(Image by Thomas Nast, 19th C.)
We've made it to the Winter Solstice and I for one am grateful for that. I'm feeling some pretty deep kinship with the ancient Romans who celebrated the festival of Saturnalia to mark the return of the undefeated sun after the longest night of the year. It was a time for feasting, carnival, and the temporary inversion of social order. Slaves would jokingly order around their masters and gambling was allowed in public. It was the biggest Roman festival and many of the traditions were rolled into what eventually became Christmas a number of centuries after the death of Christ. Mostly the festival was about hope and the slow emergence from darkness. Knowing that the darkest night is now behind me I feel a relief that I assume the feasting Romans also felt at Saturnalia. I can feel now that we are moving towards spring, out of the cold, damp, dark, and dreary winter and that as the days grow longer there is hope for warmth and new life.
And so if I had to pinpoint the "true" meaning of Christmas I would say that it has at its core the notion of hope and a spark of magic--that life magic that allows new growth to spring from the frozen ground and sustain us for another year. For Christians Jesus is the embodiment of this hope, the God in human form who represents our deliverance from darkness and the promise of eternal life. My fertility Goddess of years past isn't so different from this after all, representing as she did the continuity of humanity and the power of birth. So whether you turn to Biblical tales or the signs and symbols of the natural world, the metaphor is the same: rebirth, renewal, and emergence from the killing cold and darkness of winter. It seems to me, then, that no matter what we call this mid-winter festival we are fundamentally celebrating the same thing: hope for light in forms both literal and figurative; hope for the returning sun, for love's bright sparks, for goodness, grace, and peace.
I wish you all a joyous and warm holiday season!