Most people who celebrate Christmas know that numerous elements of our modern traditions come from older religions than Christianity, but the range of source traditions astounds me. There is, for instance, no one source of the practice of observing the winter solstice itself, of myths involving the death or sacrifice and rebirth of a deity, or of father and son symbols for the old year and the new. Many sources are cited in the book as possible origins of Santa Claus, of the giving of gifts, and the custom of bringing greenery indoors.
It's not the diversity of customs that fascinates me so much as the variety of myths and stories that impact on an emotional level. When I consider the winter solstice traditions presented here, as a whole, I realize how similar all cultures are in their most basic concerns. The winter solstice was a time of great disquiet to people who lived close to the earth, more than a couple of centuries ago. The shortening of days, scarcity of food, and intense cold of winter carried far deeper implications for those who lived directly off the land and couldn't quickly transport needed goods. It's no surprise some important and deeply meaningful traditions arose from the resulting insecurity about the future.
Whatever the reason behind the timing of Christmas so near the solstice, and whatever your beliefs about it or your reason for reading, you'll find a wealth of information in The Winter Solstice. This impressively researched book even contains ideas for creating celebrations and traditions of your own. It's a fitting tribute to this most ancient holy day. If your celebration centers around the birth of Jesus, never fear. There's a wealth of commentary and research included on traditions specific to Christianity. But an open mind is required to sift through the myth, legend, history, and blending of customs. This is not a book conducive to fundamentalist thinking about religion-any religion, Christian, pagan or otherwise. It's far better suited to those with a penchant for myth and speculation.
A few of the subjects covered in the first chapter are The Returning Sun, Chambers of the Sun and Sun-Rites, with mention of those ancient structures built for the purpose of calculating or demonstrating the sun's return at the turn of the solstice, such as Stonehenge in England, New Grange in Ireland, and Mayan ruins. Zuni houses in North America contained objects and windows designed to catch the rays of the returning sun. Saturnalia, New Year rites, the Celtic Calendar, and the sun gods of Egypt and elsewhere are also mentioned, as well as a fifteen hundred-year-old Jewish commentary on the Babylonian Talmud. This is just a taste, mind you, and only from the first chapter.
The information is presented in short sections, so it's easy to pick up and read a few paragraphs. But these paragraphs will easily draw you in for a longer read. It can be read straight through, or enjoyed as a coffee table book to share with friends, and to stimulate discussion and speculation. It's a must-read, for me, during the December holidays.