Celebrating Yuletide in a Christmas Culture

I haven’t talked about the sun much in Gaian Reflections. There was a time when dualism reigned supreme in human belief systems: Father Sun and Mother Earth were the dual focal points for worship for many cultures. And that makes sense as life wouldn’t exist without either. However, now we know that the sun is a giant fusion reactor in the sky. As awe-inspiring as the process of its self-ignition and continual burning is, does that really compare to the Earth? Earth is a living organism, one that we’re part of and depend on utterly, and are rapidly destroying. Hence in my view the sun should play second fiddle. The sun doesn’t know we exist and we probably couldn’t damage it even if we tried. Gaia, on the other hand, is suffering at our hand and needs immediate attention from Her prodigal children.

The sun rising through Stonehenge, from Around and About Bath
The sun rising through Stonehenge, from Around and About Bath

That said, it isn’t that we shouldn’t now and again recognize the sun—its beauty, its light (literal and figurative), and Gaia’s annual journey around it. Winter Solstice, when the Earth is most tilted away from the sun and thus the days are at their very shortest, has been celebrated by peoples for millennia (as Stonehenge reveals). The Norse called this Jul—meaning wheel—which got anglicized as Yule.

Of course, over time this celebration took on other religious and cultural elements—around the god Odin and spirits, and then around Christian beliefs. But at its core, Yule is a celebration of the rebirth of the sun.

At first, celebrating the darkest day of the year didn’t make sense to me. It’s cold, it’s dark, nothing is growing. It’s a pretty miserable time in a temperate climate. But it’s also the very darkest it will be. Tomorrow, days will start lengthening, bringing warmth, spring, and new life. Yule (remember: wheel) celebrates this annual solar cycle and the passing of the darkest point of the year. And celebrating this coming of spring and life in this dark and dormant time makes a lot of sense. (It also served as a final celebration before the hard winter famine months—a moment when many farm animals were slaughtered so as not to feed them the precious little food remaining.)

It’s not hard to see how this was recreated as Christmas by Christians (regardless of when Jesus was actually born). Yule was seen as the rebirth of the Sun—not a stretch to shift that to the birth of the Son. Many of the traditional elements that symbolized life—evergreen trees, light (whether candles, bonfires, or now LEDs), a star in the sky—also fit well. And today, Yuletide traditions are still celebrated in Northern Europe, and have simply become synonyms for Christmas. (Interestingly, caroling, mistletoe, and holly also have pagan roots.)

But is there a way to reclaim or at least share Christmas (as Christmas is now more than just a Christian holiday, it’s a global consumer holiday as Japan’s love of the holiday shows) and bring it back to its Earth-centric roots?

Reading this essay I found several good ideas:

First, the easiest way is to simply reframe for yourself Christmas and New Year’s celebrations as Solstice or solar rebirth parties. Recognizing the ancient tradition behind this time of year and its celebratory tone (gratitude for the lengthening of days again, the coming of spring and preparation for getting through the next few challenging months) helps link us to history and to humanity’s deeper story, and reminds us of our connection to and dependence on Gaia and Her annual lifecycle.

Second, if you decorate for the holidays, bring in some evergreen symbols of life—though I’d encourage you not to cut down trees or do anything unsustainable. Gathering some branches from a local park or yard that will not be missed (i.e. branches that needed pruning anyway) is a better choice. Or you can harvest and repurpose a Christmas tree from the street. Increasingly, people throw away their Christmas Trees just a day or two after Christmas. Claim it as your own! Yuletide is a period of time (12 days is how long the Norse burned Yule logs—another Christmas import) so putting up a reclaimed tree after Christmas is a no-impact way to have a tree.

This image shows how light hits the Earth on the equinoxes and solstices at the same time of the day.
This image shows how light hits the Earth on the equinoxes and solstices at the same time of the day.

Third, exchanging gifts isn’t going away. But how you exchange gifts shapes both your impact on the planet and whether you reinforce a consumer culture. Exchanging meaningful gifts—ones that are useful, durable (or readily consumed like a favorite food or an experience), and will be remembered—is better than buying a toy or novelty that will quickly be discarded or forgotten. Items that people need but wouldn’t buy for themselves are nice too, both in thoughtfulness and usefulness. But navigating gift giving today is so complex that this topic deserves a whole reflection.

Fourth, share your bounty with others—yes, with your family through gift giving and feasting, but also share with others less fortunate and/or provide support for those organizations working to help others in the world, either directly, or by addressing the underlying systems and structural violence that lock people into misery.

Finally, one I hadn’t thought of but really like is to have a meditative session on the solstice—ideally in the dark (perhaps before sunrise if you want to really get into it). Or you can do a series of twelve sun salutations if you practice yoga. Or try the Gaian Solar Meditation. Or even fast before the days of feasting begin. And many have bonfires on the night of the solstice (another ancient tradition)—a fun way to celebrate the return of the light.

Ultimately, most important is to remember that this season of good tidings is not uniquely Christian. Nearly every culture has some sort of celebration of light and the solstice, as it is central in the human experience, when we better understood that the human experience was intertwined completely with Gaia’s cycles. Using this season to remind ourselves of that, and celebrating the return of the warmth and life (and sharing that warmth and light with others) is a wonderful way to balance out the darkness around us.

Merry Yuletide!

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3 Responses

  1. Steve Aceman LaZar

    We now celebrate Yuletide! Let’s take the Christ (and the mass) out of christmas! Merry Yuletide!

    • Erik Assadourian

      Merry Yuletide to you too! The one thing I hope we won’t take out is the sacred awe of the holiday. I remember as a child the somber joy of Christmas mass. The fact that humans are here–and a part of Gaia–and the light and warmth is coming back to start another cycle, deserves as much awe and respect!

  2. Thomas Ellis

    A beautiful essay, Erik! I’m with you entirely on celebrating—and reimagining—all Gaian holidays (ie the Eight Solar Holidays and 24 Lunar Holidays in ways that honor the multiplicity of cultural observances all over the planet.

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