Throughout history and all around the world, people have celebrated midwinter and the rebirth of the sun. My favorite night of the solstice-Hanukah-Christmas season is December 24, Modranicht. If we have Mother’s Day in the springtime, it seems only fair that we should celebrate Mother’s Night in the winter. We get the term Mothers’ Night from the English monk, Bede, who said that the Angles began their year on the night of December 24–25.
The winter solstice this year falls on December 21, though it can also occur on December 22 and December 23. The word “solstice” means “sun stand still.” No, it’s not Joshua’s long day again. On the solstice, the sun rises from the same point on the horizon for a couple days (this is the standing still), is at its lowest point in the sky at noon, and (in the Northern Hemisphere) is at its southernmost point. It’s the longest night of the year, and when the sun is reborn, it moves across the sky for six months to the summer solstice, where it’s at its northernmost point.
As the sun appears to be reborn, so are a multitude of solar and grain gods, including Adonis, Amon-Ra, Apollo, Attis, Baal, Horus, Jesus the Christ, Lugh, Marduk, Mithra, Shamash, Sol Invictus. These are gods who live for a season in great honor, after which they are sacrificed. They spend a season underground and are reborn. Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, was the chosen god of the Roman emperor Constantine, whose famous vision told him to “conquer in the sign of the cross.” Constantine prayed to Sol Invictus, who gave him the ambiguous battle cry Deus summus salvator! (“God the highest, Savior!”). Some have thought that Sol Invictus was the Latin name for the Christ, and Christians in his army called themselves “soldiers of Christ.” But Sol, a Latin sun god often identified with Helios, had been worshipped by an earlier emperor, Aurelian, who had established a cult and a feast to be celebrated on the Campus Agrippa on the winter solstice. Aurelian’s Sol Invictus was probably the Syrian solar god, El Gabel. One of Rome’s third-century emperors was a Syrian sun-worshipper who renamed himself Heliogabalus.
Mithra (also spelled Mithras) is an Indo-Iranian solar god, partly derived from the Hindu pantheon. He is the god of the airy light between heaven and earth, one of the Persian yazatas ruled by Ahura-Mazda. Belgian scholar Franz Cumont wrote that the Roman Mithras was the same as the Zoroastrian Mithra. The Roman mystery cult of Mithras arose in the first century C.E. among legionaries stationed in Asia Minor and spread throughout the empire. In the fourth century, when Emperor Theodosius decreed that that Christianity was the official religion of the empire, the Roman Brumalia (winter solstice festival), Sol Invictus, and Mithra came to be associated with the birth of Jesus. In 354, Bishop Liberius of Rome moved the birth date of Jesus to match the birth date of Mithra.
The winter solstice has seen the births of some great people, too, from Thomas à Becket (who was famously murdered just after Christmas, 1170, in Canterbury) to Joseph Smith (1805). (You can look up more famous birthdays.)
The solstice has always been a significant and scary time of the year. From Samhain (Halloween) until midwinter were the days and night when spirits returned to earth. We all know how Ebenezer Scrooge was haunted and reformed at Christmas time. In his book, Transforming Scrooge, psychotherapist Joseph D. Cusamano writes, “There is no doubt that the three…ghosts were performing intensive, brief, experiential psychospiritual therapy to free [Scrooge] from the bonds of the past.” Scrooge’s experience is like a kundalini opening. It shatters the chains of his miserable, lonely childhood and his miserly, solitary adulthood and leads him into “a new-found spiritual attitude about his own life and a caring concern for the general welfare of the planet.” This is a good lesson we can all learn, especially in these bleak times.
Throughout history and all around the world, people have celebrated midwinter and the rebirth of the sun. The Romans, for example, celebrated the Saturnalia, originally a series of rural festivals—the sementivae feriae, consualia larentalia, paganalia, dies juvenalis, etc.—that gained civic importance when a military defeat in 217 B.C.E. and inspired a religious revival. After the religious ceremonies of the Saturnalia came celebration, feasting, and merriment. There was a suspension of civic work, courts and schools closed, and commerce and warfare stopped. The Romans honored Saturn, Ops (the goddess of riches from whom we get our word “opulence”), Sol Invicta, Mithra, Consus, Juventas, and Janus. Saturnalia is echoed in today’s holiday celebrations, religious rituals, honored figures (Santa Claus, Father Time), sacred flames (candles and bonfires), greens (the decorated tree, wreaths, garlands), time off from work, gift giving, feasting, helping the less fortunate, and exuberant play
My favorite night of the solstice-Hanukah-Christmas season is December 24, Modranicht. If we have Mother’s Day in the springtime, it seems only fair that we should celebrate Mother’s Night in the winter. We get the term Mothers’ Night from the English monk, Bede, who said that the Angles began their year on the night of December 24–25. We don’t know if he was reporting on a custom that honored three goddesses called the Mothers or referring to Christmas, newly arrived in Germanic lands. In 706, the Church forbade believers to follow the old Roman ceremonies honoring the confinement of the Mother of God, which included the distribution of cakes called placentae (the Divine Mother’s afterbirth). Christmas Eve became the night of the Virgin Mother. Christmas Eve is probably the night most of us go home to spend the holiday with our own mothers. (If I were cynical, I’d add, “… at least if we want our Christmas presents.) Most pagans of my slightly pre-boomer generation were born in one of the standard-brand faiths and came to the Goddess as young adults. When we went home, Mom and Dad invited us to the midnight church service. I still think it’s important for younger pagans to go to church with them. Mom cooked for us. She shopped for us. We pagans are pantheists and panentheists. We see deity everywhere. Why not in a Christian church on the night their god was born? Go to church and enjoy the ritual and the singing. Don’t argue theology. Don’t announce that Jesus may be mythological. If we can agree that other pagans can celebrate their gods in their ways, why can’t we extend that privilege to Mom and Dad? Yes, celebrate a family holiday and keep peace in the family. Go to church with them.
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.