THE SYMBOLIC LIFE (Winter 2006)
The Winter Solstice Season is one of unique mystery and evokes not only its own special symbolism, but more than any other time of year stirs the need and desire for the human imagination to express the ineffable. The engulfing darkness of the winter has profound affects. Early people feared that the sun would disappear forever and be lost; so much of their activity at the time of the Winter Solstice was devoted to insuring its return. We may laugh at such activity, but we are really not much different. We too express a host of seemingly odd, often unconsciously symbolic behaviors, out of the fear that something or someone of importance to us might become forever lost. The sun represented a god to ancient people, a god who would keep them from being consumed by darkness. In our own time most of us are familiar with SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. The loss of light literally affects body chemistry in a way that the body needs more light. This is especially true in geographical areas where the nights are exceptionally long. The human psyche seeks to find light and meaning in such times and expresses this yearning symbolically. Ancient winter solstice rituals prepared for and celebrated the return of the light and the life on earth that came with it. People in modern Western civilization often associate this time of year with Christmas, and Christmas with the birth of Christ. Yet it wasn’t until the fourth century that Christians moved Christmas to December in order to compete with the solstice practices of ancient Rome. This act was an important one symbolically as it offered Christians their own profound symbol of new life arriving at a time of darkness, one that spoke eloquently to the soul’s longings at this time of year. Centuries later, according to some historians, the Christmas tree was brought into the picture, by of all people, Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation. The struggles within the church at this time for reform led the protestant side to reject many of the symbolic aspects of medieval church practice that the rational theological mind was eager to disregard. One Christmas Eve Luther was out in a pine forest and as he gazed at the stars was gripped by a profound sense of awe. The fragrance of the pines and the wind in the air moved him as the smell of incense and the sounds of a congregation had previously. He cut down a small tree and brought it home to his family. He decorated it with candles so he could duplicate his experience for his children.
Luther was not creating something new, but bringing back a spirit of reverence for nature that had been forgotten. The evergreen tree symbolized eternal life, life that does not wither under the encroaching darkness or that is crushed by winter snow. We long to have what it represents and bring it into our homes to decorate and adorn it. To the symbolic mind, we welcome a “god” or “goddess” into our home, to be touched by its life giving energy. It brings inspiration and a unique sense of wonder and joy. So it is with many other solstice traditions. Consider, for instance, the Hebrew menorah. It too stirs a sense of magic, one that brings its users closer to a sense of mystery in the midst of outer and inner darkness. The original seven branch menorah of the Jerusalem temple evoked the mystery of light and was also related to tree symbolism. At Chanukah a nine branch menorah is used to recall a critical time when one day’s supply of oil for the temple menorah lasted for eight days.
Editor: Steve Galipeau