Author John Matthews explains several ancient midwinter rituals incorporated into the modern celebration of Christmas.The moment of silence that offers the promise of new beginnings and incorporates the breathless expectation as the sun stands still lies at the heart of the midwinter solstice. The constant sun and the ever-changing seasons have always fascinated humanity. Cultures have celebrated the demise of the old year and the birth of the new since the beginning of recorded time. Ancient peoples enacted many rituals during the Midwinter solstice, allegorical of the season of darkness (a period of chaos) followed by the return of the Unconquered Sun (the restoration of order).Roman Christians first linked the waxing of the astronomical sun with the birth of Christ around the year 336 A.D. Theologians and philosophers have debated for centuries about the actual date of the birth of Jesus Christ; however, Mithras (son of the Persian God of Light) was born on December 25. Legends claim Mithras was sent by his father to lead all who would follow him out of the darkness.Christian theology teaches that the Magi presented gifts on the eve of the Christ child’s presentation at the temple. Tradition claims that three men, an old king (Melchior), a middle-aged king (Balthazar) and a young king (Casper) followed a star that appeared in the east until it led them to the Christ child. The wise men (who seek the child who can restore order) are neither named nor numbered in the biblical narration. However, the gifts of gold (for princes), frankincense (for prophets) and myrrh (for physicians) are clearly stated.The notion of a gift giver descending from a high place can be traced to the tribal shaman’s pilgrimage wherein he climbs to the ‘Other World’ and returns gifted with prophecy and wisdom, which he shares.
Shaman often dressed in red robes (symbolic of life, blood and fire). Reindeer provided the northern tribes with food, clothing, shelter and tools; painting them in red symbolically harnessed their essence. Bells announce the Shaman’s presence and (supposedly) frighten evil spirits.The evergreen tree that blooms throughout the winter has long been perceived as a metaphor for everlasting life. The Christmas tree symbolizes an axial pole connecting heaven and earth, the physical and spiritual realms. The ancient Romans decorated their homes with lights and greenery during a three-day festival that followed Saturnalia (a celebration in honor of the god of the harvest beginning on the 17th and ending on December 24). The merging of these two festivals evolved into the 12 days of Christmas. The festivities began with daylong celebrations honoring the god and goddess of the harvest. Day 3 was the Mass of the Innocents or children’s day. Next came the Feast of Fools (also known as the Day of Misrule) followed by the Celebration of the sun. Then Evergreen day, Distaff day, New Year’s day, Snow day, Assessment of the Past Year and/or Conclusion of Unfinished Business, Festival of the 3 Kings and finally, Epiphany (meaning Manifestation) or 12th Night.