Christmas and winter solstice


Sir, – We celebrate two distinct festivals at this time of year, Christmas and the winter solstice, radically different in their origin and meaning.

The real traditional festival, 5,000 years old, is the mid-winter festival of the winter solstice, marking the expansion of light and re-start of growth. The passage chamber of stone-age Newgrange is aligned with the rising sun of the winter solstice. Thus pre-historic people welcomed the return of the sun and the arrival of new beginnings.

The winter solstice was marked by festivals and ritual, a symbolic death and re-birth of the sun: lots of drinking, singing and dancing.

The more recent Christmas festival (merely 2,000 years old), in the view of the proponents of the winter solstice, tried to butt in and hijack their traditional festival. The Christians did this to mark the birthday of their founder, Jesus, although the evidence for the date is sketchy.

The two festivals grudgingly co-exist. For example, the so-called Christmas tree is drawn purely from the winter solstice tradition, a pre-Christian custom of introducing evergreen trees indoors, marking the return of growth.

The Christian festival tried to introduce a more sombre note, but did it succeed in its takeover bid? Probably not. The winter solstice is still dominant – partying beats prayers any time for many people.

But the two festivals share several elements. They both evoke birth and re-birth and both acknowledge our subservience to a greater thing – nature in the case of the winter solstice and a deity for the Christians. There is room for both. And each point to the fragility of the human condition, confirmed by Covid-19. – Yours, etc,