Season of Light

Old World religions & spiritualities provide basis for winter holiday comforts

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas — and Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule and Solstice. And I’ll bet you didn’t know there are many more holidays just like those.

It’s true — the holidays are upon us. No matter how long you’ve tried to put off shopping or visiting that aunt you love oh so dearly, but can only stand to be around for half an hour, you’ll soon find yourself in the thick of it, if you haven’t already. Come the end of December you’ll be making merry with friends, family and loved ones. For billions of people around the world — at least in the North Hemisphere, that is — the winter holidays represent a time of new birth, light, life and renewal.

To really understand Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and a host of other modern traditions, why not just go back to the beginning? Most Americans associate the winter holidays with Christmas trees, candles, wreaths and warm and friendly fires. Most of these traditions — in fact, almost all of our modern Western traditions — are based on Old World spiritual beliefs from way back Germanic and Scandinavian natives. Whether you even realized it or not, we’re all Pagans and Heathens this time of year.

For millennia, people in the Northern Hemisphere have looked eagerly toward the Winter Solstice — the real world, astronomical event that occurs every year around Dec. 21 — the time when the days stop growing shorter, start getting longer and when the sun returns.

With the sun comes light and warmth. Spring and the rebirth of the earth and all its fruits aren’t too far off. For the traditional spiritualities of indigenous Europeans — especially those who faced the harshest of winters in such northerly corners of the world as Scandinavia — the Winter Solstice was more than just the shortest night of the year; it was the promise of a new day, a new year and the guarantee that warmth and good weather would once again allow them to feed their families, keep livestock and survive.

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Traditions of rebirth and the reawakening of the sun and light can be traced as far back as ancient periods in Egypt. Even in Japan and other Asian cultures, the Winter Solstice has been celebrated and adored. If you take just a minute to think about it, you realize that almost every civilization, culture and religion in the Northern Hemisphere has some sort of celebration of light and life during the winter. Even Judaism, a religion with Middle Eastern roots, celebrates its own winter holiday — Hannakuh, the “festival of lights.”

Jim Henck, an openly gay Christian who lives in Charlotte, says he finds comfort in celebrating traditional Pagan holidays like the Winter Solstice.

“The reason I entertain the Winter Solstice is because Christmas has become such a big commercial event,” he says. “Christmas is nowhere near as traditional as it used to be. Winter Solstice, for me, leads me back to a more traditional and spiritual meaning, instead of the commercial end of it.”

Henck says he’s never felt out of place celebrating both Christmas and Solstice with his Pagan and Wiccan friends, as well as others who come from traditional Old World and alternative faith traditions.

And unlike many of his queer brothers and sisters, Henck has never had to worry about how friends and loved ones will react to his sexual orientation. Stress at holiday gatherings? He doesn’t have any.

Kennari Hrafnarson, who also lives in Charlotte, identifies as a Heathen. He explains his faith tradition as the “folkways, traditions and old spiritual beliefs” of his Northern European ancestors. Much of what Americans find comforting in winter holiday traditions and celebrations actually stem from Germanic and Scandinavian spiritualities, he says.

The word “heathen” stems from one that means “country” and dates to a time when the word was once used to describe “backwoods” Pagans during the Medieval Christian era. These country-dwellers of ancient and Medieval Europe are responsible for many of our modern, secular holiday imagery, including the Christmas tree, wreaths, mistletoe and more.

“Christmas as we understand it today did come from England,” Hrafnarson says. “However, even that was an introduction of Germanic tradition — even down to the evergreen tree, a symbol of life continuing through the darkest of times.”

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Heather Darnell is a board member of Charlotte’s Eidolon Foundation, a non-profit group that works to support alternative spiritual traditions, holistic health and Earth-friendly living. Predominately Pagan in her faith practice, Darnell relates the time of Winter Solstice to the “idea of a rising and dying god.”

“A lot of the myths we see are actually very closely related to the idea of Jesus,” she says, noting that those from Judeo-Christian traditions can find symbolic meaning in many other faiths. “You see Jesus being born as the ‘light of the world.’ You see this idea of ‘everlasting light’ in Hannukah.”

She explains that her particular tradition relates Solstice with “the returning of the child of light…the returning of the god,” much like Christians see Jesus’ birth as the earthly coming of the divine.

Perhaps the most compelling parallel between Western Christian thought and alternative faiths can be found in Egyptian mythology. Kel Henry, a student at the University of South Carolina-Upstate in Spartanburg, says her chosen faith is a Wiccan form of belief centering around Egyptian mythology.

With celebrations that might have occurred around the time of Winter Solstice, Ancient Egyptians honored the birth of the god Osiris’ son Horus through the virgin Isis. Some traditions say that Horus was merely a re-birth of Osiris — a story quite similar to Christians’ faith in the birth of Jesus as God Incarnate.

Similar myths from Middle Eastern and Mediterranean mystery religions are also similar to what modern Westerners perceive in Christmas.

Hrafnarson says he’s comforted that so many people around the world are able to celebrate a truly universal, earthly event with almost universal beliefs, rituals and practices. “All of us are different people and on a certain level many things are going to be universal to human nature and experience,” he says, “but each of us also have a unique way of looking at that. Overall, I find it comforting that these are symbols that continue to have a great deal of vitality in modern American culture.”

But Hrafnarson also finds he becomes frustrated around the holidays, too. “I get this sense of frustration when I hear people say ‘Let’s put Christ back into Christmas,’ when virtually every single custom that they have is Heathen or Pagan in nature.”

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer is a staff writer for QNotes. He previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015.