The earth spins like a gyroscope or a child's toy top. It constantly points to the same region far out in the universe.
The seasons are not caused by the earth getting closer or farther away from the sun, as many people believe. It is caused by this 23.5º tilt. As the earth travels around the sun, the density of the sun's rays differs between the Northern and Southern hemispheres. In early December of each year, the sun is very low in the northern sky, and very high in the southern sky. This produces winter in the north and summer in the south. In the northern hemisphere, the daylight hours shorten each day and the nighttime lengthens.
1On or about DEC-21, the daytime is at a minimum and the nighttime is at a maximum. This is the winter solstice. Humans living millennia ago were far more aware of the shortening day, an apparent pause, and then a gradual lengthening of the daylight hours in late December. Living in a pre-scientific era, many cultures were terrified that the daylight interval would continue to shorten, causing an end to life on Earth. So the winter solstice or the days immediately following the solstice were a time of great celebration. Ancient faiths attributed a major religious theme to the solstice: it was a time of the birth of a new God to replace the old, dying deity. Implicit in this is the hope for a new warm season and a return to the earth's fertility.
The historical origins of religious observances in December:
Wiccans, and other Neopagans celebrate Yule, which is their name for the Winter Solstice.
Nova Romans, celebrate Saturnalia, an ancient Roman holiday. This was the Festival of Saturn which was gradually extended in duration until it became a seven day observance from DEC-17 to 23 each year. The Romans decorated living trees outside their homes, and hung garlands, wreathes and other decorations on their doorways, windows, and stairs. It was also observed at the winter solstice.
Ancient Rome: In the religious melting pot which was the Mediterranean in ancient times, there were many celebrations of the births of saviors at this season:
The ancient Roman Pagan religion celebrated the birth of one of their Gods, Attis, in December of each year. Attis was born of the virgin Nana. He was sacrificed as an adult in order to bring salvation to mankind. He died about MAR-25, after being crucified on a tree, and descended for three days into the underworld. On Sunday, he arose, "as the solar deity for the new season." His followers tied an image of Attis to a tree on "Black Friday," and carried him in a procession to the temple. His body was symbolically eaten by his followers in the form of bread. Worship of Attis began in Rome circa 200 BCE.
The Babylonians celebrated their "Victory of the Sun-God" Festival on DEC-25.
The followers of the Pagan mystery religion Mithraism observed the birth of the savior Mithra, the "Deus sol invictus" ("unconquered sun"). Their God was believed to have been born on DEC-25, circa 500 BCE. His birth was witnessed by shepherds and by gift-carrying Magi. This date was celebrated as the "Dies Natalis Solic Invite," The "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun" each year. Some followers believed that he was born of a virgin. During his life, he performed many miracles, cured many illnesses, and cast out devils. He celebrated a Last Supper with his 12 disciples. He ascended to heaven at the time of the spring equinox, about March 21.
The Roman Emperor Aurelian (circa 214-275 CE) blended Saturnalia with a number of birth celebrations of savior Gods from other religions, into a single holy day: DEC-25. At the time, the various Christian movements were not recognized as legitimate religions. They were subject to intermittent oppression. This new holy day partially lost its close connection to the Winter Solstice.
Ancient Egypt: The god-man/savior Osiris died and was entombed on DEC-21. "At midnight, the priests emerged from an inner shrine crying 'The Virgin has brought forth! The light is waxing" and showing the image of a baby to the worshipers."
Ancient Greece: The winter solstice ritual was called Lenaea, the Festival of the Wild Women. In very ancient times, a man representing the harvest god Dionysos was torn to pieces and eaten by a gang of women on this day. Later in the ritual, Dionysos would be reborn as a baby. By classical times, the human sacrifice had been replaced by the killing of a goat. The women's role had changed to that of funeral mourners and observers of the birth.
Inca Religion: The ancient Incas celebrated a festival if Inti Raymi at the time of the Winter Solstice. It celebrates "the Festival of the Sun where the god of the Sun, Wiracocha, is honored." Ceremonies were banned by the Roman Catholic conquistadores in the 16th century as part of their forced conversions of the Inca people to Christianity. A local group of Quecia Indians in Cusco, Peru revived the festival about 1950. It is now a major festival which begins in Cusco and proceeds to an ancient amphitheater a few miles away.
Native American Spirituality:
- The Pueblo tribe observe both the summer and winter solstices. Although the specific details of the rituals differ from pueblo to pueblo, "the rites are built around the sun, the coming new year and the rebirth of vegetation in the spring....Winter solstice rites include...prayerstick making, retreats, altars, emesis and prayers for increase."
- The Hopi tribe "is dedicated to giving aid and direction to the sun which is ready to 'return' and give strength to budding life." Their ceremony is called "Soyal." It lasts for 20 days and includes "prayerstick making, purification, rituals and a concluding rabbit hunt, feast and blessing..."
- There are countless stone structures created by Natives in the past to detect the solstices and equinoxes. One was called Calendar One by its modern-day finder. It is in a natural amphitheatre of about 20 acres in size in Vermont. From a stone enclosure in the center of the bowl, one can see a number of vertical rocks and natural features in the horizon which formed the edge of the bowl. At the solstices and equinoxes, the sun rises and sets at notches or peaks in the ridge which surrounded the calendar.
Since the people of the Roman Empire were accustomed to celebrating the birth of various Gods on that day, it was easy for the church to divert people's attention to Jesus' birth. The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated in the same way as Saturnalia. They involved drinking, sexual indulgence, and singing naked in the streets. These practices have long since been abandoned, although naked singing evolved into modern caroling. According to the Judaism Online web site: "Some of the most depraved customs of the Saturnalia carnival were intentionally revived by the Catholic Church in 1466 when Pope Paul II, for the amusement of his Roman citizens, forced Jews to race naked through the streets of the city."
Judaism: Jews celebrate an 8 day festival of Hanukkah, (a.k.a. Feast of Lights, Festival of lights, Feast of Dedication, Chanukah, Chanukkah, Hanukah). It recalls the war fought by the Maccabees in the cause of religious freedom. Antiochus, the king of Syria, conquered Judea in the 2nd century BCE. He terminated worship in the Temple and stole the sacred lamp, the menorah, from before the altar. At the time of the solstice, they rededicated the Temple to a Pagan deity. Judah the Maccabee lead a band of rebels, and succeeding in retaking Jerusalem. They restored the temple and lit the menorah. It was exactly three years after the flame had been extinguished -- at the time of the Pagan rite.
Although they had found only sufficient consecrated oil to last for 24 hours, the flames burned steadily for eight days. "Today's menorahs have nine branches; the ninth branch is for the shamash, or servant light, which is used to light the other eight candles. People eat potato latkes, exchange gifts, and play dreidel games. And as they gaze at the light of the menorah, they give thanks for the miracle in the Temple long ago."
Modern-day Jews celebrate Hanukkah by lighting one candle for each of the eight days of the festival. Once a minor festival, it has been growing in importance in recent years, possibly to compete with Christmas.
Busshism: On DEC-8, or on the Sunday immediately preceding, Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day (a.k.a. Rohatsu). It recalls the day in 596 BCE, when the Buddha achieved enlightenment. He had left his family and possessions behind at the age of 29, and sought the meaning of life -- particularly the reasons for its hardships. He studied under many spiritual teachers without success. Finally, he sat under a pipal tree and vowed that he would stay there until he found what he was seeking. On the morning of the eighth day, he realized that everyone suffers due to ignorance. But ignorance can be overcome through the Eightfold Path that he advocated. This day is generally regarded as the birth day of Buddhism. Being an Eastern tradition, Bodhi Day has none of the associations with the solstice and seasonal changes found in other religious observances at this time of year. However, it does signify the point in time when the Buddha achieved enlightenment and escaped the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth through reincarnation -- themes that are observed in other religions in December.
Islam: During the period 1997 to 1999, the first day of the Islamic lunar month of Ramadan occurred in December. The nominal dates were 1997-DEC-31, 1998-DEC-20 and 1999-DEC-9. The actual date for the start of Ramadan depends upon the sighting of the crescent moon, and thus can be delayed by a few days from the nominal date. This is the holiest period in the Islamic year. It honors the lunar month in which the Qura'n was revealed by God to humanity. "It is during this month that Muslims observe the Fast of Ramadan. Lasting for the entire month, Muslims fast during the daylight hours and in the evening eat small meals and visit with friends and family. It is a time of worship and contemplation. A time to strengthen family and community ties."