At this time of year we occasionally hear references to “the first Christmas.” Well, what about the first Solstice?! As part of a sermon I gave at DUUF in December 2005, I speculated on how the first Solstice might have come about…
Paleontologists tell us that the cradle of humanity was most likely in East Africa, near the equator, where it’s almost always warm, and where the length of the days is very constant. We know that these earliest humans eventually began to migrate, and many of them went north, where the seasons are more pronounced. And it stands to reason that at some point, probably around what we now call October, for the first time a human being became aware that the days were getting shorter.
And you can imagine the reaction this first observant human got when he or she tried to tell his or her family and tribe about the shortening days. “The days have always been the same length and they always will”…“Have you been eating fermented grain again?”…“There is no such thing as global warming” – sorry, wrong Neanderthals.
But by November, the shorter days and cooler temperatures would have been obvious to everyone. And by now, we can imagine, panic started to set in. Every day the sun rose a little later and set a little earlier. Every day the sun rose and set a little further in the south. And every day the sun at noon was a little lower in the sky. The sun was dying. And if it died, the world would be plunged into perpetual darkness, and all life would die with it. Imagine the fear these people must have felt. The festivals of lights that we still celebrate were not begun just to dispel the growing darkness, but also as sympathetic magic to re-energize the sun.
And then one day, the sun stopped its retreat – the solstice, which means “sun stand still.” After a few days, it began to move northward, and the days began to lengthen. The sun was reborn. Try to imagine the sense of relief our earliest, barely human ancestors must have felt. Is it any wonder they celebrated? Is it any wonder the Winter Solstice became so ingrained in human culture that we still celebrate it, albeit in other forms?
Over time – perhaps years, perhaps generations – people came to understand that the sun would always come back. But the mythology around the Winter Solstice continued to grow, and it became the birthday for many gods and heroes, including Mithras, Hercules, Perseus, Apollo, and Arthur. For modern Pagans, it’s the time when the Mother Goddess gives birth to the Sun God. And for all of us, it’s a time to reflect, a time to connect, and a time to look forward.