A Solstice Celebration
40 years ago we had the opportunity to travel in Europe for six weeks. We flew into Amsterdam, rented a Volkswagen van and drove through several countries. My parents had formed a lot of friendships with people from Europe and we traveled mostly from friend to friend, with a few nights in Youth Hostels along the way. We were in Germany on June 24, which is the feast of St. John the Baptist. With friends whom we were visiting, we attended a celebration of the occasion which included a bonfire and a tradition of leaping over the flames. I don’t remember all of the details of the occasion, and I do not speak German, so there were probably plenty of aspects of the celebration that went right over the top of my head at the time. I do remember a conversation with one of our German hosts about the maypole being a tradition associated with the summer solstice. I had previously believed that the tradition of the maypole was observed on May Day, the first day of May. Like many traditions with ancient origins, there are many different modern expressions and some of the modern expressions have lost touch with the origins.
The traditions of observing both the Summer and Winter solstice are very ancient in northern Europe. In Scandinavian countries the celebrations are major holidays. Huge fires are built on St. John’s Eve, the night before Midsummer’s Day. In ancient times the fires were burned to ward off evil spirits. Sometimes straw dolls were burned as part of the tradition. It was also a tradition in some countries to set old and unused boats alight and cast them into the water where the fires reflected from the surface.
As a freshly-minted seminary graduate, I was aware of the processes by which the holidays of the Christian Church were superimposed on existing holidays and traditions and observances were blended over the centuries. Actual calendar dates of the events of the life of Christ are largely unknown. Even the counting of the years since the birth of Christ is lost to the passage time. Most theologians believe that the date was sometime between 6 BC and 4 BC based on references to known historical events mentioned in Luke and Matthew. One of the reasons for the variation in dates is that the modern calendar, with leap years, did not exist in the early days of Jesus’ life. Our calendar, known as the Gregorian calendar after Pope Gregory XIII first was introduced in October of 1582, replacing the Julian calendar which was first proposed in 46 BC, and is assumed to have been the official calendar during Jesus’ lifetime. In the Gregorian calendar, today is December 22. It is December 9 in the Julian calendar. If you find this confusing, you can see why dates and times are a bit mixed up.
With the exact dates and times unknown and no dates and times mentioned in the Bible. The Bible is concerned with theological elements and not historical chronologies. Attempts by more recent thinkers at establishing Biblical chronologies are not considered to be reliable.
What early church leaders knew, however, was when the people celebrated. And they began to superimpose Christian observances on existing celebrations as a way of leading people to adopt Christianity and a way of demonstrating that this newer faith was not without occasions for celebration and joy. Over the centuries December 25 emerged as the day for celebrating Jesus birth. It wasn’t exactly the same day as the winter solstice, but that may have been more due to calendar errors than other factors. If we assume that Jesus was born on December 25 and accept that his cousin John was about six months older, that places John’s birthday on June 24 near the time of the summer solstice. It also makes the date for the conception of Jesus around the spring equinox and so these pre-existing dates were adopted for the church’s celebration of the annunciation and birth celebrations.
Traditions from pre-existing holidays such as candle lighting, bonfires and other observances were adopted into Christian celebrations. Over the centuries the distinction between Christian and pre-existing observances blurred.
These days some who are open critics of some aspects of the Christian church, along with others who find themselves outside of the church have begun to look to non-Christian sources for times of festival and celebration. The lighting of fires in observance of the solstices is a tradition that is being recovered with and without its Christian associations.
Last night under the full moon we celebrated the wedding of friends in a beautiful outdoor setting surrounded by nine bonfires. The candle lighting ceremony was challenged by the wind, but the evening was full of ancient symbols, some adopted form Northern European traditions, some adapted from indigenous American traditions and some from Christian traditions. The ceremony was a kind of hybrid of blended traditions. Blending traditions is most appropriate on the occasion of a marriage, it seems to me. A marriage after all, blends families and makes new connections between people. The crowd gathered for the wedding was unique because of the many distinct relationships of the couple.
The night was beautiful and I was reminded of how seldom I spend time outside just looking at the night sky during the winter. The colder temperatures draw me inside and my outdoors adventures are often short. The pattern of the clouds sweeping in was lit by the moon and the stars twinkled even through the thin layers of cirrus. The crowd soon moved inside to warm and share a meal following the ceremony and the attendants of the fires quickly extinguished them. It occurred to me briefly to leap over one of them, but I thought better of it, being aware not only of my own physical limitations, but also the simple fact that I was not the center of the occasion and drawing attention to myself was not in order.
I am no less committed to my Christian faith by being aware of more ancient traditions that underlie our observances of this season. Knowing some of the stories and collecting the memories has made our celebrations even richer as the years pass.