A little history: Once upon a time, long ago, I was a practicing Pagan. Generally, it’s not what many people imagine- Pagans, despite the use of the inverted pentacle, don’t believe in Satan or ritually practice violence. There was nothing unseemly, and other than conducting some rituals skyclad (naked), it was an interesting and rich period of my life.
In Paganism, there are four major and four minor holidays. Like most Pagan ritual, these holidays are based on the rhythms and cycles of the year. The four major celebrations coincide with the Solstices of summer and winter, and the Equinox of spring and fall. The minor celebrations land at the mid-point between the four major days. Their calendar is intimately tied with the turning of the year and the changing of the seasons.
Traditionally, the 22nd of December is known as Yule. This is the longest night of the year, when waning daylight, or the sun, has culminated its journey, from Midsummer, into the darkness of the year. The sun is literally at the nadir of the heavens. Darkness reigns.
But at the moment of greatest darkness, the sun figuratively dies, and light is again reborn. On the winter solstice, the sun will triumph over darkness, and light will once again gain it’s foothold in the world.
It is not a coincidence that we celebrate the birth of our Savior at the darkest part of the year. The birth of Jesus is undated in the Gospels, and it wasn’t until around AD 273 that the church placed the Christmas celebration at midwinter. St Augustine, the Archbishop of Constantinople, frankly explained the Nativity had been so fixed in order that “while the heathen were busied with their profane rites, the Christians might perform their holy ones without disturbance”. (For more on this history)
One of the wonderful things I was able to take from my time exploring Paganism is an appreciation for the darkness. Special things happen in the darkness- we need the dark in order to recognize light. Babies are conceived and grow in the darkness of the womb, seeds are planted and sprout in the darkness of the earth. We were cast into the darkness so that we might find faith.
In the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, we tend to chase away the darkness with our bright Christmas lights, with gayety and parties and rushing and stress. But this time of year calls us, requires something more of us- perhaps acknowledgement of the cyclical nature of life. Perhaps trusting in the unseen hand of the Lord- perhaps just not being afraid of the dark- we each may find our own gift in the darkness, if only we have faith.
While the literal birth-date of Jesus Christ was not in the depth of winter darkness, it is a fitting celebration nonetheless. The symbols we use, Pagan roots or not, have been given deep Christian meaning. The peasant peoples who began those seasonal celebrations long ago might not have understood what it was they were tapping into- but they were indeed celebrating the coming of the Son and Savior of the world.