New York, 27 December 2012
By common accord, we didn’t give each other presents this year. It was present enough to be all together as a family for the first time in a year. We also didn’t have a Christmas tree, since we had gone to New York to celebrate Christmas, because that was where the children’s lives have happened to bring them, and were staying in a rented apartment. And we didn’t go to church, because my wife and I are no longer religious and our children never were. For me, that is a relief; my childhood memories of Christmas are scarred by the dread of having to go to church. Christmas always fell during the week so I was subjected to the torment of church on the Sunday before, church on Christmas, church on the Sunday after, church on New Year’s, and church on the Sunday after that …
But what we did have was good cheer – it’s so wonderful for my wife and I to be with our children – supplemented by a good meal cooked by our daughter who is growing to be a master cook, washed down by a tolerable Argentinean wine. Afterwards, we all together went to see a film that my wife and I would never have seen in Beijing, which by chance brought us to Times Square, tawdry by day but magic by night with all its brilliantly lit advertisements: the high temple of consumption.
And so now, the morning after, with the children sleeping in next door and the plates of yesterday’s meal washed up, I can sit in bed and reflect on Christmas, doing a little web surfing to understand better this feast which has regularly punctuated the whole of my life.
For my wife and I, imprinted as we are with a Christian upbringing, it is of course the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Risen Christ, Saviour of the World. But why 25 December?After all, no date is given in the New Testament for the birth of Jesus. When I was younger, I had read that the Church Fathers had chosen December 25 to compete with, to overlay, and finally to smother, the flourishing pagan feasts celebrating the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, which falls on 21 or 22 December. But that seems to have been too simplistic. It looks more like December 25 was chosen because it was nine months after March 25, which in turn was believed to be the day on which Christ died. For the mystically inclined early Christians, there must have been a pleasing harmony in this equivalence of dates of conception – the start of life – and of death, but also of resurrection – the start of everlasting life. The unintended consequence – that Christ was therefore born on December 25, more or less at the winter solstice, a time of many pagan feasts – was seen “as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods” (1): Jesus, the “Sun of righteousness” prophesied in the Old Testament. As Christianity spread out of the Roman heartlands, and as the Christian missionaries came up against manifold feasts celebrating the winter solstice they used the latter argument more than the former to win hearts and minds and to overlay and snuff out those feasts.
What a pity those old feasts were suppressed! Not because I am a fan of the rites and rituals that surrounded them; they were distractions from the real event, the fact that the sun has reached its lowest point and is now starting its slow ascent again to summer. That’s what we should all be celebrating in the northern hemisphere, because the sun is probably our only common heritage. Our creeds, our races, our languages, our cultures all divide us. But the sun brings us together. Without it, we would not exist and our planet would be just a dark cold cinder whirling through space.
So next year let’s head on down to one of those monuments built millennia ago to mark solstices and other moments in the solar cycle, like Stonehenge
Newgrange in Ireland
Karnak in Egypt
Chankillo in Peru (the oldest solar observatory in the Americas)
Palenque in Mexico
North Salem in New Hampshire (the “Stonehenge of North America”)
Denfeng in China
Jaipur in India
or to more modern places like the Lawrence Hall of Science in California
or, for the summer solstice, the Native American museum in Washington
and let’s have ourselves a celebration! Let’s connect again, if only for a few moments in our busy schedules, with the most fundamental of all natural cycles of the world, the solar cycle.
(1)McGowan, Andrew. “How December 25 Became Christmas”, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/new-testament/how-december-25-became-christmas/
North Salem: http://www.stonestructures.org/assets/images/Winter-Solstice-Sunset.jpg
Lawrence hall of science: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c1/LHS_sunstones.jpg
Native American museum: http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/aroundthemall/files/2012/06/prism-575.jpg