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Faces on Faith: Winter Solstice spawned ceremonies

By Staff | Dec 21, 2012

Rev. Thomas Nyman

Today, Dec. 21, 2012, is the day the Mayan Calendar completes its cycle. The Mayan Calendar is a 365-day solar calendar divided into 18 months of 20 days each and one month which is only five days long. It ends on the Winter Solstice.

Since you are reading this, we can conclude that rumors of the demise of planet Earth were untrue.

The Mayans were not the only ones to note cycles of the sun.

Many ancient cultures were aware of the days being shorter at this time of year, but often they were unaware of the cyclical changes in the Earth’s position. They noted the decrease in sunlight, and they were afraid that the sunlight would never come back. Consequently, they had many celebrations and ceremonies that they hoped would entice the sun to return.

It is interesting that there are more ceremonies and rituals associated with the winter solstice than any other time of year.

The Roman culture, hundreds of years ago, celebrated its major festival on the Winter Solstice. When Julius Caesar instituted a new calendar in Rome, the Solstice festival fell on Dec. 25, and that date was retained for many years.

How did Dec. 25 become Christmas?

We cannot be entirely sure. There is no date in the Bible. There is no date in the early Christian writings. Apparently, it was not celebrated for centuries. When celebrations began, they were on various dates. Some were on the Solstice.

Some say the actual date might come from Judaism – from Jesus’ death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things happen, again and again, at the same time of the year. According to this theory, Jesus’ conception would be on the same day as his crucifixion.

This notion of cycles and the return of God’s redemption was common to many, pagan and others.

So, whether we celebrate the birthday of the sun or the birthday of the Son, we have a special time, a special season.

We know that elements of the Christmas festival that developed from the fourth century until modern times have derived from pagan traditions. They have become cherished by many of us.

On Dec. 25, Christians around the world will gather in faith communities and families to celebrate Jesus’ birth.

We will gather around Christmas trees to sing joyful carols, we will share special liturgies and readings. During this special season, we will exchange brightly wrapped gifts and share traditional foods.

We will ask for those of other faiths or no faith to tolerate and respect our celebrations even if they do not participate in them.

And, while it is not the time of the demise of planet Earth, it is my prayer that, for a day, or a week, or 12 days, or even more, it could bring the demise of hate-filled and hurtful behavior among us, and that the Holy Child of Bethlehem might be born in us again.