Not deferential enough: Yule - The reason for the season

Posted Tuesday, December 17, 2013 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: Yule - The reason for the season

by Gina Hamilton

The last quarter day of the year is the Winter Solstice (I suppose the PC edition is the "December Solstice", since in the southern hemisphere it is actually the Summer Solstice), which this year falls on Saturday, December 21, shortly after noon. The solstice is the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere, because the Earth tilts a little on its axis, 23 1/2 degrees, to be exact.

Because it does, the Sun appears to stand over the Tropic of Capricorn at noon, the farthest south the Sun ventures from the Equator (by no surprise at all, the tropics are 23 1/2 degrees from the equator).   Then, it begins the trip back toward the equator, and the days get longer and nights get shorter until the Summer Solstice at the end of June.

So that's what's really going on, but because early peoples didn't really quite understand that, they developed all sorts of mythologies around the Sun's descent toward the horizon and its return, which would allow for another season of growth, life, and continued existence on planet Earth.  For entirely agricultural civilizations, one didn't muck about with the Sun.

Yule - which is early Norwegian for "wheel", is the crowning moment of the pagan wheel of the year, the moment at which the Earth - well, northern hemisphere anyway - reaches its lowest point of the agricultural year, the time when the earth is lifeless and dead.  From that moment, life begins to return.  First the light returns, then the animals give birth, then the earth becomes workable again.

But in that dark moment, when the earth seems like it could sink into everlasting death, the people work to call back the Sun, with bonfires, by decorating trees with lights, by filling the house and each window with candles. The customs soon grew into celebrations of giving gifts and sweets to children, of ritual hospitality and charity, turning the season of darkness into a season of light.

The early pagan customs were attached by other more modern religions.  One of the brighter bulbs in the early Catholic Church, Pope Gregory I, told his missionaries who were departing for northern pagan societies not to obliterate local customs, but that if the local population "worshipped a tree, just consecrate it to Christ and be done with it."  In terms of spreading Christianity, it was an absolutely brilliant move.  Soon, Christian holiday imagery was suddenly filled with pagan symbols - Yule trees, Yule logs, holly, ivy, mistletoe, candlelight, stars.  Gift giving became a "Christmas" custom.  Some Christmas carols, even traditional ones, pay homage to the earlier faiths.  In "The Holly and the Ivy", the chorus begins,

O, the rising of the Sun, and the running of the deer ...

Both are pagan symbols for the season, as are the holly and the ivy themselves. 

Christmas itself was named on the 25th of December by the Council of Nicea in the fourth century because of a concurrent Saturnalia festival celebrating the solstice that was popular in Rome.  In reality, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, if a real human being, would have likely occurred sometime in the spring, when lambs were being born, if one accepts the biblical account literally, because that's the only time when shepherds would have been abiding with their flocks in the fields by night.  In December, they would have been in sheepfolds, under cover, protected against nasty, rainy weather that occurs in Judea in the winter. 

But remember, in a few days' time, the Sun will rise higher and higher in the southern sky every noon, bringing more light and warmth and longer days, a promise that spring will come again. 

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