The year’s longest night falls around December 21st in the Northern hemisphere, and the return of the Sun symbolizes rebirth or renewal in cultures around the world. Italian Renaissance painter Arcimboldo, who anthropomorphized the seasons and elements as grotesque heads composed of bits of flora and fauna, here reveals the face of Winter in gnarly roots and gray bark, with hair of ivy and lips of fungus, but includes a lemon, surely a sign of the sun. This shows the promise of returning light and life, of which our understanding of the nature of cycles gives us faith. In the famous “yin/yang”, the Asian emblem of cyclic nature, the yin contains a little seed of yang, and vice versa, telling us that all dualities are cyclic and each extreme contains the potential of its own reversal.The Winter Solstice is the scientific name for the moment of the Earth’s maximum axial tilt away from the Sun. On Earth we experience it as the shortest daylight and longest night, and the Sun’s lowest path across the sky, the effect the more extreme the farther one is from the equator. This photograph combines 43 exposures over the course of a day to show the low southern arc of the Winter Solstice sun looking over the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Mediterranean area between the Italian peninsula and the islands of Corsica and Sardinia. (Of course the Southern Hemisphere’s Winter Solstice is the Northern Hemisphere’s Summer Solstice, and vice versa.)
The cycles of the heavenly bodies were among the first natural phenomena to be understood with scientific precision. Artifacts like the Mayan Calendar or the Antikythera Mechanism show that these celestial cycles engaged the most sophisticated minds of ancient times. While theories of the function of Stonehenge and other megalithic monuments as astronomical observatories are disputed by scholars, new evidence shows that prehistoric peoples conducted ritual sacrifices at these sites around the time of the Winter Solstice.
Walking a Labyrinth is another ancient ritual that has seen revival in our time. In walking meditation, the convolutions of the labyrinth provide a physical experience of cycles, of gradual penetration to the depths and re-emergence. Below is a labyrinth made out of candles, which are themselves symbols of the survival of light through the darkness, set up for a contemporary Winter Solstice festival.
The most popular holiday of classical Rome was the Saturnalia, a seven-day period around the Winter Solstice when king of the gods Jupiter ceded his throne to Saturn, god of harvest. It was a time for the reversal of social roles, when servants played at bossing the masters and feasting and revelry replaced work. We still keep a bit of this spirit alive in Saturn’s day, Saturday, the day to play.
In a work of satirist Lucian of Samosata, Saturn says, “Mine is a limited monarchy, you see. To begin with, it only lasts a week; that over, I am a private person, just a man in the street. Secondly, during my week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of tremulous hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water,–such are the functions over which I preside. But the great things, wealth and gold and such, Zeus [Jupiter] distributes as he will.” (source of quote)
In the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, authorities knew it was hopeless to stop people celebrating Saturnalia, so they simply changed the name of the holiday – to Christmas.
In the Christian era, the central image of the coming of light into the darkness became the Holy Nativity, or birth of Jesus, God made flesh, in a stable for livestock. Thousands of paintings depict the scene. Giotto’s fresco of the event is stark and simple.
Botticelli’s visionary manger scene combines celestial beauty with apocalyptic elements, a version in which the light is on the surface and something darker emerges only on closer inspection.
By the 17th century, an aesthetic of realism is emerging. Georges de la Tour, the master of candlelight effects, gives us this intimate grouping around the peaceful sleeping infant.
Proto-psychedelic painter Abdul Mati Klarwein painted this 1960’s “Nativity”, a post-nuclear, pop art, new age vision of a birth of new consciousness. The yin-yang symbol is there, beneath the legs of the central figure. (Note that the de la Tour painting is roughly right in the middle between the Giotto and the Klarwein on the art history timeline.)
In contemporary American culture, Christmas is a complex and contested amalgam of Christian, pagan, and commercial elements. The central figure is no longer the baby Jesus but the jolly old Santa Claus. Santa Claus is himself derived from multiple cultural traditions, some surprisingly devilish. The very name “Santa”, of course, is an anagram for the name of the Prince of Darkness. David Sedaris has written hilariously about European Christmas legends that may be surprising to Americans.
Our contemporary image of the jolly old elf can be traced back to Clement Clarke Moore‘s “The Night Before Christmas”, and to the illustrations of the great political cartoonist Thomas Nast, originator of the Republican Elephant and Democratic Donkey.
Another icon of the Winter Solstice holiday season is the New Years Baby, popularized by the great illustrator J. C. Leyendecker in annual Saturday Evening Post covers. For an image of rebirth, I’ll leave you with this awakening infant from an earlier era, troubled like our own. May you and the 2011 baby face the coming year with innocence and the power of growth! Blessed Solstice, Io Saturnalia, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!
All illustrations in this post were found on the web. Clicking on the images links to their source.