Solstice- from Latin, sun+stopped, ie, the day the sun stopsToday is the first day of winter- which means the earth is positioned where the suns rays are perpendicular to the tropic of cancer. After today the earth will gradually tilt the other way so that the sun's rays begin to creep northward again. This was a big day in Neolithic Europe if the theories concerning Stonehenge and numerous other monuments are correct and they were constructed to be giant calculator/observatories to pinpoint the exact times when the seasons changed. They were the pinnacle of Neolithic lore, representing an acute knowledge of the movements of the stars, possibly even of the precession of the equinoxes. Constructed by people living four or five thousand years ago of wood and massive carved stones, they are as old as the pyramids. It's possible that traditional European fairy tales contain faint echoes of those distant times. Theories abound about the meaning of these traces.
In a collection of Welsh tales called the Mabinogion, is the Song of Rhiannon, wherein King Pwyll decides to sit on a magic hill one night. He sees a beautiful woman riding slowly by and sends one of his servants to catch up to her and ask her to stop. But no matter how fast the servant rides he cannot catch up to the woman. The next night another servant on a faster horse tries again, with the same result. Eventually, the King rides after her himself on his fastest horse. But as fast as he rides he keeps falling further and further behind, until at last he calls after her to wait. And then she stops. Of course, he falls in love with her, and goes with her to rule her realm. A few years later, he decides to go home, but when he arrives all the people he used to know are either dead or very old. If I remember right, that's how it goes.
Folklorists speculate that in the original version the king was sacrificed, his soul going to the underworld. The solstices were especially propitious because the underworld and our world were closer together than at other times of the year. But who knows for sure?
Some with fertile imaginations jump to the conclusion that because Christmas is close to the solstice, and that Christ was sacrificed on a tree near the other solstice, that our Christian tradition was just a newer version of an older, pagan mythology. I don't really believe that. There is much that is beautiful in the various pagan traditions, but Christianity was a complete break from the past.
Still, I can understand how someone could be enraptured by Celtic and pre-Celtic mythology. I visited Stonehenge once, and it is a decidedly spooky place, just as spooky as the unearthly beauty of Celtic poetry.
There comes a host across the clear sea, to the land they display their rowing. Then they row to the bright stone from which a hundred songs arise,
Through the long ages it sings to the host a melody which is not sad. The music swells up in choruses of hundreds, they do not expect decay or death.
This otherworldly character persisted into the Christian era.
Delighted I think I might be in the bosom of an isle, on the peak of a rock, that I might often see there the calm of the sea.
That I might see its heavy waves over the glittering ocean, as they chant a melody to their Father on their eternal course...
Rather than viewing the living world as an endlessly repeating cycle, Christianity teaches that there has been, and will be, only one creation, a creation which will play itself out in a culminating event at the end of history. Christ came to show those who were willing to listen how to keep from having their souls destroyed when time comes to an end. The feast of Christmas commemorates Christ's entry into the world, and focuses on the miracle of birth- not just his birth, but everyones's birth. Coming to be is a miracle to be celebrated, and the goal of a life is to be worthy of attaining an eternal life of bliss. I have yet to encounter any other religion with teachings remotely like this. I have read extensively about old mythologies at an earlier stage of my life, and when I came around to look again at the Catholic teachings of my youth I was very surprised to discover how unique and unlike paganism Christian beliefs are. I'm a little sorry that I wasn't taught in Catechism about those older beliefs. If I had been I might have been less inclined to be impressed by their novelty. What is the truth? It's for each of us to decide, but according to the Church, there are serious consequences for deciding wrong.
In our age it's especially important to celebrate a day that makes birth and childhood sacred. It's such an ordinary thing for a child to be born that it's easy to forget that nothing could be more miraculous. And in the dark cold days of winter, that's something worth remembering. It's in the winter that the year dies, but also it's after the solstice that the sun begins to resurrect itself. Spring, and new life, is on its way.
My favourite Christmas poem was written by Thomas Hardy. It may be a little corny but I don't care. It's called The Oxen.
Christmas eve, and twelve of the clock.
'Now they are all on their knees,'
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
'Come, see the oxen kneel
'In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,'
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
The tide was high when I went by Clover Point today and the wind was driving the waves against the breakwaters and berms. Not as spectacular as during a real storm, it is nevertheless always impressive to feel the weight of the Pacific Ocean pounding the beach. Even at noon the sun is not far above the horizon and its light feels weak and pale, but it's all the more beautiful for all that.
May we all be blessed on Christmas and throughout the New Year.