Many traditions and mythologies tell of the birth of a special divine child. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ as told of in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The birth of the sun-god is an ancient event; male gods such as Shamash, Ra, Horus, Tonatiuh, Taiyang Shen, Mithras, Krishna, Surya, and Abraxas all tell the story of the mighty sun that gives us life. In prehistory until about 3000 BC, the sun was represented by a beautiful female named Helen; like the sun, females bring forth life. The Magdalenian culture of 12,500 BC symbolized the sun with the sun child – their precious blonde daughters. As millennia passed the sun child grew to become a maiden, a queen, then a goddess, Helen.
Christmas is the celebration of the birth of a child. A Paleolithic calendric for human reproduction from c. 12,500 BC instructs that babies be conceived in spring, to be born around the winter solstice. Winter babies had the best chance of survival: Families stayed inside, and newborns got a maximum of attention. Babies who were born in spring were exposed to pollen in the air and in mother’s milk, producing more people with allergies. Summer produced a high percentage of colic babies who had to compete for parental care with hunting and building activities; the preparations for the approaching glacial weather were paramount. Fall babies risked animal worms, viruses, and bacteria, which in winter would be uncommon. For them, the winter solstice was a time to celebrate the birth of babies – all babies. The birth of babies became associated with the return of the sun, the light of life.
Every life was precious and insured the survival of the human race through the iron cold ice age. In the iron cold winters of the Magdelanean age, 70 below zero for months plus wind chill, it was paramount that everyone survived. To do this, each community shared with others what was needed to keep their children alive. The spirit of giving became genetic memory in the generations that followed – even today we can feel it.
Festivals celebrating the return of the light have been traditional for millennia. Even thousands of years ago our ancestors knew what we know today: that on December 21st the sun reaches its lowest point on the horizon at the Tropic of Capricorn. The golden ball of light lingers at the bottom of the analemma for three days, then rises again toward the Tropic of Cancer. Many symbols have grown from this event. One is the Celtic cross, a symbol for the winter solstice. Its predecessor, the equal-armed (+) cross, appeared tens of thousands of years ago as a symbol for direction: north, south, east, and west. Over time one arm of the cross was lengthened to designate which arms were which: the extended arm of the cross denoting south. The circle of the Celtic Cross (more accurately an ellipse) where it intersects the southern arm symbolizes the position of the sun at the winter solstice, its other intersections being equinoxes and summer solstice. This beautiful image is a popular decoration in homes during the Festival of Lights which is celebrated around the world. Hindu Diwali, Buddhist Tazaungdaing, Jewish Hanukkah, and Christian Christmas are all holy days associated with this time of year; some according to the lunar calendar. Sacred candles and lights on trees, bushes, houses, and in windows reflect the anticipation of the return of the sunlight.
Another tradition of Christmas time is Santa Claus, most commonly associated with Saint Nicholas, a historic fourth-century saint. Many miracles were attributed to his intercession, and because of that he became known as “Nikolaos the Wonderworker.” He also had a reputation for secret gift-giving, which many conclude made him the model for Santa Claus.
Further back in history, as far back as 45,000 years, we find another root for Santa Claus: a Paleolithic Siberian reindeer herder. Duncan-Enzmann tells of this character in Ice Age Language. The reindeer herder traded in reindeer hides, which are both warm and waterproof. He delivered his good by sled, often being charitable to those in need.
Whatever your tradition is this season, remember that a smile, a kind word, and a warm hug are gifts that money cannot buy. Whether you are young or old, warm or cold, the winter solstice is the longest night of the year. In northern cultures, it signals the coming of longer days, more light, and warmer weather, all encouraging new life. That is a reason to celebrate.
For more of The Symbologist, browse her books in our Publications Store.