Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Colors of Christmas

I am writing this in late November, roughly 30 days before winter officially begins on December 22, the winter solstice. Last night, my wife, Christine, and I had a bonfire, probably the last one of the year before it turns too cold, inviting friends over to roast hot dogs and marshmallows. In a way, it was really quite primitive, sitting around the fire, huddled against the chilly night, surrounded by evergreen trees, listening to the wind gusting through the trees. We were confident that, although it was getting darker and colder every day, there would be a spring, and in six months it would be lighter and warmer.

It did bring to mind, though, our ancient ancestors, the Neolithic farmers, sitting around fires thousands of years ago. For them, though, it was quite different, because they huddled in fear, having observed that the sun was sinking below the horizon much earlier each night and returning much later each morning. What if the sun no longer came up? They were afraid that the sun might disappear completely, leaving only the darkness and the permanent cold. Their fears increased as they neared the winter solstice. From vast experience and keen observation they knew of the movement of the sun across the sky, knowing that it would be much darker before it became lighter, but what if it stayed completely dark this time? Motivated by magical beliefs and superstition, they performed rituals to ensure that the sun would be reborn this time. Over the centuries, their rituals seemed to work because during the longest night and shortest day of the year, the sun did, indeed, stop its southerly journey and begin heading north. That is the meaning of the word solstice, from the Latin solstitium, sol meaning sun, and sistere, meaning “to stand still.” The days gradually became longer and the nights shorter for the next six months, until the summer solstice when the sun stood still, again, and then began its journey south.

Early man’s superstition triggered his rituals, encouraging the rebirth of the sun. Superstition shares the same Latin root as solstice, sistere, meaning “to stand,” in this case the prefix super means “to stand over.” Early man thought that perhaps his magical rituals would enable him to stand beyond, or over, the events, having a positive effect, encouraging the rebirth of the sun. Through the centuries these rituals became ceremonies involving the colors red and green, symbolizing the fertility of the earth. People gathered wreaths and holly with its red berries and evergreen boughs and ivy and mistletoe and built fires, and these practices were carried on in various forms by the Greeks and early Christians and Romans and Celts and other cultures throughout the world.

And now it is necessary to account, briefly, for the connection between the winter solstice and the birth of Jesus and Christmas celebrations. December 25 was set four hundred years after the birth of Jesus. Church Fathers, having no exact reference of Jesus’ birthday, borrowed a festival the Romans celebrated, called the Birth of the Unconquered Sun, declared to fall on December 25 by Emperor Aurelian in 270 AD. Our Neolithic ancestors would see the connection, having prayed that their sun conquer the night, again.

Today, although we have long forgotten the superstitious reasons for the colors, we have green and red candles and Christmas trees lights and bulbs and decorations and Yule logs and gifts wrapped in red and green paper and ribbons and bows and Christmas wreaths and holly and mistletoe and candy canes and Christmas cards and stockings, and we wear red and green sweaters and shirts and blouses and pants and skirts and scarves and earmuffs and mittens because these are the colors of rebirth.