriptures call “the Sun of Righteousness.” The birth of the sun was seen as symbolic of the birth of the Son. 

Few Christians make the connection between the solstice and Christmas any longer. Some Christians purposely reject any relationship, fearing pagan influences upon a Christian holy day. Personally I love the connection. 

The winter solstice is a natural phenomenon which has had powerful psychological and spiritual significance for people throughout history. It was a stroke of genius for the early Church to link it to the birth of Jesus. It is a symbol of the triumph of light over darkness. It is a sign of cosmic and spiritual rebirth. What a perfect time for Christmas!