Human beings all over the world, and all the way back at least to the Neolithic, have gathered to mark the winter solstice. It has been an absolutely central feast day in their religions and folk cultures over thousands of years.
As an historian and a poet, I see a great deal of meaning here. And by “meaning”, I am referring to contextualisation and commemoration. The historian retrieves from fragments of the past a more or less coherent account of lost time and shows the reader how to make sense of the world in new and deeper ways. The poet draws upon the resources of language to give musical and memorable expression to things many of us struggle in vain to put into words, or hold in mind. Great poets, like good historians, do more than this: they give new meaning to old ways of speaking and remembering. They break the ground and plant a new crop of meanings in it, which the rest of us are able to harvest, or from the harvest of which we are at least able to take gleanings, like peasants on old landed estates. The winter solstice is rich in history and poetry in just these ways.
This essay first appeared in the December, 2011, edition of Quadrant
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But before we can really immerse ourselves, as Australians, in the mysteries and wonders of the winter solstice, we need to call to mind the fact that, by one of those strange oddities of our being a European culture transplanted to the southern hemisphere and stuck in our ways, we continue to celebrate Christmas, the ancient Roman winter solstice feast, at mid-summer. If we understood better the roots and symbolism of the feast and were creating our culture, rather than merely going through the traditional motions somewhat mindlessly, we would surely have moved the holiday to this time of year and signified, by doing so, that we understood what it is really all about. But we don’t, as a rule. The chief reason for this is that the winter solstice in the north has long since become entangled with the religious idea of the birth of Christ. To understand how that symbolic event came to be set on December 25 and why that used to be the winter solstice, we need to recall that we inherited the Roman calendar, as reformed first by Julius Caesar in 46 BC and then by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.
As dictator in the last years of the Roman republic, Caesar reformed the old Roman calendar, cleaning up errors that had crept in over centuries past. One of the reforms was to set the winter solstice at December 25. Almost four hundred years later, deciding when to celebrate the nativity of Christ, the Catholic Church chose the winter solstice, both because it was the point at which the deepest darkness began to turn back to light and because the new religion was seeking to supplant the festivals of the old. However, discrepancies between even the Julian calendar and the actual movement of the sun shifted the real winter solstice by three days every four hundred years until by the sixteenth century it had drifted back to December 12. In 1582, the Pope decided to restore the exact correspondence between the seasons and the feast days of the Catholic year. However, he dated his correction only from the Council of Nicaea, in 325 AD, when Christmas had been set at the winter solstice, instead of from 46 BC. This corrected the-ten day drift since the fourth century, but failed to correct the preceding drift of three days. That kept the winter solstice and the feast of Christmas separate by a few days.
When our Christian ancestors migrated to the southern hemisphere, they had a different problem altogether—and did nothing about it! That’s why we sing “Jingle Bells” and “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” in the middle of the Australian summer. We all know that the meaning and feeling seem to have gradually ebbed out of Christmas over the years. This is generally seen as due to loss of religious belief, corruption by commercial consumerism, and boredom with rituals that no longer seem to hold much significance for us beyond, perhaps, a few childhood memories. Yet, if we remind ourselves of the deep and universal significance of the winter solstice, we might be able to recapture something of the sense of meaning and occasion that lies at the root of the ancient feast—especially if we then reformed our own calendar and moved the feast back to the actual (southern) winter solstice. I want to suggest that there are three ways in which we might do this. The first is by recovering a sense of the deep roots of the winter solstice festival in Western civilisation; the second is by realising that it has had comparable significance almost universally for human beings throughout recorded history; the third is by restoring a sense of what the seasons of the year actually are and what they tell us about our human place in the cosmos.
Let’s begin with the first. In the ancient Aegean world of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, the winter solstice was celebrated for centuries as the Lenaia, the Festival of Wild Women. It involved animal and human sacrifice, in which a bull or a man representing the god Dionysus would be torn to pieces and eaten by maenads (wild women). By classical times, the human sacrifices had been abandoned and a goat would be sacrificed on the altar of Dionysus, while the women mourned the passing of the god and observed his rebirth. It was during these centuries that the Romans began to celebrate a winter solstice festival on similar lines, which they called the Brumalia, from the word for shortest day. It was held for a month, ending on December 25. It overlapped with the more famous Saturnalia, which the Greeks had celebrated as the Kronia, or festival of Cronus. The Saturnalia originally took place on December 17, but expanded to a whole week, up to December 23. It included a school holiday, the making and giving of small presents and a special market. It became one of the most popular Roman festivals and led to what might be called a ceremony of deliberate tomfoolery, in which masters and slaves ostensibly switched places, temporarily reversing the social order. We can still see traces of much of this in the way Christmas is celebrated.
This is the kind of thing that the great Roman poet Ovid celebrated in his Fasti (Feasts), his long poem, in six books, about the feast days of the Roman calendar. Who remembers the famous opening lines of Book One:
Times and their causes, arranged through the Latin year
Stars sunk beneath Earth and risen, I’ll sing …
You will recognise sacred rites unearthed from ancient
Annals and how each day deserved its mark …
Let others sing of Caesar’s wars, me of Caesar’s altars
And all the days he added to our rites.
Ovid wrote his Fasti in exile from Rome, and his reflection on the feasts of the Roman year was far from being a mere versification of hoary tradition. As his Australian translator, Anthony Boyle, put it, “Ovid’s Fasti is a revolutionary act.” It is a witty and anti-authoritarian poem of consummate human and political seriousness, in which the exiled poet, living at the margins of the civilised world, gave expression to a personal and free appreciation of all that it meant to be a literate Roman, in a form which, he correctly believed, would be read as long as Rome itself still stood. Little did he know that his fame and influence would, in fact, long outlast the empire of the Caesars. He was Shakespeare’s favourite poet, more than a thousand years after the downfall of Rome and its conquest by the Goths.
But before that happened, four centuries of feast days elapsed on the seven hills of Rome. The Emperor Elagabalus (218–222 AD) introduced the festival of the birth of the Unconquered Sun (or Dies Natalis Solis Invicti) to be celebrated on December 25, and it reached the height of its popularity under the Emperor Aurelian (275–280), who promoted it as an empire-wide holiday. Meanwhile, throughout the third century, despite persecution by a number of the Roman emperors, Christianity had grown in popularity throughout the Roman world and worshippers somewhat conflated the Sun God with the Son of God. The tale, with which some of you are probably familiar, of the Emperor Constantine seeing a cross superimposed on the sun in the sky above the Mulvian Bridge, in his climactic battle with Maxentius for mastery of Rome, symbolises the epochal shift from ancient solar religions to Christian monotheism. Within a few years, Constantine had made Christianity the state religion of the Roman empire and convened the Council of Nicaea to rationalise the theological orthodoxy of the Christian Church. This created the context in which the winter solstice festivities, the Brumalia and Saturnalia, formally gave way to the Christian festival of Christmas. Whenever, as citizens of the West, we look at Christmas celebrations, we might deepen our sense of perspective by remembering all this. We might also think differently about the actual winter solstice.
What of the universal human significance of the winter solstice? Remember, the seasonal significance of the winter solstice is in the reversal of the lengthening of nights and shortening of days. It is the shortest day and longest night. All over the human world it has been interpreted as the pivotal annual date in the struggle between light and darkness, between the sun god and his dark enemies, between summer harvest and winter famine. It has universally been seen as a moment of rebirth of the sun and has been celebrated with holidays, festivals, rituals and social gatherings. These traditions extend back to Neolithic times. The famous ruins at Stonehenge in Britain and their counterpart at Newgrange in Ireland testify to the salience of the winter solstice in ancient Druidic religion at least 5000 years ago. The great Woodhenge that preceded Stonehenge has been radio-carbon-dated to around 3000 BC. The primary axes of both of these monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge). John North’s extraordinary book Stonehenge: Neolithic Man and the Cosmos is an education in what our ancestors thought and achieved.
We are not, as a rule, taught such things in our schools or universities, but it transpires that the winter solstice has been celebrated in many of the same ways for millennia from Europe to East Asia, from the Middle East to the ancient Americas and from Africa to South Asia. It truly is a human universal, based on common observations of the movement of the sun, the changing of the seasons and the human preference for warmth and light over cold and darkness. In Iran to this day, they still celebrate a winter solstice festival which dates back to pre-Zoroastrian times, more than 3000 years ago. It is called Shab-e Chelleh and is celebrated on the eve of the first day of winter in the Persian calendar, called Yalda Night, which always falls on the solstice. Family and friends get together for fun and merriment, in a tradition more than twice as old as Islam. Dried fruits, nuts, seeds and fresh winter fruits are eaten, a tradition going back to ancient rituals to celebrate and pray to the Indo-European deities to ensure the protection of the winter crops. Watermelons, persimmons and pomegranates are traditional symbols of this celebration, all representing the sun. It used to be customary to stay awake on Yalda Night until sunrise, eating, drinking, listening to stories and poems.
In Japan they celebrate Amaterasu, in China Dongzhi, among the Jews Hanukkah—the Festival of Light. Among the Inca, before the Spanish and Catholic conquest in the sixteenth century, the winter solstice was celebrated as the Inti Raymi or Festival of the Sun. Inca priests would ceremonially tie up the sun to prevent it from escaping. In Machu Picchu there is still a large column of stone called an intihuatana, meaning “hitching post of the sun” or literally “post for tying the sun”. The Spanish conquistadors never found Machu Picchu, but they destroyed all the intihuatana they did find. The Catholic Church suppressed all Inti festivals and ceremonies by 1572. Meanwhile, among the Zuni and Hopi of the south-western regions of North America, the feast of Soyalangwul celebrated the winter solstice. They held a ritual to ceremonially bring the sun back from its long winter slumber. This ritual also signified the beginning of another cycle of the Wheel of the Year, and was a time for purification. Pahos (prayer sticks) would be made to bless all the community, including homes, animals and plants.
What was called Junkanoo in the Bahamas, and Jonkanoo in Jamaica, from a West African word for witch doctor, dzonku nu, was a winter solstice festival celebrated with a fantastic masquerade, parade and street festival accompanied by fifes, drums, and coconut graters used as scrapers, and the singing of Jonkanoo songs. A similar practice was once common in coastal North Carolina, where it was called John Canoe. Among Slavic peoples, going back long before the spread of Christianity, the feast of Karachun, on the longest night of the year, was a holiday similar to Halloween; a day when the black god and other evil spirits were most potent. The old sun was said to be defeated by the dark and evil powers of the black god. Then, with the new dawn, the sun was resurrected. Among Nordic and Germanic peoples the winter solstice was called Yule, marking the turn from darkness back to light. Yule was invested with folk customs which became widespread in Britain and North America throughout the Christian era, despite the efforts of the Christians, especially during the Reformation, to suppress these pagan holdovers. One of them was the practice of wassailing—literally, from the Anglo-Saxon, wishing or singing good health.
So much for the history of the matter, which, as you can see, is rich in material for conversation and the invention or revitalisation of folk customs that signify our common humanity in two senses—our ordinary human concerns and our universal human nature. But I want to suggest that there is a third dimension to all this, which transcends all the ancient customs and religious festivals and takes their underlying significance to a new level. I am referring to the remarkable knowledge that has been gained by our astronomical and geological sciences in recent years and which was wholly unknown to all those older human civilisations to which I have referred. We can now date the age of the Earth at 4.5 billion years and we have deduced that, when it was still forming, it collided with a Mars-sized planet. When the cataclysm subsided, the reshaped Earth had a large satellite—the Moon. We know that almost all ancient cultures, going back to the Palaeolithic, were fascinated by the Moon and that lunar calendars antedated solar calendars for this reason. But we have new, profound reasons to be fascinated by the Moon and I am not referring to the significance of the 1969 Moon landings.
With the exception of Mercury, every planet in our solar system spins about itself at a certain tilt, like a wobbling top. Did you know that, if the Earth did not have its relatively large and heavy Moon, which it acquired by catastrophic cosmic accident well over four billion years ago, its tilt of 23.4 degrees from the vertical would have varied chaotically over the aeons of its existence? The consequences for nascent complex life on this planet would have been disastrous. You see, a planet’s tilt angle determines its seasons and their duration. And here you will begin to see the connection with the winter solstice. A chaotic tilt would almost certainly have rendered the Earth an impossible environment for the evolution of complex life. There would have been no regular seasons, and liquid water would not have been a constant presence for long periods of time. From the time the Earth formed, it took several hundred million years for elementary life to emerge and a further two billion years for such simple, prokaryotic life forms to develop into eukaryotic life forms. It was still another billion years before multicellular life forms proliferated and a further half-billion years before the emergence of hominids—our own specific ancestors. If it were it not for the Moon, the regular seasons and abundant water which have fostered this immensely drawn-out process of biological evolution would not have been possible and we would not be here. That, I think, lends a more than ever awesome significance to the winter solstice.
A long line of brilliant scientists since Galileo has blown open the entire cosmic horizon for us, revealing that the Earth is not the centre even of the solar system, much less of the Milky Way, to say nothing of the cosmos. It is one of the satellites of a mid-range yellow star far out on one spiral arm of a mid-sized galaxy containing something like 300 billion stars that is only one among hundreds of billions of galaxies. This has prompted the growing belief that there must be life in abundance elsewhere in the cosmos. Carl Sagan, using the famous Drake Equation, estimated that there must be about one million civilizations in the Milky Way alone, all capable of radio astronomy. Hence our nascent SETI program—the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Ten years before Frank Drake produced his estimative equation in 1960, however, Enrico Fermi had posed the haunting question, “Where is everybody?” The question is known as Fermi’s Paradox. If intelligent life is common in the cosmos, then given that the cosmos is 13.7 billion years old, while our planet is only a third of that age, why isn’t there any evidence of intelligent life around us in the galaxy? It’s had all the time in the galaxy to arise and communicate. Is it possible, after all, that we are alone? There’s an eerie thought. This is the question pondered by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee in Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe. It pivots on the disturbing fact that, after half a century of SETI and 10,000 years of humans celebrating winter solstices, all we have heard around us is a vast cosmic silence.
To the extent that we are alone on our rare Earth beneath the Moon, we need to apply ourselves to taking far better care of that rare Earth than we have ever done before. Not only is it the only one we have; it is, just conceivably, in all the vast reaches of space, the only one there is. And that is a reason to recover and renew the deep, underlying meaning of all the winter solstice ceremonies of our human ancestors: an awareness that light is precious, that darkness and cold are dangerous, that the change of the seasons is the natural context in which we live and move and have our being, and that wassailing in human fellowship and reminding ourselves of our common humanity is salutary at regular intervals.