Dark December descends upon the Northern Hemisphere every year. For thousands of years, humans have found many ways to mark, celebrate, or pray at the time of the transition to winter. We want what the Romans called “the unconquerable sun” to return after it reaches its lowest point on the horizon and greatest distance from Earth; we hope to climb out of the depression of winter darkness toward the rebirth of Spring and zenith of Summer. During December, throughout the Northern Hemisphere many different celebrations sing out in the dark to bring the light, alongside of and often resisting the secular consumerism of the season.
The Sufis mark the anniversary of the death of the mystical poet and Sufi light Rumi on 17 December with Urs of Mevlana. Wild dancing, known as “Whirling Dervishes,” mark this ecstatic holiday. Poetry also plays a role in Iran, where Shabe-Yalda, the birthday of the sun, attracts adherents of different religions (although it originated with Zoroastrianism). People gather at tables through the night, telling stories, reading poetry, and eating special foods. The Kalash Kafir of northwestern Pakistan celebrate with a seven-day festival of purification, singing, chanting, bonfires, a torchlight parade, and feasts. In China, families celebrate with the “Dongzhi” Festival by eating special festive food.
Western European Christmas traditions have roots in solstice rituals of Druids, the Yule of northern Germanic peoples, and the Saturnalia of the Romans. Mistletoe, burning a Yule log, the Christmas tree, and a winter wreath all originate within these celebrations, including the date of Christmas (moved to December in the 4th Century), gift giving, and feasting. In Pre-Modern times, famines often accompanied winter. People slaughtered cattle to prevent the cattle dying from the cold and famine, so fresh meat was readily available, leading to feasting. The pre-Christian Polish festival that evolved into Gody included forgiving neighbors as well as sharing food. While many Christmas traditions originate in solstice celebrations, some Christians also celebrate a day for St. Thomas the Apostle on 21 December.
The Jewish holiday of Hannukah includes a celebration of a return of light (to the Temple) that historically predated the Maccabean War with which the holiday is associated. The Rabbis of the Talmud also recognized the solstice as Tekufat Tevet.
Massive pre-historic monuments in Ireland, England, and Continental Europe align with Winter and Summer solstice sunrises, most famously Stonehenge. A large site in Illinois, Cahokia Mounds, also lines up with celestial events; red cedar posts used to mark sunrises, including for the solstices and equinoxes. There are other North American sites, including a stone “calendar” in Vermont.
Many of the Native American Nations have winter celebrations. The Ojibway have Aabita-Biboong, the Hopi have Soyal, and Pueblo peoples have a variety of celebrations. Even the Inca marked the Winter solstice, although theirs was in June. Today, the Mayan ritual, polo voladore, has been revived in Guatemala. It involves a dance with three men, a fifty-foot pole, and a precursor of bungee jumping. If the dancers land on their feet, the sun will come.
The Los Angeles Times quotes Selena Fox, a Wiccan priestess (among other things). The first day of winter is: “widely celebrated today by Wiccans, Druids, heathens and other pagans; by indigenous peoples practicing traditional ways in Africa, Asia, Polynesia, Australia, Europe, and the Americas; by environmentalists and astronomers; by secular humanists and Freethinkers; by eco-Christians and those of other religions and philosophies.”
Most of my life I lived in a land of short days, deep snows, and sub-zero winter temperatures. I now live in Israel, where winter means clouds, rain, and some nights that reach freezing. With the rains come greenery and flowers. On the solstice this week, Aviva and I hiked outside of Jerusalem. We saw clusters of small narcissus blooming, some small white crocuses, and pink to purple cyclamen. This was our personal marking of the coming bountiful flowers. That evening, we lit two candles on our Menorah, for the second night of Hannukah, our cultural and religious celebration of light.
Whatever your personal, cultural, or religious celebrations in December, may they be fulfilling and life affirming, filled with love and family.