Those of us in the Northern Hemisphere have recently experienced the longest night of the year. A few nights later, many of us celebrated the birth of Jesus, Son of the Creator, whose coming was signaled by an astronomical sign. It was a time for recognizing the wonderful mystery of our human existence within the larger reality of the cosmos. Observances of the winter solstice around the world include song, dance, and festive meals. During Christmas Eve church services, Christians sing their beloved Christmas hymns, but then some church goers may also join others in an ostensibly more secular setting to enjoy the singing, dancing, and story-telling of a Christmas Revels performance or a magical production Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet.
The near concurrence of the two events suggests a historical relationship. Many citizens of the Roman Empire celebrated winter solstice, calling it dies solis invicti nati (“day of the birth of the unconquered sun”). Some historians argue this to be the reason Christians selected a similar date. However, this theory is not universally accepted and other explanations have been proposed. Whatever the historical reason for selecting December 25th as Christ’s birthday, many people today celebrate both events. Could it be because there’s a basic human desire to praise the mystery of existence in both its human and cosmic manifestations?
Thomas Berry thinks that the human connection to the natural world was more intimate in the past, that we have become more removed from the rhythms of the earth and sky.
All human occupations and professions must themselves be expressions of the universe and its mode of functioning. This is especially true of what came to be known as religion, . . . Earlier peoples seem to have understood this. They lived in a pattern of human activities that were validated by their relation with the cosmological sequence. . . .
With regard to time and seasons, rituals were established to create a consciousness of the moments of cosmological change: the dawn and dusk of the daily sequence of sunlight and darkness, the increase and decline in the phases of the moon, the winter solstice especially as the danger moment of the universe, the period of dark descent; then came the rise into the world of warmth and light and the blossoming of the plants and the birth and the birth moment of the mammalian world. . . . Such moments were moments of grace, moments when the sacred world communicated itself to the world of the human. (TB, 52-53)
Thankfully, we can sometimes encounter such moments in poems or songs like Wintergrace by Jean Ritchie . . .
. . . or when a community decides to have a celebration like the one that happened near me in Roslindale, Massachusetts:
. . . or when the Christmas Revels performers come down off the stage while singing Lord of the Dance to start a large circle of audience members dancing: