“Season’s Greetings” and what does that mean?
We are about to enter the darkest, coldest months of the year, and people are going about saying, “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays” and “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Chanukah” and “Happy Kwanzaa.” What is all that supposed to mean?
There is a wobble in the earth’s rotation that lasts one revolution around the sun. In the summer we’re warm because the northern hemisphere wobbles toward the sun, but in the winter we’re cold because we’ve moved away from the direct rays of the sun. The winter and summer solstices are the markers for the points at which we’re farthest and closest to the sun. This year Dec. 21 is the Winter Solstice, the longest night and the beginning of winter. But, even as the days grow colder, paradoxically, the days grow longer, and we know it is only a matter of time before the sun will melt the spell of winter. Like the battle between King Boreas and Vulcan in the St. Paul Winter Carnival, winter will eventually melt in summer’s warm embrace.
The ancients, too, understood the meaning of the Winter Solstice. Five thousand years ago the druids marked the solstices with great slabs of stone at Stonehenge. Whatever else the ancients may have believed, their faith was anchored in the knowledge of where the sun rose on the morning of the summer solstice. It is no wonder, then, that the Christians who conquered their lands also took over their holidays and feast daysin order to more easily colonize the people. So Christmas came to be celebrated at about the time of the Winter Solstice. The early Catholic Church thought, if these pagans are going to celebrate the return of the sun and light, and since Christ is the light of the world, then we will place Christmas at the Winter Solstice and let the pagans celebrate the birth of Christ as a symbol of hope, and eventually the pagans will stop thinking about the solstice.
There is one glaring irregularity in the Church calendar, however. They had already set Dec. 8 as the feast day of the Immaculate Conceptionthe day an archangel implanted the seed of God in Mary’s womb. Therefore, it is one of the great miracles of the Church that the pregnancy only lasted 17 days, and the child came to full term.
Before the reform of the Gregorian Calendar in the 16th Century, the feast day of Santa Lucia (or, St. Lucy) was celebrated near the Winter Solstice.
Today, all the Scandinavian countries celebrate the feast day on Dec. 13. Other than Christmas it is the only religious holiday celebrated in Scandinavia. This is very curious because Santa Lucia isn’t from Scandinavia at all. She’s from Sicily. She was, supposedly, a Christian martyr killed by the Roman emperor for bringing food to Christians hiding in the catacombs. In order to keep both hands free to carry supplies, she had to wear a candle on her head to see in the caves. It’s easy to understand how the fixation with candles would attract the Scandinavians, and, today, every town in Sweden elects their own Santa Luciasort of like an inner beauty contest, voting for the girl most likely to become a martyr. But the pagan origins of this myth are even more interesting. Lussi, a demon, would ride through the air with her followers on the darkest night of the year. If children had been bad, she would come down the chimney and take them awayan ancient echo of making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty and nice. This Roman myth predates Santa Lucia by hundreds of years. Jews also have their festival of lights around this time of year. The lighting of the Menorah is meant to commemorate the time when the Maccabees defeated the Romans and reconsecrated the temple.
They had oil only enough for one night, but through a miracle the oil lasted
eight nights, enough time for new oil to be found. A charming story, and
one that fits the Northern European fixation on candles, but there’s no
evidence for it in the closest source we have for the revolt. 1 Maccabees
states: For eight days they celebrated the rededication of the altar. Then
Judah and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that
the days of the rededication ... should be observed ... every year ... for
Nothing about oil running out. And no mention of spinning dreidels. The Islamic month of Ramadan probably has little to do with the festival of lights or the Winter Solstice, and Kwanzaa was created by Ron Karenga in 1966 as a special holiday for African-American renewal. Although there really is no spiritual component, there is candle lighting and personal reaffirmation.
A final note on Santa Claus. Although it is customary to attribute the origins of the story to St. Nicholas of Turkey in the 3rd Century, it is tempting to imagine the Islamic custom of giving alms and presents to the poor at Eid ul Fitr, the end of Ramadan, as a tradition Christians associated eventually with Christmas. And the Germanic god Odin in the 13th Century was said to fly through the air during the yuletide festival. Children would fill their boots with straw and carrots for his horse, and Odin would reward them by filling those boots with candy and treats.
So, Season’s Greetings, whatever that means to you. We will overcome the darkness. We shall once again be borne into the light.