Our monthly feature seeks to offer open-minded, clarifying, and meaningful responses to readers’ questions about spirituality. Send your questions to The Resident.
In my first article in this series (Resident, April 18 2019), I placed the Christian celebration of Easter in the context of the season of spring and alluded to the springtime celebrations of a variety of worldwide religions.
Christmas falls very close to the astronomical beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere. For us here in Portugal, the winter solstice occurs this year at 4.19am on Sunday, December 22. Technically speaking, this is the moment when the northern axis of the earth’s rotation is tilted farthest from the sun in our annual orbit. We’ll experience our shortest period of sunlight on this day of the year.
Accurate observations of annual periods of sunlight preceded our understanding of the dynamics of the solar system by many thousands of years, having an obvious relevance to hunting and agriculture. It was often persons of religious or priestly occupation who were most engaged in systematically measuring and recording the processes of moon and sun.
Rituals anticipating and celebrating seasonal return have grown partly from deep evolutionary history (cycles of animal hibernation and activity) and from our rational interests (When should we plant? When might we expect to harvest?).
The sun is our most ancient daily clock: at dawn we can safely undertake strenuous outdoor activity; at sunset our bodies prepare for rest. Likewise, the seasonal procession moves us from the longer days of planting and gathering to the shorter days of surviving the cold. Can we be certain that those longer, warmer days will return? We must hope so! Perhaps we can – perhaps we should – encourage the sun to give its favour. So thought our ancestors.
Monastics of all religions have long been profoundly aware of these daily and seasonal rhythms, and while it’s important, probably, not to be superstitious about them, it is nonetheless valuable to be aware of our deep connection to nature and its rhythms. A candle in the darkness, the warmth of the hearth, songs of hope and expectation, the closeness of family, the comfort of food we have stored and the importance of sharing with others – all of these are elements of our solstice observances throughout history and across cultures.
May the cool of the winter bring warmth to your hearts, dear readers. From within my own tradition, I wish you a Merry Christmas.
The Rev. Reid Hamilton
St Vincent’s Church