Sunday, December 21, 2014
Today is the winter solstice, when the Earth’s axis is furthest from the sun and, in the northern hemisphere, we experience the shortest day and the longest night of the year. But the solstice is not the point at which sunrise is at its latest, and sunset at its soonest. The earliest lighting up time occurred two weeks ago, and the latest morning appearance of the sun will not be seen for another two weeks. That is why mornings will continue to get darker into the New Year and why Celts and Pagans believed that the solstice marked the beginning of a period of time in which the sun stood still.
For 12 days, candles would be lit and an oak log kept burning to banish the darkness. Homes would be decorated with greenery, particularly mistletoe, and they would wait for the rebirth of the sun. They called this festival, Yule. There was nothing else to do at this lowest point of the calendar but eat the cured meat and pickled vegetables that had been preserved for the occasion earlier in the year. Oh, and drink. A lot. It sounds quite familiar.
When Christianity turned up, its main celebration was Easter. Having incorporated some of the Norse and Roman celebrations of the winter solstice, such as a decorated tree and gift-giving, Yule continued unabated until around 350 AD when Pope Julius I plumped for December 25th as the date of Jesus's birth; Christmas was born. It took a while longer to take hold in Sussex, of course, as the county was the last to convert to Christianity in the late 7th century.
Now, despite living in an established Christian state, hardly any of us go to church but most of us celebrate Christmas. There is nothing hypocritical in this; imagine what this time of year would be like if we did not have a fortnight of feasting and frolicking. It matters not what it is called; when the light fades outside, we need it blazing inside.