Solstice a Cause for Celebration Since Ancient Times

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Many more people observe the solstice while participating in modern holidays—even if they do not always realize the connection.

The Solstice Christmas Connection

Scholars don't agree about the exact origins of Christmas. "In the early years of the Christian church, the calendar was centered around Easter," said Yeide. "Nobody knows exactly where and when (perhaps in Egypt) they began to think it suitable to celebrate Christ's birth as well as the passion cycle (the crucifixion and resurrection)."

Eastern churches traditionally celebrate Christmas on January 6, a date known as Epiphany in the West. The Gospels do not specify when Christ was born, so the date may have been originally chosen because of the belief that the season of Christ's conception would be that same as that of his death and resurrection.

But the new celebration soon became co-mingled with traditional observances of the solstice.

"As the Christmas celebration moved west," Yeide said "the date that had traditionally been used to celebrate the winter solstice became sort of available for conversion to the observance of Christmas. In the Western church, the December date became the date for Christmas."

Traditional solstice celebrations existed in many cultures. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, honoring the God Saturn, was a weeklong December feast that included the observance of the winter solstice. Romans also celebrated the lengthening of days following the solstice by paying homage to Mithra—an ancient Persian god of light.

Christian leaders of the time endeavored to attract pagans to their faith by adding Christian meaning to these existing festivals.

"This gave rise to an interesting play on words," said Yeide. "In several languages, not just in English, people have traditionally compared the rebirth of the sun with the birth of the son of God."

While religious observance of the winter solstice is not as common as it once was, many in the Northern Hemisphere will surely give thanks for the slow but steady return of the sun.

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