Anthony Aveni is the Russell B. Colgate Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology at Colgate University and the author of several books, including Empires of Time and Conversing with the Planets. This excerpt is from The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays which traces the origins of modern customs tied to seasonal holidays, exploring what we eat (the egg at Easter, chocolate on St. Valentine’s Day), the games we play (bobbing for apples on Halloween, football on Thanksgiving), the rituals we perform (dancing around the Maypole, making New Year’s resolutions), and the colorful cast of characters we invent to dramatize holidays (Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the witches and goblins of Halloween). In the excerpt below we look at some of the origins of Christmas.
For the Inuit who live in the Canadian Arctic, what happens on the winter solstice (December 21) is far more dramatic than any comparable cosmic phenomenon those of us who live in temperate and tropical latitudes witness. Christmas time there doesn’t just bring lengthier noontime shadows and longer nights. It is a time of total darkness—both day and night.
Cold November begins with the bright orange sun spiraling its way downward as it circles daily around the sky on a track nearly parallel to the horizon, its disk gradually encroaching on the bare tundra. By the middle of the month, the sun’s lower limb reaches down and begins a bumpy ride over the hilltops. Round the cardinal points of the horizon it goes from north to east to south to west, then north again. A few rounds later, when it manages a peek through the clouds, the pale red disk has sunk noticeably into the snow. Gradually it flattens out like a deflated tire and vanishes, making a few brief reappearances through deep divots between the low rolling hills and in rare mirages. By month’s end it is gone. The lord of the day has disappeared—replaced by a long, slowly diminishing twilight as bright stars joined by fainter ones proclaim the arrival of the long Arctic night.
People of the Northwest Territories call it Tauvikjuag—the seven weeks between late November and mid-January when the sun is gone. We don’t know how their ancestors behaved during this period, for early explorers acquired no records, even though the settlement has been inhabited for two thousand years. White strangers didn’t seem to care much about Eskimo customs anyway. We can only imagine what went through the minds of the early inhabitants of this frigid region when the long darkness overtook the daytime at this vital seasonal turning point. Will the lord of light who has abandoned us now restore himself and start back on his course toward humanity, bringing with him an end to the menace of the dwindling daylight hours and a return to greater warmth and longer light? How can we help?
Today in Inuvik and Barrow, Alaska, people party, eat, dance, and drink—“get legless” as the locals say. They do it communally, playing games such as finger pulling and high kick— games that test their strength and endurance—or dancing in the skins of the animals they honor, such as the fox and the wolf. They look outward as they celebrate not just with family and friends but farther outside the household into community hall and church. At winter solstice, people turn inward as well. They reflect on who they are and what it means to be a physically strong hunter.
This feeling of deep concern that accompanies the winter solstice is no less appreciated in other cultures. Bronze Age Stonehenge was probably built not only with its main axis pointing to midsummer sunrise but also to fix the midwinter full moonrise, which appears close to the same point on the horizon, thus marking the days of the year when two celestial luminaries were needed to bear continuous light into the world from dawn to dusk and back to dawn again. Seasonal festivities taking place there might have included a sharing of food, gossip, old stories, and, I would guess, some serious concern expressed in ritual form about
the sun’s apparent demise.
Built-in solstice registers abound in neolithic architecture. For example, in the Orkney Islands the passage grave of Maes Howe, a third-millennium B.C. tomb, has a long narrow aperture over the entrance that allows sunlight into the interior only at winter solstice. Several cursus monuments (long rectangular enclosures surrounded by banks) in southern England have their axes aligned with the midwinter sun at the horizon. The architectural reckoning of the annual southern solar standstill extends well beyond prehistoric societies. At the peak of their civilization in the eighth century, the classic Maya of Yucatan registered the shortest day of the year in their city plans. Writing and sculpture excavated at one of their great cities tell an engrossing winter’s tale of death and resurrection.
What time is more critical in the smooth operation of organized society than a change of president or the death of a ruler? Any discontinuity is unsettling—a kink in the circle of time. How would the people know that once their leader was gone, an offspring would possess the same powers? What guarantees it? For the Maya the bloodline proclaimed the principle of immortality through a divine link to heavenly ancestors. At the ruins of Palenque in the interior of Mexico’s Gulf Coast, a stucco inscription in the Tablet of the Cross (so called because of the presence of a Maya tree of life once thought to resemble a Christian cross) tells us that the son of the deceased ruler Pacal (Shield Bearer), Chan Bahlum (Lord Jaguar), is his reincarnated spirit. The myth of Maya creation says that when the old gods who created the world died, they passed through the underworld and reemerged in the east as celestial bodies—the sun and Venus are often prominently mentioned. And so it was for the kings. After Pacal underwent his apotheosis in the underworld, his powers were reborn in his son. Like the coming of spring after a long dark winter, the old ruler reemerges invigorated in the body of his son.
Maya architecture provided an elaborate stagecraft to serve as a backdrop for the celestial reenactment of this resurrection myth. If you travel to Palenque on December 21 and climb to the top of the tower in Chan Bahlum’s palace, you can still watch the winter solstice sun dive directly into the Temple of the Inscriptions where Pacal is interred—an architectural hierophany like the descending equinox serpent at ChicheÅLn ItzaÅL. In the Palenque hierophany the plunging sun is Pacal. He begins his descent into the underworld as he takes his first steps on the temporal road to resurrection. The effigy of the dying king is portrayed falling into the abyss on the lid of his own sarcophagus. The message cast in writing, sculpture, and architecture plays on the Maya philosophy of cyclic time. Death is the force of creation that propels life and leads to birth. Chan Bahlum is his own father, a re-envisioned version of his predecessor by blood in the great solar transformation. Among the surviving (and now largely Christianized) Maya, Christ is still depicted as a sun god with rays of light emanating from this crown.