For Solstice, Let There Be Lights

Advent church services count down the weeks until Christmas.
Advent church services count down the weeks until Christmas. (By Todd Dudek -- Salisbury Daily Times Via Associatd Press)
Thursday, December 14, 2006

Hundreds of years before anyone was decorating Christmas trees or hanging holiday lights, families in ancient Rome used evergreens and tiny candles to celebrate the winter solstice.

The solstice is the date when, because of the way Earth is tilted as it orbits the sun, the night is longer and day is shorter than any other time of the year. (That's in the Northern Hemisphere, or the top half of the globe. In the Southern Hemisphere, daytime is longest during the winter solstice and shortest during the summer solstice.)

The solstice coincides with the start of winter, beginning on the night of Dec. 21 and lasting into the evening of Dec. 22. Here in Washington, there will be only about 9 1/2 hours between sunrise and sunset that day.

For ancient peoples, life was very hard in the weeks leading up to the winter solstice. Everyone struggled to stay warm and to find enough food. Some feared the sun eventually would stop shining. After the solstice, the days slowly grew longer. People wanted to celebrate the victory of light over darkness. They understood that warmer weather was on its way, and that all plants -- not just evergreens -- would soon sprout green leaves.

Historians say it is no coincidence that evergreens and candlelight became important symbols of Christmas and other winter holidays. The themes of Christmas -- Jesus as a source of light and goodness for humanity -- also fit with the solstice season.

Ancient Romans also celebrated the solstice, with a focus on children. The weeklong festival called Saturnalia began Dec. 17 and was followed by Juvenalia, a day to celebrate youth and the promise of new life.

Solstice traditions can be found in many cultures throughout the world. The Hopi Indians spent weeks preparing for their Soyal ceremony, which they believed helped guide the sun's return. People of Iranian descent, including many in the Washington area, celebrate the solstice festival called Shabe-Yalda, which means birthday, or rebirth, of the sun.

Light is also a central theme for the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which falls during the solstice season and celebrates a Jewish victory over the ancient Greeks more than 2,100 years ago. Jewish warriors, called Maccabees, drove the Greek army from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, Israel, and lit the menorah, a special kind of lamp. It was supposed to burn day and night, as a reminder of God's presence. The Jews had enough oil for only one day. Miraculously, the flame lasted for eight days. That is why Jews light candles each of the eight nights of Hanukkah.

Today, lights and candles remain a popular way to decorate for Christmas -- from trees to Advent wreaths that count down the weeks to the holiday. The menorah is still the main symbol of Hanukkah. And some African Americans light the seven candles of a kinara for Kwanzaa, a celebration of black and African heritage and culture.

Many people from other backgrounds are adding modern-day solstice celebrations to their December calendars, gathering around bonfires late at night or holding candlelight ceremonies inside their homes.

No wonder it is called the "Season of Light."

-- Debbi Wilgoren

© 2006 The Washington Post Company