Warning: What follows is not a well-researched authoritative statement. It’s unfettered speculation. Take it with a grain of salt.
The Oldest Holiday
Surely the winter solstice must be the oldest holiday, or one of the oldest. Early humans noticed that the days would get shorter and longer, and it’s fairly easy to determine the solstice if you’re paying attention. There’s no need for telescopes or advanced astronomical models. Just put a stick in the ground and measure its shadow each day.
I just finished reading Farnham’s Freehold (Heinlein, 1964) for my book club, and though I can’t exactly recommend the book, there is a short scene that illustrates the point. A nuclear blast has transported the characters into a strange version of earth. They are homesteading in a vast wilderness; they don’t know if they are in the distant past, the far future, or some alternate reality. They don’t even know what time of year it is.
Shortly after we got here Hugh picked a small tree with a flat boulder due north of it and sawed it off so that it placed a sharp shadow on the boulder at noon. As “Keeper of the Flame” it has been my duty to sit by that boulder from before apparent noon and note the shortest shadow — follow it down, mark the shortest position and date it.
That shadow had been growing longer and the days shorter. A week ago it began to be hard to see any change and I told Hugh. So we watched together and three days ago was the turning point… so that day became December 22nd…
It stands to reason that early humans would have noticed this phenomenon, marked it, and celebrated it. In fact I’d suspect that discovery of the solstice would lead to the idea of the solar year and a calendar resembling our own, thus leading to the very idea of annual recurrence.
Of course there are other factors to consider. In the tropics, the seasonal shifting between day and night is not as pronounced as in the more temperate latitudes. Near the equator the length of day does not vary much if at all, though the solstice can still be observed by the angle of the sun. Other annual events may have been more important in particular regions, such as the flooding of a major river. And calendars were developed around the moon also.
Still, celebrating the solstice must be pretty ancient.
Furthermore, as a global moment, it’s universal to all human cultures on every part of the planet. And, indeed, there have been midwinter festivals in virtually every part of the world throughout human history.
The summer solstice would have been known to early humans as well, but it seems to me that the winter event would have deeper meaning, especially to ancient people.
At this time of year, the days are getting shorter and shorter. Darkness encroaches, and the source of light and warmth is steadily more distant. Marking the time when that changed and the light returns must have been reassuring. The world will not be plunged into endless night. The sun returns, hooray, let’s party.
When we participate in traditions at this time of year, such as exchanging gifts or decorating our dwellings with festive luminous displays, we are repeating age-old observances. There’s a certain resonance in these rituals that echoes down the corridors of time, connecting us to the very dawn of humanity.
Universal and Natural
Most of us don’t explicitly celebrate the solstice any longer. This greeting was embedded in an e-mail I got yesterday.
It features Christmas (in four languages), Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah. That’s nice. But consider what’s missing. Whatever happened to the Amaterasu celebration? What about the Beiwe Festival? Where is Brumalia, Chawmos, the Deygan Festival, the Dōngzhì Festival, Goru, Hogmanay, Inti Raymi, Junkanoo, Karachun, Koleda, Lá an Dreoilín, Lenæa, Lohri, Makara Sankranti, Maruaroa o Takurua, Midvinterblót, Midwinter, Modranicht, Mummer’s Day, the Perchta ritual, the Rozhanitsa Feast, Sanghamitta Day, the Saturnalia, Şewy Yelda, Sol Invictus, Soyal, We Tripantu, Zagmuk, and Ziemassvētki? To say nothing of Yule! And for the love of Mother Earth, what about the Solstice?
But it hardly matters. The old traditions live on. For most Americans they have been sublimated into the Christmas holiday. The actual date of Jesus’ birth being unknown, the early church probably fixed the day at this time of year to capitalize on an ancient pagan holiday like Sol Invictus. It makes a certain poetic sense, too; there’s a parallel between the rebirth of the Sun and the birth of the Son that extends beyond mere wordplay. The desire to participate in these celebrations is so strong that many completely secular people get into the “Christmas spirit.” Even prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins loves to go caroling. A paradoxical contradiction? Not at all.
Anyhow, I am happy to remember and the solstice and celebrate it explicitly. It’s about as universal and natural a holiday as one could ask for. It’s available to everyone, people of every religion or no religion, everywhere on the planet.
Footnote: Of course in southern hemisphere it’s the summer solstice that’s approaching, but if you’re going to celebrate one solstice you might as well celebrate them both. It’s all good.