On the Soapbox

Happy Solstice/Yule!

Saturday, December 22, 2007
Keywords: none

I was asked recently, "If you don't celebrate Christmas or any other religious holiday, then what do you celebrate?" In my particular case, the better question would've been, "What, if anything, do you celebrate?" since I don't really celebrate anything, not even New Year's or my own birthday. Nevertheless, it was a good question. What winter holiday should agnostics celebrate?

The answer is simple: the winter solstice, which is today, the 22nd of December, 2007.

First, the solstice is a purely astronomical event. While some people may attach religious or cultural meaning and value to this event, it is nevertheless a natural event and is thus recognized across cultural and religious boundaries. It is no wonder that there are so many solstice celebrations all around the world, from the Chinese to the Native Americans to the pre-Christian Scandinavians to the Romans. Except for those at the equator or at the polar extremes, the solstice is also easy to recognize and witness, as the length of day is readily measured, quantified, and observed by anyone.

Second, the solstice is also the closest and best alternative to the dominant winter celebration in the world today, Christmas. In the old Julian calendar, the solstice fell on the 25th of December, and the Romans marked it with celebrations. Early Christians did not like the pagan celebrations, so they Christianized the event by superimposing upon it the story of the Nativity of Christ. It is therefore no coincidence that Christmas is celebrated on the 25th, the date of the solstice in the Julian calendar (in fact, the actual true date of the Nativity is unknown). Similarly, when Northern Europe was Christianized, Christmas simply became a Christianized version of their own solstice celebrations, which is why Christmas is known in Scandinavian countries as Jul (the name of their ancient solstice festival) and why Yule is often used to refer to Christmas in the English language. That Christmas originated as a Christianized adaptation of a pagan/secular event was the reason why some Christian fundamentalists, such as the Puritans of early America, refused to celebrate Christmas (a fact that those who try to politicize Christmas with their so-called "War on Christmas" controversies conveniently neglect). Therefore, not only is solstice close to Christmas in terms of date (it generally falls on the 21st or 22nd), it is also closely related in origin. In fact, one might say that the true winter holiday is really the winter solstice since Christmas is just a Christianized solstice celebrated on the old Julian date.

And so this holiday season, I say to you, Happy Solstice, Happy Yule, and 冬至节好*!

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* This is the traditional solstice festival that many Chinese celebrate and that is marked on most Chinese calendars, so I guess if I had to associate myself with a particular brand of solstice celebration, this would be the closest one for me, as this is one that my family used to celebrate back in China.

This entry was edited on 2007/12/22 at 22:12:15 GMT -0500.