It's no accident that the so much of our holiday-making right now concerns light - Christmas tree lights, Yule candles, firelight, starlight - for this is the turning point we know as the winter solstice, when light conquers darkness, days begin to lengthen and nights grow shorter, at least for us in the northern hemisphere. (The solstice was at 10:27pm on December 21st.) Our ancestors may not have known that the earth's north pole had begun tilting back toward the sun, but the prospect of returning light and warmth was a great cause for celebration. Even today, crowds gather at Stonehenge for the arrival of the solstice sun.
For some cultures, the solstice heralded the banishment of sun-averse demons and monsters, and not only in northern populations, whose mythology is full of hairy demons who flee back to underground caves as the days grow longer. Further south, in Greece, the kallikantzaros were angry demons who emerged during winter darkness to wreak havoc if not appeased with food left out for them. Most famously, the agricultural goddess Demeter mourned the loss of her daughter Persephone, captured by the underworld's Hades, causing winter's bleakness before Hades agreed to release Persephone for six months of each year, when light returned and crops could be sown.
Solstice celebrations often involved gift-giving. The ancient Roman Saturnalia, in honor of their god of agriculture, took place over seven days in mid-December, when work was suspended, lavish feasting took place, homes were decorated with evergreens, and gifts were exchanged. And today, Italian children look out for La Befana, a witch-like fairy who takes to the late winter night skies on her broomstick, leaving candies and presents to reward the children for being good. Scandinavian children keep an eye out for the Tomte, a diminutive elfish figure who guards a farm's livestock and might turn ornery if he feels the animals are being mistreated. To stay on his good side, a bowl of porridge is left out for him on winter nights.
Today, we infuse our own holiday with light in both a physical and a spiritual sense and look forward, as our ancestors did, to the return of warmer, brighter times.
Happy holidays from all of us at SINHG!