Editor's note: The following is the second in a six-part series examining the origins of Christmas traditions and customs. Stan Brown is the historian and archivist for the Rim Country Museum, a columnist for The Rim Review and a retired pastor.
Now that we are approaching winter, and it is dark until 7 a.m., do you find it harder to get out of bed in the morning than it is in the summer? Like most animals, we human beings live by the sun. When the sun shines less, something in our body's time clock slows down. We need more sleep than usual. Winter is the time for hibernation.
It is easy to understand how sun worship has been the most common form of religious expression since humankind began. Ancient people in the Northern Hemisphere built centers for astronomy to catch the sun at its lowest arc in the southern sky, marking the beginning of its return north. To certify the hope that spring would return, Stonehenge in England was built by early tribes. In many places, giant lentils frame the horizon to catch the constellation Capricorn whose stars change their course at that moment of the year.
We are familiar in the Southwest with observatories in many of the ruins of the ancient people, like holes in a wall or a rock lined up to catch the sun's rays exactly and reflect them on an opposite wall when the sun rises Dec. 21.
In Heber, just east of Payson, archeologists have located an ancient circle of rocks, which is designed as an observatory. Everywhere human records have been left, we find this need to know that the winter solstice has come. We need reassurance that darkness is going to be overcome by light, and the seasons have turned the corner again. So this becomes the universal season to celebrate, and the celebration affirms the victory of light over darkness, life over death and joy over gloom.
In old England, the word "yule" came to be a synonym for Christmas. The word first came from the Middle English term "Geol" (Gay-ol), which was a 12-day pagan festival celebrating the winter solstice. From the poorest surf to the feudal landlords, those olden-day people rejoiced in the victory of the sun. The castles were opened in good will, the tables were filled with food, and everyone of high estate or low was invited in to a sumptuous feast and a warm hearth.
While the pagans were the first to emphasize this celebration, Christians have put their own special twist on it and chosen to celebrate the birth of Christ at this time. The Jewish people celebrate their festival of lights at this time also. Under Greek rulers, the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem had been used for pagan worship with an idol set up where the Ark of the Covenant had been and where sacrifices were offered to God. Judas Maccabaeus and his family led a short-lived rebellion and recaptured the Temple in about 164 BC. It was purified with rituals, the altar to Yahweh set up again, and the Temple was rededicated with a series of festivals over an eight-day period. The date of that rededication was Dec. 25, the same day the Greeks had profaned it four years earlier. The Jewish historian Josephus called this The Feast of Lights. We know it as Hanukkah.
Our society has taken over from the pagans several of the traditions Americans celebrate at our annual Festival of Light. The ancient Scandinavians, for example, used the wheel as symbolic of the sun. They put candles into this wooden circle, and lighted them during these shortest days of the year while they prayed for the return of light and life to the earth. When the evergreen boughs, symbols of eternal life, were added to the wheel it became the Advent Wreath.
One candle is lighted each week in anticipation of the birth of Jesus, and the large, white center candle is lighted on Christmas Eve for Jesus himself. Some would put that candle in their windows to guide the holy family, or welcome strangers who are in need of shelter. Thus the symbolic candles in our windows. The Southwestern adaptation of this tradition is found in the luminaries that are placed leading to our front doors.