OMG – how could Christmas get bigger!?
It’s not what you think.
My Episcopal upbringing stuck just about as well as a band-aid would stick if you put it on while soaping up in the bath. It doesn’t really matter why, it just didn’t. For a time, I went spiritually adrift, not sure of what I believed, and by extension, what holidays to celebrate.
Eventually, I gravitated to the cycles of the earth—to the seasons—as a way of marking milestones, and I quickly discovered that the Christian holidays of my Episcopal childhood fell into this same cycle.
I think, actually, a lot of people knew, but I was not one of them.
For years since that discovery, I have celebrated the winter solstice, and little by little, it has transformed into a sort of revised version of Christmas. Here’s the story:
From September 21st to December 20th, the days grow progressively shorter because the sun rises to a lower and lower point in the sky. Ancient peoples feared that the sun would eventually fail to rise at all, leaving them in perpetual darkness. On the solstice, which occurs on the 21st of December, the trend reverses itself and the sun rises a bit higher, signifying a shift towards longer days.
Ancient peoples celebrated the return of light with all kinds of very familiar sounding traditions: they brought evergreens inside to ward off the winter gray, they lit yule logs, caroled, feasted and exchanged gifts.
Gee, haven’t I done all that before?
Meanwhile, I didn’t have to jump through too many intellectual hoops before noticing that the narratives of the solstice and of Christmas both revolve around homonyms: sun/son. So the sun appears higher in the sky, bringing us light and hope, at the same time that the son is born under a “bright star,” giving us light and hope. I can’t help myself: Are they the same sun/son?
Growing up, I had no idea that the solstice existed. Nor did I understand that my Christmas traditions hailed from pagan customs in place long before the birth of Christ. Even more interesting, and equally unknown to me: colonial puritans banned the celebration of Christmas in the early 17th century precisely because of these roots.
So when my sister ironically asked me why I had a Christmas tree and an advent wreath after we stopped attending our Episcopal church, it occurred to me to ask, “Well, if we’re going to be picky (or Puritan) about it, why do you have a Christmas tree?”
But I didn’t want to be picky about it. To be fair, neither did she. She was just curious.
To answer her question, here’s what we’ve ended up with. I have come to understand winter holiday traditions as different ways of celebrating one thing: the need for spiritual light in a time of physical and spiritual darkness. The “sun” brings us light and life in a literal way. Meanwhile, the “son” brings the same in a figurative way while adding a moral layer in the messages Christ bore regarding peace, charity, love and community.
To commemorate both of these things, we have all the trappings of Christmas, including lights, a tree and an advent wreath. We even have a nativity scene. The evergreens of the tree and the wheel-shaped wreath symbolize hope in the return of light and life. However, we also light the candles every Sunday according to the Christian tradition of joy, hope, peace and love. We light the 4th candle on the solstice for the “sun” and the white candle on Christmas eve for the “son.”
The nativity scene depicts the birth of Christ and reminds us of his teachings. It also stresses the importance of family: it portrays a family, it belonged to my grandmother, and it acknowledges our Christian family heritage.
There's more, but I fear there's a law about blog posts that exceed a certain unspoken word count. I feel sure I'm approaching or surpassing that limit, putting me at risk for some sort of blogocide, so that's enough for now.
I don’t think I explained all this to my sister when she asked. I’m sure her eyes would have rolled back in her head and stuck there. But I like this rich tradition that we have woven.
Whether a person finds light in the sun, God, Christ, advent candles, lights on a tree, or through light in other traditions such as the Jewish Menorah, what I think matters most is the celebration itself and the community, good will, and hope that it inspires.
We can all celebrate in our varied ways, with puritan zeal or not, but if we can also recognize this commonality of purpose and circumstance, that human beings come together in winter darkness and are held together in holiday light, even better.