In many ways, the Winter Solstice is my favourite part of the year. Up to that point, the amount of sunshine we get has been getting progressively smaller. We tend to get large amounts of snow where I live, sometimes all at once (the second huge snowfall we got here was actually so bad that when the guy we hired to plow our too-long-to-shovel driveway came to clear a bit of the snow, he got very badly stuck and a tow truck had to come to pull him out of it), it's usually very cold even if this year's been fairly mild, and both because of ice/snow accumulation and the carelessness with which a lot of people approach the operation of a motor vehicle, the driving can be downright miserable.
And yet, there comes a point in the year when the night can't get any longer—and the next day it's a little shorter. Soon we're noticeably closer to the springtime than we thought we were. Even though the winter often seems to really drag along up here, and even though Spring itself can be a bit of a pain in its early days, with its mud and odd smells and occasional heat wave followed by a really wild blizzard (yes, it's happened, we've even had snowstorms as late as May some years), it's nice to know that something warm and not quite as uncomfortable is somewhere around the corner. This, as much as anything else, is why this time of year symbolizes hope to me. Things can really suck now, but they can—and will—get better, and all it takes is time.
Which brings me to Christmas.
Some say we should be celebrating Christmas in June. Astronomers have determined that in the time period when tradition says that Jesus was born, the planets Venus and Jupiter were so close together that they produced so much light that they could be the Christmas star, since a very bright light really did show up in the East. Furthermore, because the shepherds are described as watching their sheep in the fields, it makes it extremely unlikely that Jesus was born in December; by then, the flocks would have been moved into pens, since sheep were only out in the fields in the warmer months. This is all very fascinating to me, of course, for more than one reason, but sometimes I think that for more than the usually-cited reason (the appropriation of a previously-existing celebration to make Christianity more acceptable to converts), it's better to have the celebration at this time of year.
It's all about hope, after all, and love—and goodness knows we need more reminders of these things, especially at this point in the year, particularly in the colder parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Or at least it should be about those things, and I think that sometimes we lose sight of that, especially since the holiday's gotten to be such a big commercial deal. So many people are in such a hurry to find "that perfect gift" or are so wrapped up in their gift-giving obligations (Since when should a gift be obligatory, anyway?!) and worrying where the money's going to come from to pay for it all, and trying frantically to throw together that huge dinner they're supposed to provide for everyone and how it's all got to be ABSOLUTELY PERFECT that the words "peace", "joy", and "love" are often the furthest thing from their minds. It's almost as bad as what weddings have become (though that's another rant for another time). But for those of us who celebrate Christmas, even if it's not for a religious reason, I think it would be a very good idea to think about why we go through what we do every year, and I truly hope that the answer isn't simply "because we have to".
Family is great—when you love each other. Giving presents is great—when you want to give them, and when you don't go beyond your means to procure them. Decorations are great—in moderation, at least. Getting presents is great—when they're something truly thoughtful from someone you love. Even that ridiculously large turkey/ham/goose/whatever dinner is great—if you have help preparing it and cleaning up afterwards. But none of this should be obligatory, none of it should be something that you don't really want to do. It shouldn't be a burden. Even in secular tradition, Christmas is a time to settle down with your family and friends and have a good time, and even give a helping hand to strangers who need it. (I wish this would continue throughout the year, but again, that's another rant.) I may shock some extremely religious Christians by saying this—though probably no more so than I'd shock them by anything else I say here, come to think of it—but I do think that even a purely secular Christmas, without any mention of Jesus or shepherds or angels or three Eastern kings, can be a tremendously rewarding and enriching experience, provided that it's not turned into an obligation or a burden.
As for what I think, as someone who does celebrate Christmas the religious way as well as the cultural one? Well, I think I'll leave it to the ever-fantastic Dawn French, playing the Reverend Geraldine Granger in The Vicar of Dibley, to explain what I think about celebrating Jesus' birth, no matter what time of year we do it:
Two thousand years ago, a baby is born in a stable. The poorest of the poor. And yet during his lifetime, he says things that are so astonishing that millions of people are still living their lives by them today. He said, "love thy neighbour". He told us to turn the other cheek, whatever people might do to us...most astonishingly, I believe that this tiny little baby boy actually was the Son of God. And when he was younger than I am today, he was brutally crucified for simply telling people to love each other. And the men who killed him thought "That’s it, that's the end of it. He’s dead, he’s gone." And yet, here we are. Two thousand years later, in a village in the middle of England, doing a play about his birth.
That's it exactly. Though admittedly I'm Canadian, not British, and the "younger than I am today" bit doesn't really apply to me either, as I'm only 28 and when he died Jesus was apparently about 33. ;)
To those of you who celebrated the Solstice, I hope you had a truly blessed one. To those of you who celebrate Christmas, I hope that it will be equally blessed. To those of you who celebrate both, I hope the same. And to those of you who celebrate neither, I hope that you can still take time to do something that you enjoy, because we all need to relax sometimes and even if this time of year has no special significance for you, it's still nice to slow down a bit and have some fun once in awhile. :)