Sun, religions closely linked

Sunday, December 21, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:19 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

The solstice marks the beginning of winter on our calendars, but it’s the end of the darkest time of the year.

For centuries people have celebrated the symbolic return of the sun. It is a holiday of renewal, life and light for many, especially for people whose religions are based on natural cycles, said Richard Callahan, a professor of religious studies at the University of Missouri.

“In the history of human beings, there have been many religions that mark the solstice,” Callahan said. Many of these traditions were practicing before Christianity, he said.

In recent decades there has been a resurgence of interest in nature religions and in the number of people celebrating holidays such as solstice that mark cycles in nature, he said.

“They are about orienting yourself in time and space and connecting to the world,” he said.

In the cycle of yearly celebrations based on events in the natural world, the solstice marks the rebirth of the god, who represents the sun. The shortening of the days coincides with his return after a symbolic death at the end of harvest time around Oct. 31, according to celebrators of the holiday.

This holiday, called Yule in many pagan faiths, resembles Christmas when celebrated by people observing it as a religious holiday, said Emily Gabbert, president of Sacred Ways of the Earth, a student group at MU that focuses on learning about alternative religions. A house decorated for Yule would contain evergreen and holly bows, mistletoe and candles of green, red, white and gold. Each item symbolizes an important aspect of the holiday to religious observers, Gabbert said.

The celebration of children and giving of gifts is also a Germanic pagan tradition, said Rhomylly Forbes, a spokesperson for Hearthfires, an alternative spirituality umbrella group in Columbia. Gift giving is representative of the plenty that will come as the sun returns, she said.

Forbes said that Christmas came to be celebrated on Dec. 25 long after solstice had been established as a major holiday in pagan faiths.

“This is one holiday that the Christians stole from us,” Forbes said of Christmas. People believe that Jesus was born on Dec. 25, but that’s incorrect, she said, as there are literal items that demonstrate the birth of Christ didn’t happen in December. For example, shepherds didn’t tend their flocks outside until March because it was too cold.

Callahan said that in the development of religions over time, sometimes a new faith might superimpose a new holiday on top of an old one, but also the people who adopt a new faith continue to celebrate the holiday on the old day but change its meaning.

Sara Sklaroff, religion and culture editor at U.S. News and World Report, said that Christmas was placed on Dec. 25 in an effort to quell internal conflict within the Roman church over how to compete with pagan faiths that remained popular at the time.

In Rome, people celebrated Saturnalia to mark the return of the sun. It ran from Dec. 17 to 25 and during this time celebrants decorated branches, hung evergreen boughs and exchanged gifts, Sklaroff said.

For Saturnalia, slaves were temporarily allowed freedom to do whatever they liked and the festival was about merrymaking and feasting. The Roman church attempted to make the holiday more pious, but over time the festival atmosphere became an important element to the holiday. The roots of many modern Christmas traditions can be traced to Saturnalia, she said.

Gabbert said that the spirit of solstice feels a lot like Christmas. It’s a season of hope and gift giving. She said that many people combine Christian beliefs with their pagan traditions. There was a give and take when the cultures of Christianity and paganism came together, she said.

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