Christmas has evolved from an earlier Festival of Light celebrated around the Mid-Winter Solstice or Alban Arthan. This is a point of astronomical certainty and happens every year around 21 December. It is a ‘Solar Feast’ and it’s ritual importance comes directly from changing from the shortening of days to the lengthening of days, seen in more distant times as the rebirth of the Sun. This celebration has happened since Palaeolithic times across many cultures especially in the Northern hemisphere where there are long cold winters with cold short days, or even complete lack of sunlight in the very far north. At this time of year the North Pole is tilting it’s furthest away from the Sun. The days in the North are short and the sun is weak. (The opposite point is celebrated in mid-summer around 21 June when the day is longest as the North Pole faces more towards the Sun.)
Early Winter Solstice / mid-winter celebrations were adapted to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, but it remained a ‘Solar Feast’ dominated by the lighting of bonfires and candles (the ‘Yule Log’ is part of this) and cementing and celebrating bonds within families and communities. The rebirth of the Sun, later Sun Gods then the Son of God is celebrated at this time. Myths which surround these celebrations are about the return of the Sun in terms of the birth of a Child of Light, whether that is the Christ Child, or Lugh or Mabon (Celtic/pagan deities). The youthful god was seen to die at Samhain (Halloween) to be reborn at the Mid-Winter Solstice and traditionally there are also many activities which also honour the Mother of the Child of Light at this time.
The Celebration of Light as Christmas, which has overlaid earlier Festival of Light traditions, may begin with a candle left to burn through the night of Christmas Eve, with gifts of nuts, fruits, spices and small pieces of coal or wood, silver coins or a small ear of corn from the previous harvest to ensure sufficient light, food and warmth throughout the winter. Similarly a candle may be lit on Solstice Eve in place of the more traditional bonfire which continues the more ancient custom of burning a Solstice Fire to give strength to the dying Sun. Fires and candles lit on Twelfth Night mark the last day of festivities continuing a practice from earlier times to bring protection to cattle and the following year’s corn.
Until very recent times in the development of humankind, most people lived a rural life depending on livestock and farming. In our times of artificial light and heat, the impact of external changes in the seasons has become diluted. Before modern comforts were commonplace, celebrations at this time represented a time of family, of community and the optimism that even though the coldest days were still ahead, the Light is returning, seeds which have been sown will start to stir in the cold ground and livestock will soon be bearing offspring.
The next Celebration of Light happens between 31 January and 2 February, a pagan festival celebrating the Goddess Brighid and the arrival of the first lambs, known as Imbolc, which means ewes milk. This festival was overlaid in the Christian calendar by the celebration of Candlemas, again, a fire festival. The pagan Goddess was also absorbed into the Christian church as St. Brigit.
Whatever your beliefs, the mid-Winter Solstice represents a time of rebirth of Light, of hope and optimism for the coming year in spite of some dark cold days ahead. Celebrate!!