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Christmas and the Solstice

Have you ever wondered why we celebrate Christmas on December 25th?  Do you already know?  It is not because Jesus was born on December 25th.  No one knows the actual date of Jesus’ birth.  The Bible doesn’t tell us.  Centuries passed in the early Christian Church before December 25 became the date on which Christmas was celebrated.

Christmas first began to be celebrated on December 25th as Christianity spread into Northern Europe in the early centuries of the faith and was set to coincide with Winter Solstice celebrations which were a feature of pre-Christian religion in those regions.  The Winter Solstice was celebrated in pre-Christian times because it marked the transition from shortening days to lengthening days.  These Winter Solstice celebrations were prominent in higher Northern latitudes in Europe, which thus experienced a longer, darker, colder winter season than those of us living somewhat further South do.  When it is freezing cold out, and dark virtually all day, in the dead of winter, it’s not difficult to appreciate how the transition to more daylight and warmth was regarded as reason to celebrate!  In pre-Christian times in Northern Europe, the sun itself was worshipped as a god, and was regarded as winning a victory over darkness on the date of the Winter Solstice – and henceforth the “victorious sun” would commence shining for a longer and longer period of time each day, eventually bringing Spring, and then Summer, in its train. 

As the Christian faith spread to these Northern European tribes, the decision to also celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25 provided both contrast to, and continuity with, these Solstice celebrations. 

It provided contrast, because as Northern Europeans were evangelized and came to faith in Jesus, the celebration of Jesus’ birth on December 25 provided an alternative to the worship of the sun.  The incarnate Word of God, who made the sun and all else in creation, could now be acknowledged and worshipped on that date, instead of the sun, which, glorious and radiant as it is, is merely a created thing.

But celebrating Christmas on December 25 also provided continuity with the Solstice celebrations, because those early Christians could affirm that the natural world, which is created by God, does testify to its Creator and to his works: 

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. (Psalm 19: 1-2)

So, what was happening in the natural world at the Winter Solstice could serve as an analogy or metaphor of what Jesus’ coming to our world does for humankind.  When the world is at its darkest, and coldest, and most lifeless, the coming of Jesus into the world heralds a new dawn for humanity!  Just as light begins to grow in the world again following the Winter Solstice, so also, in the birth of Jesus Christ, God himself enters into our dark world, bringing with him both light and life, to conquer and overcome the darkness:

In the beginning was the Word … and the Word was God.All things were made through him …In him was life, and the life was the light of men.The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. (from John 1)

When early Christians in Northern Europe (and eventually Christians elsewhere) celebrated Christmas on December 25, in the heart of winter, it communicated the Christian message that the coming of Jesus brings light and new life to a dark and dying world.  

This Christmas, our prayer is that each of us finds this to be personally and individually true!  In our very own internal places of darkness and “winter,” in our present realities in which light and life are at their lowest ebb, may Jesus come, bringing new life, hope, joy, fecundity and fruitfulness in his train.  Amen!

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