December 22, 2011 is the first full day of winter in the northern hemisphere. Now the sun has turned around and headed north and we realize that spring will return once more. It has been this way ever since ancient sky watchers, who may not have understood the movement of the sun, rejoiced when the sun discontinued its downward trend. In those days there were no light bulbs to illuminate the darkness and without the sun there can be no life. These days, since we have light on demand, many of us do not celebrate nor acknowledge the solstice.
In Persia, the solstice marked the birthday of Mithras, the Sun King, who was a precursor to Apollo. Mithras was sent to earth to slay a huge bull whose blood was the source of all fertility on earth. After doing so, he ascended back to heaven.
During the Roman era, the Emperor Aurelian declared December 25th to be the birthday of Mithras. In addition there was the lavish Roman festival of Saturnalia, which began around the Winter Solstice. Sol Invictus, a festival marking the return of the sun, was also celebrated on December 25th. It was the Emperor Constantine, a follower of Mithras until he adopted Christianity, who chose the official birthday of Jesus to also be on December 25th.
But the oldest of the gods honored during winter was the Egyptian god Osiris. Married to Isis and much-loved and worshiped throughout the ancient world, Osiris was murdered by his jealous brother Set, who dismembered his body and hid it in various parts of Egypt. Isis searched until she found his remains and then restored Osiris to life on December 25th. Osiris’ death and resurrection came to symbolize the rising and setting of the sun.
Other ancient cultures also built monuments that observed the winter solstice: Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland; Maeshowe in mainland Orkney, Scotland and Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England.
Another event that observes the re-emergence of light is Chanukah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights. This holiday honors the legend of the miracle of the oil which burned for eight nights when there was only enough oil left for one night.
While there were many festivals, most had one thing in common – the exchanging of gifts. Mother Nature too, gives us gifts at this time of the year as the sky is clearer than in summer, the constellations shine brighter and the nights are longer.
If you’re interested in the traditions of this season, these books will illuminate them for you.