In the deepest parts of frozen winters our ancient ancestors watched as day after day the sun held its place in the sky for shorter and shorter periods. The days of light and warmth grew shorter while the nights darkness grew longer and longer. For those living further North, towards the
Arctic Circle, the sun gave light for only a few hours
What we know today what our ancient ancestors could not know –that there is a 23 ½ degree tilt to the axis of our planet – from a line perpendicular to the path of its year-long pilgrimage around the sun – which accounts for this season of darkness. The night of December 21st- the Winter Solstice - has the longest hours of darkness (for those in the Northern Hemisphere…) The daylight hours of the days following the winter are gradually longer and longer until the Summer Solstice when the daylight hours are at their longest point.
Fearful that darkness and death would rule over the earth, our ancient pagan ancestors built sacred fires on hilltops and in holy shrines for the winter solstice. Roaring prayers of red and yellow flames begged the gods to bring back the sun. On the winter solstice, they danced about fires and chanted hymns to the sun's glory; they wanted to awaken the sun, lest they and all creation die in freezing darkness of an endless winter.
It's not certain when, exactly, Christmas began to be celebrated as a holy, or "holiday," though historians suggest that it probably began as a 4th century replacement for Saturnalia – the Roman festival of the Winter Solstice. From December 17th through the 24th they would hold a festival to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture. Business, warfare and executions were postponed during this festival; gifts were exchanged; slaves were temporarily set free and seated at the best seats for the festival and served by their masters. It was a period of goodwill, perfect peace and happiness.
Another festival was held about this same time for Mithras – the Persian god of Light whose birth was celebrated on December 25th.
The Catholic Church hoped to draw in pagans by subverting their worship of Saturn and Mithras by replacing the pagan festivals with appropriate Christian meaning. The birth of Christ was pegged at December 25th to replace the pagan Mithras and Saturn. And while this may seem like a utilitarian or merely pragmatic solution to the church's problem with its pagan neighbors, putting the Christ-Mass or celebration of the birth of the Son of God at the Winter Solstice makes a certain amount of theological sense.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, the darkness has not overcome it. ... The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world ... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Keep the light!