THE SYMBOLIC LIFE (Winter 2011)
The Winter Solstice season marks the convergence of a plethora of symbolic practices that are quite ancient. While most people assume that Christmas is a Christian celebration, an exploration of its roots shows that the origins of many of our various traditions pre-date Christianity. James Frazer’s The Golden Bough is an excellent resource for exploring our ancient symbolic and religious roots.
Frazer notes, for instance, that the reasons the early Christian leaders moved the celebration of the birth of Christ to December 25th, was because they noticed the adherents of Christianity were drawn to celebrate with their so called “heathen” brethren the birthday of the Sun on that day. Thus the church fathers decided to celebrate the birth of God’s son, the sun of righteousness, on that date to eliminate what they believed was a conflict of interest. Clearly the archetypal and symbolic roots for this celebration were the ancient Winter Solstice mysteries.
Another ancient religious theme, not specifically Christian, that is extraordinarily popular at this time of year, is the custom of the Christmas tree. Once again in this tradition we are witnessing the continuation of a practice that actually pre-dates Christianity. In this case one that has crept back into our current holiday traditions over the past few centuries. People all over the world have had a variety of rituals of bringing a tree into their home to help sanctify it at various times throughout the year. Our culture has chosen to perform this ancient rite at the time of the sun’s birthday.
According to Frazer very early people would not even consider cutting a tree, for doing so would kill its soul, since in the earliest levels of religions people believed that plants and animals had souls just as humans did. As religion moved out of its animistic phase, the practice of cutting certain trees, or parts of the tree, to bring into a home or even decorate the outside became a way of bringing the spiritual benefits of that particular tree into one’s abode. During this process the spirit of the tree is transferred to a new location, and is thereby brought closer to human life. Decorating the tree is a celebration and honoring of its spirit; tending to it attends to the needs of the human soul as well.
So why have we turned to the evergreen tree to perpetuate such practices at Winter Solstice? Shirley Ann Karas in her book The Solstice Evergreen suggests it is because these trees did not die in winter; they have not lost their foliage as did other trees. Since they live in winter as they do throughout the rest of the year, they have come to symbolize eternal life. Like the rebirth of the sun, these trees reflect the hope and promise that life will endure. The embracing of the evergreen at Winter Solstice reiterates symbolically that as the sun is being reborn, life will go on, and the continuity of life lies ahead, even in the coldest and darkest of days. Certainly that is something worth celebrating, and bringing close to home as we seek also to renew ourselves during the coming Solstice season.
Editor: Steve Galipeau