Across the Roman Empire that once stretched from southern England to northern Africa, from Spain to Palestine, these days would be marked by a festival known as Saturnalia. The great sky god Saturn, the earth goddess, Ops (from which we get the word “opulence”) and their child Consus–the god of the grain stores of Rome. Saturnalia stretched for up to ten days and included candles, bonfires, feasting, gift giving and a reversal of social roles. Saturnalia included the dying and rising of the Sun god and was celebrated as the Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun.
In northern Europe, these days were once celebrated as the days of Yule, a midwinter celebration with the god Odin as the Yule Father. The days of Yule lasted anywhere from 12 days to two months long, focusing on the solstice day, feasting, drinking and sacrifice, and had elements of a fertility festival as well. The celebrations included the burning of a Yule log, the sacrificing and eating of a Yule goat, and toasts made to Odin, to the gods, to the ancestors and to the king.
Rooted in events that took place in the second century BCE, Jews across the world observe a minor festival during these days known as Hanukkah. Celebrated anywhere from late November to early January, this year the eight days of Hanukkah begin tomorrow, December 24, and honor the re dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes, the Seleucid emperor who erected a statue of Zeus in the temple and had a pig sacrificed on the altar. In rededicating the temple led by the Maccabean brothers, the oil needed for the eight days of ritual ran out, but the lamps miraculously remained lit for the entire time effectively restoring the temple to Jewish practice. The modern practices includes the lighting of the menorah with one candle for each of the eight days, and for children, small gift giving.
It is also during these days that the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary and to her husband Joseph is celebrated by Christians around the world. The Twelve days of Christmas begins on December 25 and continues through January 6, traditionally, and includes worshiping the Christ child as the God-Man and restoring the image of God to all of humanity once lost through sin. The celebration of the birth of Jesus did not begin to be a part of Christian practice until the 5th century CE, and in many places took on practices and characteristics of Saturnalia and Yule.
In more recent times (since 1967) an African American holiday known as Kwanzaa is celebrated by some in the US and other places of the west-African diaspora from December 26-January 1. Kwanzaa includes feasting and the observation of seven core principles which reflect a communitarian African philosophy and includes the lighting of candles, one for each day and each principle. The creator of Kwanzaa, Maulana Karenga, established the holiday as a means for African Americans to reconnect with their African cultural and historical heritage.
We stand in a place at this time in history when we can look at each of these holiday traditions, understand them historically, deconstruct them, so to speak, so that we see how they belong to a time and a place. We can identify the miraculous and legendary materials that have accrued to each and realize that those materials make for good stories but are likely not historical facts.
And then it seems to me that we have the opportunity to put all of these pieces together again. We stand at a place in time where we can look at this wealth of religious and cultural celebration and ask ourselves what meaning WE can make from them, how WE can enter into the joy, reverence, honor and serenity that they are capable of conveying to us.
This is not by any means all that can be said in this effort. It is just my one personal insight. All of these rich religious traditions occur in the northern hemisphere at a time when the earth leans farthest away from the Sun. This time of the year creates for us on a core level the temporary experience of what life would be like without the warmth and life giving light of our Sun. Each of these religious traditions remind us how much light means to us in the midst of the darkness–whatever its cause.
Cherish the light. Cultivate the light. Honor the light. Share the light. Keep the light. Celebrate the light. Every day. Everywhere. In everyone.