Darnell also finds comfort in winter celebrations. “What’s cool about the Solstice is that it’s marked by a true time, really only one second of one day,” she says, noting that her celebrations of Solstice are much like other faith traditions’ celebrations of their holidays. “There is feasting, laughter, celebrating life and each other’s company. What I’ve experienced is a lot of acknowledging the child of light within myself. You kind of get to look at divinity at a deeper level.”
Henry says she thinks it is important to have faith in your beliefs. “Belief and faith are personal,” he says. “If you don’t have faith in what you believe in, then what’s the point?”
Hrafnarson finds room for everyone at the holiday table. “There’s a certain part of our spiritualities that are ancestral in nature,” he says. “That’s very comforting. For a lot of us, we sense it in the candles, the smell of the greens and the spices. All of these things tie into heritage. That’s something everyone can relate to.”
The winter holidays in modern America and in Western Civilization carry almost universal meaning. Many traditional Christian symbols, both religious and secular, can be found in other religious celebrations during the winter.
Of almost near universality are celebrations of light, something we see in almost every culture and faith in the Northern Hemisphere. Hannakuh, a Jewish festival that predates Christmas, commemorates the rededication of Jerusalem’s Temple and remembers the miracle that kept the temple lamp burning despite not having enough oil to fuel it.
In the modern Kwanzaa celebrations, participants light candles. In Scandinavian nations, people celebrate the feast of St. Lucia, who wears a crown of candles on her head. In Germanic traditions, the Yule log continues to be burned through the days-long celebration.
Everyone knows about Jolly Old St. Nick and his reindeer. Most folks don’t know that St. Nicholas was a real person — the Bishop of Myra, in modern-day Turkey. Legend says he gave gifts to the poor children in his town. European traditions across the continent have other examples of merry gift-givers during the winter season, including Father Christmas and Russia’s Ded Moroz (or “Grandfather Frost”). Similar imagery exists from Germanic folklore, including older myths of heros (like the Norse god Oden) riding in sleighs or chariots pulled by flying horses or eight other animals like goats. Sound familiar?
For Heathen and Pagan European natives the winter represented a time of harsh living. Life and survival were of the utmost importance. The sun and its warmth started its return at the Winter Solstice. Symbols of the evergreen tree and other plants were regarded as symbols of life through the harshest and darkest of times. Although the Bible might specifically condemn customs like the Christmas tree (Jeremiah 10:2-4), modern Westerners have adopted the tradition wholesale for at least a century. Critics of those who say the Bible condemns Christmas trees point out that the people using such idols in Jeremiah’s time were substituting the tree for the divine, something modern worshipers do not do.
The 12 Days of Christmas
Originally a part of the Heathen practice of Yule, the 12 days of Christmas serve as a Christianized pagan practice dating to early celebrations around the Winter Solstice. In modern practice, the 12 days begin on Dec. 25 and end on Jan. 5, when the Western Church observes Epiphany, marking the day the three wise men visited Jesus.
The day celebrated by Western Christians as the birth of Christ was once celebrated by the Romans as Winter Solstice. They called it Saturnalia. Around 350, Pope Julius I declared the day to be Christ’s birthday. Since then, feasts and masses held to observe the holiday have resulted in our modern Christmas (or, “Christ’s Mass”).
Revered by ancient Druid priests, the Mistletoe seems almost magical. Although it has no roots, the plant stays green throughout the harsh winter. In Scandinavia, Heathens and Pagans associated the plant with their goddess of love, Frigga, perhaps serving as the origin of modern traditions of kissing under the mistletoe.