This week is Christ Mass, the celebration of Jesus’s birth and thus the coming redemption of the world — the victory of God over Satan. Traditionally, it was associated with the winter solstice, which the Julian calendar incorrectly placed on December 25th. (The actual solstice took place a couple days ago.)
For those who may not know, a solstice is a point at which the Earth is maximally tilted relative to the Sun. Thus, the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere is the point at which the days stop getting shorter and start getting longer. Hence the symbolism of the renewal of the world. Light and warmth begin their eternal return.
This was a much bigger deal in the days before electric lighting when we were all much more dependent on natural rhythms. Stonehenge, the St. Paul’s of ancient Europe, seems to be oriented around the summer solstice for example. In fact, the solstices were a major inflection point in the Celtic calendars and as such were deeply tied to the world view of ancient peoples that stretched across northern Europe before the fall of the Roman Empire. At the winter solstice, known as the Yule, it was customary to bring an evergreen into the house and decorate it with lights: an evergreen to represent life even in darkness and the lights to represent the eternal return.
A New Light
But it was the Christian version that took over, and its roots stretch back to the fall of the Roman Empire. Christianity was inextricable from late Roman culture. A diocese, named for the emperor Diocletian, who dramatically reorganized the empire, was first a civil and military partition similar to a county or parish. The uniform church was not distinct from ecumenical society but was part of the same civil administration. Indeed the word catholic means “everywhere”, and so with each diocese there was a church to collect donations in exchange for spiritual attention just as the imperial bureaucracy collected taxes in exchange for military protection.
The Romans believed in a form of manifest destiny similar to that which gripped America in its formative years. Early missionaries and would-be conquerors sent from the Empire were not just bringing religion and greed — as were the conquistadors — nor were they trying to exterminate the natives — as were the conquerors of the American west, although the Romans certainly weren’t giving anyone a choice. Rather, they were exporting the entire “Roman package”: law, culture, religion, government, etc. They had only varying success in the Germanic north, however, and after the repeated collapses of the civil administration in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries, the Roman Catholic Church was all that remained.
Later missionaries from the surviving high civilization centers struggled with how to convert the pagan peoples who were migrating in from the fringes of the now fallen empire. What emerged from that effort was an amalgam of Roman administration and pagan beliefs. Easter, for example, is named for the Celtic month of Eostre (or Ostara), itself named after the ancient goddess of the dawn, Ausos, whose “resurrection” brought light each day, or in the annual cycle the return of Spring. Late antique Europeans found a meaningful way to preserve their ancient rites while at the same time embracing a new religion. (The earliest Christians were probably much closer to Jews in their holidays and rituals.)
Belief is like that. It persists in the face of radical change. And so we get a nominally Christian saint (Nicholas) dressed like a pagan and surrounded by pagan rituals (like the Christmas tree) supposedly in celebration of Christ, a Jew. And we all just accept it.
How? How is it the otherwise normal, intelligent people of late antique Europe could make such a seemingly contradictory leap, blending two completely distinct religions together? How is it that contemporary Christians, who were probably told at some point that December 25th really has nothing specific to do with Christ, nevertheless feel so strongly about “the reason for the season?”
The answer requires us to stop looking at faith as a rational decision and see it for what it is: a characteristic of the human species, like hands.
Most people have two hands with five fingers each, but not everyone does. My grandfather in fact lost one of his fingers to a table saw. He didn’t stop being human. Any characteristic you choose is like that: an opposable thumb, the ability to speak or walk upright, even the number of chromosomes. If you say humans have 46, does that mean those with Down’s syndrome aren’t human? Of course they are.
This all goes to the difficulty of defining anything in absolute terms, and most people simply groan and say, “Well gee, those are just the exceptions that prove the rule.” Certainly, if you take the number of people who have ever lived but were not born with two hands, and then divide that by the total number of people who have ever lived, you get an indiscernibly small number. Right?
Right. And the same is true of religious belief. If you take the number of people who have ever lived and who did not believe in some kind of divine mystery and then divide by the total who have ever lived, you again get an indiscernibly small number. It is the simplest, clearest evidence that religious belief is a characteristic of the human species, like hair or eyes or hands. That we cannot describe in detail the brain pathways that encourage belief is no more damning than that we can’t describe the biomechanics of embryological hand-making. The mathematical evidence is the same.
To most, it no doubt seems a choice. I choose to believe because it’s possible that I could NOT believe, like the people I know who have elected not to. But that has it backwards. In the grand history of our species, non-believers are the exception, like people without hands. You were either born with hands or not. If not, you can’t choose to have them now. But if so, you can choose to cut them off, or to do something that could get them cut off, like juggling chain saws. Having hands isn’t a choice. NOT having them is.
The Reason for the Season
But none of that changes the reason for the season, which in all its forms — including the Christian, which gets a bad rap in some circles — is a celebration of light over darkness, of the renewal of nature, of the promise of a better future. Simply, of Hope.
For me, the last ten days of the year, from the solstice to the new year, is a time to reflect on the choices we’ve made, and whether or not we act with Ausos to bring light to the world.
I wish you a very warm, safe, and weird holiday season.
For those who’d like a short introduction to the world of the late antique West, you could do much worse than Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750. At barely 200 pages, it is short enough to keep your attention despite its scholarly tone. And the version I read had lots of color plates, which helps bring the period alive.
If you’re really glutton for punishment, you can also check out Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety by E.R. Dodds. Like most everything else I recommend, it is also fairly short.