Zoom Meeting Sermon December 25 2022


Topic: A History of Winter Solstice Celebration

Today’s sermon will not be followed by the usual question and discussion, but by a party that all of you are invited to.

People have been celebrating midwinter holidays ever since we started keeping track of the changing seasons. The winter solstice, taking place on December 22, marks the turning point when the days start to become longer again. It is the return of the sun in ancient pagan spiritual practices, forming the basis for most midwinter celebrations since. Today we are going to talk about some midwinter traditions and their origins: the evergreen tree, mistletoe, gift-giving, and caroling.

Bringing an evergreen tree into your living room in December began with the ancient Egyptians, who brought evergreen trees and wreaths into their homes to honor the sun god Ra and his rebirth during the Winter Solstice. The evergreen was seen as a symbol of immortality, since it did not hibernate during winter like deciduous trees. The ring-shaped wreath also represented eternal life. As with many things, the idea of decorating an evergreen tree for the midwinter festival was co-opted by Christianity in sixteenth-century Germany, and thus we have Christmas trees.

 Mistletoe was long considered sacred by ancient Celtic Druids. It was thought to have both magical and medicinal properties, and people hung mistletoe in their homes to ward off sickness and evil. When enemies met beneath wild mistletoe in the forest, they would lay down their arms and declare a truce until the following morning, and exchange greetings and break bread together. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe actually began with the ancient Romans, who would actually make love under a sprig of the plant during midwinter in honor of the god Saturn, in the hopes that they may conceive. When they adapted the practice, Christians toned it down to merely kissing.

Among other traditions, we can also thank the ancient Romans for the tradition of gift-giving during the winter holiday. Saturnalia was a week-long party between the seventeenth and twenty-fourth of December during which they would drink, feast with friends and family, and exchange presents. However, the tradition at the time was to exchange one small gift with one other person, for luck and prosperity in the coming year, rather than buying a present for everyone we have ever met like we are pressured to do now. This is why I only buy Solstice gifts for a select few people.

The tradition of caroling, or “wassailing” as it was originally called, began as groups of people singing loudly in the streets to banish evil spirits and wish those around them well. The word “wassailing” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “waes hael” which translates to “good health.” Those who heard the wassailers were prevailed upon to shower them with food and strong drink, to fortify them against the cold. While the tradition has evolved, it is still considered polite to offer carolers some cookies and eggnog, if you have it to spare.

We humans have come up with some ingenious ways to deal with the long nights, gray skies, and generally colorless, depressive nature of midwinter. We have looked for life in a time of death, and found it. We create light and love in the face of darkness. We decorate our homes with bright, colorful lights, ornaments, evergreen trees, holly, and mistletoe to remind ourselves that we are still alive. We gather close to our friends and family, throw another log on the fire, hunker down, and wait, knowing the sun will return and the ground will thaw and there will be life in the world once again. Whether you call it Hannukah, or Kwanzaa, or Christmas, or Yule, or even Festivus, however you defy the darkness with the light within you, may it be a merry one. Namaste.


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