The war on solstice has been underway for millennia. Partisans of solstice are fighting back.
I am not referring to the astronomical event. With the winter solstice, of course, we experience the longest night and the shortest day, and afterward, the days grow longer until the summer solstice arrives, and then grows shorter, until the next winter solstice. I am referring, instead, to solstice as a cultural phenomenon, to the ways it is celebrated, contested and invested with meaning.
For millennia, the cultural observance of solstice has involved religious beliefs and practices rooted in seasonal cycles and focused on nature as the source of existence, and sometimes also, related to creative divine beings. But cultures deeply conditioned by Judaism, Christianity and Islam (the 'Abrahamic' religions that trace their origins to the prophet Abraham) have viewed such perceptions as idolatrous and dangerous. Nature-based religions, the West's religious mainstreams have generally contended, can lead people away from the one true God. Those involved with them should be converted, and if necessary, suppressed, for they are both spiritually and socially dangerous.
Efforts to suppress nature-based beliefs and practices have been tremendously successful. Temples associated with pagan folkways, natural cycles such as the solstices and equinoxes, or celebrating fertility and rebirth, have been physically razed and invested with meanings supportive of monotheistic belief. Those who believe that there are spiritual beings or forces in nature have been denigrated as primitive and superstitious. Attacks by more powerful individuals and groups have led many to abandon nature-based spiritual traditions.
Nevertheless, for several centuries in the West, there has been a gradual resurgence of such spiritualities, although these are often appearing in new, more modern forms. In recent decades, this trend has been gathering momentum. While some involved in contemporary nature spiritualities believe the natural world is full of spiritual presences, or that god or other divine beings are behind it all, many profess no such belief. For them, one can be agnostic or atheistic while expressing awe and wonder in the face of the mysteries of the universe and a deep appreciation for the 'miracle' of life. With contemporary nature spirituality, both sensory experience in nature and scientific understandings foster a belief that nature is sacred and that all life deserves respect if not also reverence. 'The Symphony of Science' offers one creative example of how such spirituality can be expressed in music videos.
For conservatives involved in the West's predominant religions, these are unwelcome developments. Progressives may ridicule those who claim that there is now a cultural "War on Christmas" but Christian conservatives do have reason to worry. They know that their cultural influence has been waning, and that those with evolutionary and ecological worldviews are growing in number and influence. A DVD series released by a group of conservative Christians entitled "Resisting the Green Dragon," provides one recent example of such fears. These fears are based on an accurate perception that there is a religious dimension to much environmentalism. Those expressing such fears understand, accurately, that those engaged in nature-based spiritualities, both overtly and in subtle ways, are converting many to an evolutionary worldview and an environmentalist spirituality and ethics. They know that this is one reason they are having trouble even keeping their own children in the fold.
In this light it is more understandable why some Christians find it disturbing when people express their holiday wishes not with "Merry Christmas" but with "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings." Such greetings acknowledge the nation's increasing religious pluralism and they are often motivated by a polite desire not to presume that everyone is Christian. But for some, it is also an unpleasant reminder of the declining power of the religion they believe to be both true and a pathway to salvation.
Although it is not as common as Happy Holidays, today "Happy Solstice" is increasingly used as a yuletide greeting. This is more than an expression of holiday cheer -- it also conveys an alternative identity and an earthly spirituality in which nature itself is implicitly understood to be sacred. It is just one example the increasingly assertive forms that nature spirituality is assuming as it gains traction globally. Those offering such blessings may also invite loved ones to solstice celebrations that consecrate the natural cycles of the universe, while also expressing kinship with and reverence for all life.
Observers of contemporary religion know that it is not only possible to integrate contemporary evolutionary and ecological understandings with theistic beliefs, but that this is increasingly done, and in a variety of creative and sincere ways. Nevertheless, the epic battle between those who consider God and the sacred to be above and beyond the world, and those who consider it to be here and everywhere, is unlikely to end anytime soon. Indeed, as I argued in Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future, in the 150 years since Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published, it is now possible to see that the momentum has shifted toward more naturalistic spiritualities. This momentum will not likely be reversed.
Happy Solstice! Or is it? The answer will depend on where the sacred is in your mind and heart.