One day in my young boyhood, I asked dad why we have Winter. If memory serves me right, dad took an old envelope and drew a sketch of the Earth in orbit around the Sun. He pointed out that the Earth goes round the Sun at a tilt, so that at different places in our orbit the energy from the Sun hits different parts of the planet at different angles. I remember well that after his explanation, he said, “That’s the reason for the season.”
Dad’s “cherry on top” statement has had staying power in my mind. It comes to mind today as we near the December Solstice. My paper calendars list today as the first day of Winter. The official time for Solstice will be tomorrow at 04:19 UTC. I mention it now, because many of us in the Western Hemisphere will be asleep when it happens.
In many ancient cultures, the two annual solstices marked significant milestones in their habitats and their lives. The December Solstice has long been the most celebrated Solstice of the two. Throughout the ages the December Solstice has been celebrated as a holiday.
I think about my ancient Viking ancestors and wonder how exactly they may have celebrated the major holiday of Yule. Yule was more than the Yule Log and an indoor holiday tree. Grandfather J once explained that the Yule celebrated the “Wild Hunt” and the God Odin. If a time machine exists, I’d like to visit my ancestral homeland of Sweden as it was before the time that Christianity overlaid Yule with Christmas. I’d most likely experience major culture-shock.
What would it have been like to travel in a group of villagers as they sang and shouted through their fields and forests in order to chase away evil spirits that might curse future crops and hunts? That tradition eventually evolved into the singing of Christmas carols during the Medieval Period.
Dad once told the family that one of the ancient Viking traditions involved mistletoe. In olden times warriors from competing clans held ceremonial meetings under the plant to declare peace and reconciliation. The tradition of kissing underneath the mistletoe probably came about because the Norse associated mistletoe with the Goddess of Love–Frigga.
In modern times, we associate the winter holidays of various religions with gift-giving. The giving of presents and offerings has been important to people during solstices going back to ancient times. In historic times, we might think of the ancient Roman holiday, Saturnalia. Celebrants exchanged gifts throughout the multi-day holiday. Saturnalia was only one of the holidays celebrated by ancient peoples around the time of winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere.
Regardless of one’s spiritual path, religious beliefs, or personal customs, the time around December Solstice is a time of friendship, goodwill, and contemplation. It is a universal time of thoughtfulness, peacefulness, and thankfulness. My Christian friends have been preparing for Christmas since this past Thanksgiving. My Jewish friends will begin celebrating Chanukah tomorrow night after sunset.
My pagan pals are in the process of celebrating Yule. I already celebrated Bodhi Day two Sundays ago. My friends in India celebrate Pancha Ganapati now through the 25th. Humanists have something called “HumanLight” on the 23rd. We have the Pan-African festival of Kwanzaa running from the 26th through New Year’s Day. Zuni and Hopi Native Americans have Soyal today. I’m sure I left out many other significant celebrations that people observe.
So, while there is one astronomical “reason for the season”, there are many reasons for the season when it comes to human cultures around the world.