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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Roots of Christmas in Natures Rythms

Air Date: Week of December 18, 1992

Steve talks with author Marian Weinstein about the origins of Christmas traditions in early Anglo-Saxon celebrations of the northern winter solstice, and about the influence of the solstice on the psychology of the season.

Transcript

CURWOOD: The holiday season can also be a reminder of the view that human beings were designed for nature, and not vice versa. Just as the human circadian rhythm closely matches the length of the day, and the menstrual cycle parallels the cycle of the moon around the earth, the shortest day of the year at the northern latitudes comes within a few days of Christmas and Hanukkah. Indeed, the second day of Hanukkah this year is the winter solstice. Now, is the human propensity to celebrate at the solstice a part of our biology?

Marian Weinstein of New York City is a student of ancient pagan rites. She says almost everything about Christmas is based on the ancient pagan and instinctual responses to the northern winter solstice.

WEINSTEIN: All the Christmas celebrations, except of course masses and images of the cross, everything else comes from the pagan, Anglo-Saxon celebration of the solstice. Everything from the Christmas tree to the yule log to candles to mistletoe to holly to Santa Claus to reindeer - all of it, every single little bit of it is from the ancient, mid-winter solstice celebration in Europe.

CURWOOD: So, what is the solstice then say about us as human beings designed for nature, do you think?

WEINSTEIN: Wintertime really has all the images around us of death. Plants die, crops are finished, leaves die, trees are bare, many animals die, others seem to die because they hibernate. The life cycle of many creatures is over. Many migrate, so they seem to be gone. So it's really about death. But it's also about rebirth. You see, in the modern vision of death, death is really seen sort of as an end. But in the ancient pagan tradition death and rebirth are seen as one thing, one turn of the wheel. And that's what the solstice celebrates, in one moment the death and rebirth of the sun and the planet. So we're not only part of a dying planet, we're part of a rebirthing planet.

CURWOOD: Why this frenzy for gifts in our culture?

WEINSTEIN: That comes from ancient Rome, from a New Year's celebration that was around that time, and it's an expression of love, and an expression of a new beginning, because the word for "solstice" and the world for "wheel" in ancient Anglo-Saxon language is "Yule" - y-u-l-e - and all ancient calendars from all peoples are round. They're wheels. They're circles. And the ancient calendar that I'm talking about, the Yule, is a round wheel which turns, and it has eight spokes on it, and those are the eight holidays, the eight great holidays, and those are the eight turning points from one season into another. The way to celebrate the turning of the Yule would be to give gifts to the people you love.

CURWOOD: One thing that I wonder about the solstice is that Christmas seems very intense in Europe and the United States, and places where there's a dramatic difference in the length of day. And I'm wondering if that's in fact the reason that it is so intense, because of the length of day. Do you think?

WEINSTEIN: I think so. I think it's very important. I think that, you know, all the depression, and the hollowness and the down side of the Christmas season could be fixed in one minute if people stopped and acknowledged the meaning of the solstice. To just acknowledge that the earth is being reborn and the sun is returning. And just that idea on its deepest level is enough to really cheer you up. The whole idea, when people get freaked out and upset in this culture, is when they forget that they're part of the earth.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you very much. Marian Weinstein is author of Positive Magic.

WEINSTEIN: Well, it's been wonderful talking with you. And Happy Solstice, everybody.

CURWOOD: Oh, thank you.

 

 

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