Christmas is an ancient festival. The twelve-day celebration around the winter solstice is not a Christian invention. It used to be the Pagan Yule—also a twelve-day feast—and before that, who knows? It’s a natural holiday for all cultures. There’s the Roman Saturnalia, the Chaomos of the Kalash Kafir people and the Asian Dōngzhì, to mention just three.
The solstice is most significant in lands close to the poles, where the days grow noticeably shorter and growth ceases. It’s easy to imagine our ancestors gathered around the fire, rationing their stored produce and looking to the heavens for signs of the lengthening day. Its arrival is a time to celebrate.
Today’s enlightened cultures are less connected to the cycles of nature. We’ve blotted out the dark with electricity, and have all but lost our intimacy with the circling night sky, the phases of the moon and the mystery of the cosmos.
The commercialization of Christmas pulls us in quite another direction, leaving us as likely to feel stressed and lonely as reflective and loved. It’s a time when family squabbles burst into the open and the joy of giving is overshadowed by the anxiety of whether it’s enough. It takes effort to get into the Christmas spirit.
What sort of effort, however, isn’t obvious. Most of us just want to be happy, but find ourselves gritting our teeth at the thought of Christmas. Why can’t we just count our blessings and be of good cheer?
Maybe Christmas has become crass, but that’s not all there is to it. It’s religious too, but that’s still not all there is to it. We may have lost touch with the natural emotions of the winter solstice, but because tradition brings us together we celebrate nonetheless, and it still resonates.
At this time of year I take the time to turn off the lights, step into the crisp night and look up. I can’t imagine any human being untouched by the sight. It’s a blunt reminder of our smallness and impermanence, that we’re fragile, mortal and united, that our need for love and our fear of death are one and the same thing. The vastness is a reminder to live, breathe and reflect on questions without answers, the way we all do as children. Our routine hardships will still be waiting for us after twelfth night, but there’s freedom in knowing that we’re not alone, and that there’s more to life than can fit inside a mortal brain.
This is a time to return to the simple contemplation of our small place in this big world. It puts all our perennial problems in a different light.