I was born on December 20, the eve of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, before days start lengthening again and the world literally starts heading towards summer.
Now, I am a person who doesn’t do well with winters. I relax primarily by going outside for long walks, which I don’t dress warmly enough in the winter time to pull off. Even when I do, work and my relatively late sleep schedule steals the uplifting rays of the sun away from me, one of the reasons these walks are so rejuvenating.
Furthermore, I am not satisfied with my accomplishments in life. I have disappointed others and myself over and over by planning ideas and failing at them — plans to start a magazine, to write a novel, to start a company, to write an app, to start a software business… the list goes on and on. While materially doing well for myself, thanks to a marketable job skill set, I expected to be doing something far more interesting and intense by this age: to speak more languages more proficiently, to have built more and more skills rather than finding myself having forgotten how to speak German and play piano.
Between the seasonal malaise and the general dread of aging, I have every reason not to enjoy my birthday and the holiday season comes with it. And yet, it has always a favorite season of mine, that I celebrate with exuberance and often even joy.
I know that many people born around this time of year resent their birthday being so close to Christmas. I don’t — I’ve always loved Christmas and especially the hymns particular to it. As a teenager I used to bring my recorder to school around this time to play Christmas carols, to some people’s joy and to others’ profound annoyance. I can knit my birthday in with the Twelve Days of Christmas and the wrapping up of Advent and the coming of a New Year as one coherent season of singing and music.
And today, my birthday party is my big social event of the year, where I draw together friends from all parts of my past and my life, pull them together in my apartment, and party. Different years it’s been at different levels of intensity, and different people have come, but always, everyone I have a connection to is invited and anyone they might think of. I’m always simultaneously nervous that too many people might show up and that too few people might show up, but generally a good balance is struck.
So why do I party through the time of year that is naturally the worst for me? Well, for one, having a birthday party is a pretty good way to distract yourself from the fact of growing older. By the time I’m fully recovered from all the partying, it’s already established that I’m 29 instead of 28, and I only have a year to get myself together as what I think of as a responsible 30-something.
Christmas and Solstices
Then comes Christmas. Originally, the Roman calendar intended to put the solstice on December 25. This clearly failed, and by the time the necessary corrections were put in place to fix the drift, it had already moved to December 21. (For the record, this comes long long before the Gregorian calendar reform that you’re more likely to have read or heard about.) But even with an error of four days, Christmas is still fundamentally a solstice holiday. And Christmas is a very fitting holiday for the time. Christianity is, at some point, about hope for a broken world — that God is indeed working to transform our world full of evil and darkness into a world of light. And while Easter is about the triumph of that Light, Christmas is about the entering of that Light into the world, as a glimmer, as a baby. It’s about the beginning of that hope. What better symbolic time than the solstice? When else to proclaim, along with St. Athanasius, that God became human so that humans could become God, or, said differently, that humans can actually love each other and reach our real potential?
Because, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, while I know intellectually how a year works and how the earth’s orbit around the sun accomplishes it, I need hope around this time of year. I need hope that the nights won’t continue to get shorter. I need hope that I will once again be able to go for a walk in the sun and feel like all is well. In summer, I can watch Ned Stark have his head chopped off in Game of Thrones for the first time, but then go outside and still feel good about life. And those times are coming back — but I don’t feel them coming back now.
So I need the reminder. And I also need the reminder that not only is the sun coming back, but that God, who is a Light even greater than the sun, has also arrived and will soon warm — and transform — the world as well. It’s very thematically appropriate.
Now, I have no concrete evidence that God was actually born as a human on December 25 itself. There is an ancient tradition that says that all prophets were conceived on the day of their death. Since Jesus died on March 25, this tradition then states that He was conceived on March 25 and therefore born on December 25. I find this a very compelling tradition — everything in the Christian tradition points to a God very aware of and engaged with symbolism. Why wouldn’t He arrange to have His Nativity take place on such an appropriate day?
But I don’t think this is a capital-T Tradition; I wouldn’t suffer a crisis of faith if it turned out not to be borne out by actual history. Even if the date was chosen later by the Church, I think the Church chose wisely in assigning such a symbolically resonant date.
Aside: Pagan Influence?
Now, I think everyone reading this has heard the unofficial atheist/radical puritan party line on this issue: that Christmas is actually a coopted pagan holiday, and that the choice of celebrating Christ’s birth on Christmas was made to avoid banning popular pagan celebrations and allow them to be reappropriated. There are some major issues with that.
The first becomes clear if you look at the pagan holidays that were supposedly appropriated. Somehow, both Saturnalia and Yule get shoved into this narrative. Now, both of these holidays were also winter solstice holidays, and traditions from them were certainly folded into Christian observances; in Scandinavian countries, Christmas is called “jul” to this day. If this fact let people feel continuity in their lives or made Christianity an easier pill for them to swallow, I really don’t see the problem with that. Cutting down trees doesn’t suddenly paganize the celebration of the Incarnation.
But more importantly, when we see the multitude of light festivals and observances of the solstice from different cultures, we have to acknowledge that many religions have solstice festivals, and that Christianity isn’t special in that regard. I suppose the atheists and puritans feel that that should somehow cheapen the holiday, but it does make it far less likely that the date was chosen for purely appropriative purposes. The fact that many traditions celebrate holidays this time of year doesn’t somehow imply that Christianity plagiarized the other traditions; rather, it implies that there are good reasons to have a holiday here, as I’ve already discussed. We don’t have to copy other traditions to see the wisdom in having a winter holiday like this — whether this was the direct action of God in chosing the date of Christmas or the more indirect action of the Holy Spirit working through the Church.
Now, if I’m feeling more like starting a controversy, I’ll point out another idea, for which I derive inspiration from C.S. Lewis and other writers: If these other religions celebrated solstice holidays for similar reasons that Christians celebrate Christmas, it seems likely that they are dim foreshadowings of the celebration yet to come. That is to say, these groups knew there was some need at this time of year, and filled it with their own celebrations, not knowing that God would eventually fill this need in fullness in the Nativity. After all, Christ’s life on earth is the cornerstone of history and was always the plan for the world, and Christianity has always held that the times before the Incarnation point forward to it just as the times after look back towards it.
In any case, I don’t see any purported pagan origins of Christmas as any reason to not take very seriously the coming of Christ into the world, or as a reason to not celebrate it on this day. It doesn’t even work very convincingly as evidence that the date isn’t historically accurate: I figure it’s easier for the skeptic to just assume that the solstice is a good time for symbolically appropriate holidays and was chosen for that reason, rather than imagining a conspiracy for which there is no documentation.
And certainly, it’s not a reason to pretend that Christmas is not a Christian holiday at heart, that the paganism has somehow shone through all this history and still forms the meat of this holiday. If anything, consumerism is more likely to eat the holiday up, but that’s a different topic. My complicated feelings about mall Christmas music and Santa Claus shall have to wait for a different post.
As a Pennsylvanian, there are then two more holidays rolled up into one. There’s the party of New Year’s Eve, and then the more calm holiday of New Year’s Day of pork and sauerkraut for good health and fortune in the New Year. My brother in Qatar is having spam and sauerkraut to keep up this absolutely essential tradition for a good year; why be cursed with a bad one just because pork is not easily accessible?
And of course, there’s resolutions. I actually appreciate New Years resolutions. I don’t ever succeed at living up entirely to the standards I set for myself, but I generally do better than I otherwise would have, and along with the entire holiday season, I think it’s good to have a fresh start, especially after the shock of winter generally causes me to feel disappointed in myself. Optimism for the future is important.
This year, besides eating better and going to the gym more as always, I plan to host regular dinner parties and spend one night every week as me time, plus have multiple evenings in (either at my place or at friends’ actual residences) every week. I also plan on increasing the variety of the activities I do to socialize beyond dinner and drinks, and actually accomplishing things I can feel good about myself in retrospect, whether games or actual projects I work on with friends.
I feel pretty good about these plans. After all, I plan on being much more put together by 30, and I only have one year left. And here, I find it convenient that years of my life so closely align to years on the calendar.