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Rites and Lights of the Winter Solstice

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Friday, December 21st marks the winter solstice, a time when the North Pole tilts furthest away from the sun at 23.5 degrees, producing the longest night in the Northern Hemisphere. In the United States the sun will shine for less than ten hours on Friday: in New York City nine hours and 15 minutes; Chicago, nine hours and 7 minutes; and Los Angeles, nine hours and 53 minutes.

Thanks to scientific knowledge, we understand why December 21st is the shortest day in the year. But that wasn't so for ancient human beings, who feared the sun might never shine long enough again to grow crops. So integral was sunlight to early man's survival that monuments surviving from the late Neolithic and Bronze Ages (most famously, Great Britain's Stonehenge and Ireland's Newgrange) reveal large rocks carefully placed to identify the timing of the winter solstice.

Once that day was confirmed, prehistoric man followed rituals which often reappear in today's December celebrations. The Christmas and holiday parties you're attending this month are hardly unique. Humans have been celebrating the darkest time of year with food, alcoholic beverages, and high jinks for thousands of years. Faced with possible starvation during the winter months, primitive man slaughtered cattle during the winter solstice, feasted and drank newly-fermented wine.

One famous Roman celebration was the Brumelia, a month-long festival honoring Bacchus, god of the vine, during which people drank new wine until the holiday's end on December 24th.

More notorious was the Saturnalia, named after the Roman god, Saturn. Originally held on December 17 that celebration became so popular it was extended to December 23rd. That was not surprising since the Saturnalia encouraged excessive indulgence in food, drink and sexual exploits. Schools were closed, citizens wore long hats, and played pranks upon each other in an atmosphere of public revelry. In a reversal of the old social order, masters served their slaves who, in turn, treated their owners with disrespect. Privately, families visited among themselves and exchanged small gifts.

Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, whose birth is said to be December 25th, also coincides with the Roman winter solstice according to the old Julian calendar. One of the most cherished holidays in America and throughout the world, Christmas is widely characterized by religious services, feasting, gift-giving, caroling and charity.

The sparkling lights with which we decorate our homes and office buildings at Christmas also have an ancient legacy. Primitive man reacted to winter's long nights by lighting bonfires in their villages and illuminating their homes with oil lamps. In early Latvia, people lit candles at the winter solstice for their god, Dievins, and maintained fires until the holiday was over, extinguishing them to symbolize the end of troubles from the old year. During that celebration, the Latvians enjoyed feasts with their families, serenaded by roaming carolers.

In prehistoric North America, the Zuni and Hopitu Shinumu, or Hopi Indians, blamed the solstice upon the sun's long winter sleep. To encourage it to awaken, the Hopis fashioned prayer sticks called Pahos with which they blessed their communities, homes, animals and plants. The Hopi also considered the days surrounding December 21 a time for purification and the start of a new time cycle, the Wheel of the Year.

Another festival related to winter darkness is Hanukkah occurring on the 25th day of the Jewish lunar month of Kieslav, around the time of the solstice. In 168 B.C.E. the Jewish Temple was seized by Syrian-Greek soldiers, and dedicated to worship of the god Zeus. A year later when emperor Antiochus forbade the worship of Judaism, Jewish warriors defeated their oppressors. As the victors attempted to restore the desecrated Temple, they discovered there was only enough oil to purify it for one night. Miraculously, the oil lasted eight days. Today the holiday is celebrated with lighting of the Menorah, an eight-day candelabra.

The ancient Asians -- Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese -- also feared the solstice and considered December 21st The Extreme of Winter, a time when the yin and yang concept of balance and harmony in nature were disrupted by darkness. After their observance of the Dongzhi Festival, which included family gatherings, special foods and cleansing of the house of evil spirits, the days grow longer and the flow positive energy was restored.

Today we often see images of the ebbing year as an old man yielding a scythe and the New Year as a yowling infant. That concept, too, has links to prehistoric death-and-rebirth rites of the winter solstice.

Among them was the Lenaia, or Festival of the Wild Woman, celebrated by the women of ancient Greece. The ceremony began with the sacrifice or a man or an animal, symbolizing Dionysus, the god of wine-making and ritualistic ecstasy. Then a baby was presented who was considered a representative of the reborn Dionysian god.

So it is that many of our contemporary holiday rituals reflect ancient observances of the winter solstice. Today we no longer fear it as did early man. Thanks to electric lights, telescopes, and space explorations we know that the shortest day of the year, Friday, December 21, will pass followed by sun's longer days for the next six months.

Yet there are other darknesses which are more daunting for us as Americans to face: global warming, a national fiscal crisis, and a proliferation of assault weapons resulting in the mass murders of innocents.

Like the ancients, we must push against that darkness and bring back the sun.