Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Sun Returns

We are quickly approaching the longest night of the year. For the northern hemisphere, the Winter Solstice this year will be on December 22. There may be earlier sunsets or later sunrises as the Earth’s elliptical orbit marches the seasons through their patterns, but the time between the sunrise and sunset is the shortest on the Solstice, with the “day” lasting only single-digit hours in some places. It’s dark and it’s cold, and it could even be scary if you don’t understand what is happening. It is not terribly surprising that there are more overlapping cultural holidays during this time of year than at any other point on the calendar.

The Yule celebrations are among the oldest recorded holiday traditions in European history. While it is nearly impossible to put anything like exact dates to such things, we have Germanic month names going back at least to the 4th Century, and Nordic deity names going back into antiquity. Though the Prose Edda, which includes names like “Yule Father” and Yule Beings” for Odin and the gods in general, is believed to have been compiled in the 13th Century, it references tales and traditions that predate the arrival of Christianity to that part of the world, and the Midwinter celebration is common to those tales. The exact origins and traditions are lost in time - and attempting to research the subject will lead you to dozens of conflicting experts, but we know that many of our modern customs originated with these older activities, and we can surmise some of the meaning from other festivals and from contest.

Among the items that we know were carried over are the decorated Christmas trees. While it is unlikely that the earlier celebrants actually chopped down a tree and carried it indoors for decorating - the actual cutting tradition is believed to have begun in 16th Century Germany - streamers and other decorations may have been hung from living trees, and the limbs of firs and other evergreens were used as decorations for good luck and as reminders of the renewal that would soon be more evident as the days began to grow longer and the sun returned to its glory. In places where evergreens would be less common, other “magical trees” like the hawthorne or cherry tree may have been used instead. These trees symbolized renewal and rebirth, and it was a time to recognize that what was ending would begin again.

The Yule Log was an ancient tradition that probably centered around the same ideas. Again, we have to rely on commentary written in the Middle Ages discussing older customs, so the details are fuzzy, but there seems to have been communal bonfires that were part of the seasonal celebrations. Logs from these fires would be taken into the homes and burned on the hearth as a continuation of the communal event. These logs would have provided much needed light and warmth on these darkest days, and were likely the central focus of the family celebrations. It is unclear whether the bonfires were intended as an inducement for the returning sun or a celebration of its victory (or, as seems even more likely, some combination of the two), but they were almost certainly connected with the sun and its cyclical journey in some fashion.

A third custom that has fallen out of favor somewhat in modern households but still holds sway among traditionalists is the Christmas or Yule Candle. The exact origins of the connection between winter celebrations (and this includes just about all of them) and candles is unknown, but we are familiar with two specific candle traditions. The first and most well-known is the tradition of using candles to light up the trees. This custom is, of course, still in wide use, though the candles have been replaced in most cases with safer electric lighting. The other tradition involves lighting a single large candle on the eve of the solstice (or on Christmas Eve, depending on your tradition) and allowing it to burn through the night. Sometimes this candle is placed in a window to act as a beacon, and it is thought to represent faith or hope in the returning sun. It is considered to be bad luck to blow out this candle, and a piece of the candle stub is often kept to be used for lighting the candle the following year. Again, this is tied the idea of renewal, and especially of new life arising from the old.

It is significant that one of the happiest holidays on the modern calendar is anchored around the shortest day and takes place during the season that is most commonly thought of as dead. The chill winds of winter bury everything in a cold embrace and yet, in our earliest cultural memories, we looked upon this time of year as the time to celebrate the renewal of life. The human spirit is amazingly resilient, and hope is the defining element of our species. Take away the sun, and we will light the very sky on fire to bring it back.

This can be a difficult time for some people. Sunlight and physical activity are very important to good health, both physical and mental, but sunlight and physical activity can both be difficult to come by during this time of year. The days are getting shorter and colder so that, even when the sun is out, we are often huddled inside trying to stay out of the weather. We get less sunlight and physical activity, so our health tends to respond accordingly. This can be even worse if you are someone who is prone to such ailments, so it is an important time to remember that the sun does return.

Traditions serve as reminders, of history, of meaning, of what’s important. Often the things we see as just fun and games began with very serious reasons. Many modern sports were originally war or work exercises, and most holidays were established to commemorate specific events. We sing songs and celebrate, but the original cause was probably to remind us why we needed to sing songs and celebrate. That was probably easy to forget if you were huddled around a dying fire on the shortest day of the year.

This is a good time to remember that we can experience short days of the spirit as well. There may be times when you can’t feel the sun no matter how brightly it shines. You may experience an emotional solstice, so to speak, but remember, this too shall pass. The sun will return. Celebrating life under the summer sun may be easier, but celebrating life during the dead of winter is more important. That is when we need the reminder, and when it will do the most good.

Whatever your traditions, celebrate the season, and celebrate life. It may seem dark sometimes, but you know what they say about the dark and the dawn. Light a candle and see how fragile the darkness really is. The darkest night is just a reminder that tomorrow is a new day. Celebrate it. Enjoy it. Live it.

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