As we come to the Winter Solstice, it is interesting that so many cultures around the world have found this astronomical event to be so important to their spiritual systems. Certainly it was important for ancient cultures, as the hope for a return of the Sun and the eventual growth of plants and increase in the number of animals meant their very survival. Although survival today requires much larger societal cooperation rather than simply a tribal ritual, it is amazing that many such rituals remain today.
For example, one of the most popular festivals in Hinduism (the world’s 3rd largest religion with about 1.4 billion followers) is Diwali (or Deepavali). There are a lot of reasons given for the mode of celebration (the triumph of good over evil, etc.), but the thing that stands out is that its main form of practice is the lighting of small lamps, increasing in number over five days. Thus, it is often called the “festival of lights.”
The exact history of Diwali is unknown. There are actually at least seven traditional histories given for the festival. However my guess is that this is simply an ancient celebration made to “encourage” the return of the Sun similar to the practice of lighting bonfires in early Western cultures.
The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah may be derived from Diwali. Although the practice of lighting more and more lights over an eight-day cycle is usually associated among Jews with events (a successful battle during a war of liberation combined with a miracle) from the 2nd century b.c.e., it is probably based on earlier Solstice rituals and was later associated with the Macabee revolt of 2,300 years ago. Although this claim may offend some Jewish readers, I would point out the book, The Jewish Festivals by Hayyim Schauss. A translation of an earlier German book, and first published in 1938 by the Cincinnati¬†Union of American Hebrew Congregations, he writes, “The origin of the Sabbath is obscure, as are the beginnings of all other festivals.” ¬†In The Jewish Mind, author Raphael Patai states that there was a lot of early communication between the Jews of the Middle East and the Hindus of India. (Patai was a trained Rabbi and the first person to receive a doctorate, in 1936, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Among Pagans he is famous for his book, The Hebrew Goddess.) Besides the similarity of increasing the number of lights found in both Hanukkah and the earlier Diwali, both festivals also include giving of small gifts (the giving of larger gifts evolved in the U.S.A. in the 20th century in simulation to the celebration of Christmas that occurs around the same time) and gambling games, even though gambling is generally frowned upon by both religions.
The third major festival, of course, is Christmas. The date of Christmas, December 25, may seem an odd date to celebrate the birth of Jesus as the biblical accounts clearly point toward a date in Spring (or possibly early Fall), not winter. However it is completely appropriate for a deity who, like the Sun, dies (at the Winter Solstice), gestates (during Winter) and is reborn (in Spring). Many people believe that the date was chosen so that the many Pagans of the time who worshiped various Sun gods as “Sol Invictus” could add Jesus to that group. December 25 was Dies Natalis Solis Invicti or “The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.” Christmas was not celebrated on this date until the middle of the 4th century c.e., and most of the Christmas traditions practiced to this day come from earlier Pagan sources. In some places, and among some Christian groups, the celebration of Christmas was banned. In¬†Massachusetts, for example, it was banned for decades.
Like the earlier Hanukkah and the still earlier Diwali, Christmas was also celebrated as a multi-day holiday known as Christmastide, Yuletide, the Twelve Days of Christmas, etc. Interestingly, this corresponds with the development of magick, which became more complex over time. Thus, Diwali is 5 days, Hanukkah is 8 days, and Christmastide is 12 days.
The neo-Festival of Kwanzaa takes place at this time, too. Although only seven days in length, it is not the outgrowth and evolution of another holiday. Rather, it was the invention in 1966 of a man named Ron Karenga in celebration of African-American history and culture. However, it has evolved. Originally meant as an alternative to Christmas, for most celebrants it has become an addition to the Christian holiday. The name of this festival comes from the Swahili phrase¬†matunda ya kwanza which means “first fruits.”
The concept of “first fruits” in Western Pagan traditions is usually associated with Lammas on the 1st or 2nd of August (depending upon your tradition; some use subsequent days). However, if you look at the growth of the Sun after the Winter Solstice leading to the growth of crops, in a very metaphorical sense this can be seen as yet another Winter Solstice celebration.
In Modern Magick I discussed the need of magickians to attune themselves to the elements of the movement of Sun through the day. I would add that it’s also of value to attune ourselves to the Sun throughout the seasons, including the major markers such as the Winter Solstice.
Celebration of the Winter Solstice is more than just a holiday, it’s a magickal act. So whether you just celebrated Diwali or will shortly celebrate Hanukkah, Midwinter, Yule, Christmas, Winter Solstice or Kwanzaa, I would like to wish you a happy season and hope you will do a magickal act.
What act? This is a time of giving. Therefore, as a magickal act, choose to give a gift of time or money to a charity you support.
How will you celebrate this season?