Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Shedding Light on The Meaning of Christmas

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Today is the winter solstice, a time of rejoicing for Druids, witches and others of faiths that celebrate the natural world. In fact, every religion has a festival at this time of year and each of these is in some way related to the return of light to the earth.

On hilltops in Mexico, bonfires will light up the night. In ancient times, all the fires of the village would be put out and then relit from this one flame. In Italy, an entire hillside is set on fire and people come from miles around to sing and pray as the dry grasses crackle and spark. Here in North America we decorate our houses with lights that splash stained glass colours across new snow, making the darkness a little more bright.

Many celebrations of light also include stories of virgin mothers giving birth to remarkable children, seers and sages who will be lights to their people. Greek and Roman ancients were among those who believed that prophets and prophetesses were born to women who were impregnated by the moon, it being a symbol of purity. Tonight Rhiannon gives birth to Pryderi, Isis rebirths Horus, Demeter bears her sacred daughter Persephone, the earth goddess gives birth to Dionysus. And of course in a few days Mary will bear a son named Jesus.

The Christian festival of Christmas marking the birth of Jesus was placed on December 25 to coincide with Saturnalia, the Roman celebration of the goddess of plenty that took place from December 17 to 25. The last day of the festival was named “Juvenalia” meaning, the day of the children. Feasting ensued, everyone wore their best clothes, parents presented their young ones with gifts and mistletoe was placed strategically for young lovers to kiss under.

For those of you saying, “Now wait a minute, you don’t mean to say that Christian Christmas traditions didn’t come to us straight from the mouth of God or the pen of Saint Paul!” Well, no gentle readers, they didn’t.

For starters, Paul was Jewish. As was Jesus. Heck, according to Rowan Atkins (and where do you find a higher theological authority?), so is God. While we assume Mary and Joseph did the right thing by their son and took him to the Nazareth equivalent of Chucky Cheese for his birthday, which was likely not December 25, nothing resembling our Christian Christmas took place until the 300s AD when it became possible to be Christian without being fed to a lion (a situation credited with the religion becoming a whole lot more popular). Christianity simply co-opted the timing and traditions of the festival the populace already knew and loved, making their own observance of the birth of light December 25. Just as, when the church moved into the Germanic areas of Europe, they co-opted the spring fertility festival of the goddess Eastora, renaming it “Easter.”

Now, what’s the point of delving, however briefly, into the pagan, earth-worshipping origins of our festivals? Certainly it’s not merely to tick off the Christian fundamentalists. That’s just a side benefit.

To my mind, acknowledging that Solstice related rituals have survived changes in and crossed boundaries of age, culture, religion and tradition, demonstrates that we human beings continue to harbour deep awe at the wonderous renewal of the seasons, perhaps even a primal anxiousness in these darkest of days to light fires in the night that will call back the light. And perhaps that's really what this time of year is about.

There is something sacred about these days when the earth sleeps and dreams, rests and renews, a magic that we still sense and still feel matters. Something that, in the midst of our current day rituals of shopping and cooking and feeling disillusioned speaks with the consistency of the seasons themselves. Our Solstice rituals today affirm in a voice as sure as those of the ancients, that in the darkest part of night, light is returning even though we cannot yet see it. Just as in the darkness and despair of our human hearts there is planted deep and forever the desire to return to joy, hope and life. Day will always follow night just as spring will surely follow winter. And light will return.

In just three months it will be March 21, the vernal Equinox. Snow will melt into rivulets along our city streets and turn farmers’ fields into oceans. Days will last longer. You’ll almost be able to feel the pulse of bulbs under the earth and buds on black boughs ready to burst into life again.

But not yet. For now, we rest and dream with the earth. We wait. Recalling the message of Solstice: to endure, to die, to be reborn. The circle continues. And we remain in awe.

Happy Solstice!


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Anne Hines

Anne Hines is the author of three novels, Fishing Up the Moon (Pedlar Press, 1998), The Spiral Garden (McArthur & Co, 2005) and Come Away: song of songs (McArthur & Co., 2007) and one collection of nonfiction humour, A Year In HineSight (McArthur & Co, 2002). A series of essays, Parting Gifts: notes on loss, love and life is due for publication by McArthur & Co, fall 2008.

Go to Anne Hines’s Author Page