By: Bro. Nestor Martin J. Abanil
are all familiar with the “life and death cycle”
of the Sun. There is the occasional “death”
of the storm – where the Sun is obscured by dark clouds.
There is also the even more occasional “death”
of the eclipse – with the Moon obstructing our view
of the Sun during daytime.
One Solar death, however, is regularly periodic and inevitable.
At the close of each day, the Sun, no matter how glorious
its reign, must sink beneath the western horizon, defeated
and bloody, and Night returns in victory to the sky.
The Sun’s setting and rising is one inspiration for
the many mythic tales involving the death and resurrection
of a god. An even more impressive death and resurrection
is the death of vegetation with the coming of winter and
its restoration in the spring.
The Norse tale of Balder may well be the symbol of the
god of Summer being slain by the god of Winter. Similar
significance can be given to the death and resurrection
tales of Osiris among the Egyptians, of Thammus among the
Babylonians, of Proserpina among the Greeks, and so on.
But the Sun is clearly connected with the summer-winter
cycle as well as with the day-night cycle. Throughout the
European summer, the Sun at meridian height reaches a slightly
lower point in the southern sky each day than it did the
day before. As its path in the sky slowly sinks southward,
the temperature grows colder and the vegetation browns and
If the Sun should continue to sink, and should pass down
behind the southern horizon altogether, death would be universal
and permanent, but that does not happen. The rate of sinking
slows and each year at December 21, the Sun comes to a halt
(“solstice” – or “Sun halt”
in Latin) and thereafter begins to rise again.
The winter may continue to sharpen after the solstice but
the fact that the noonday Sun is rising steadily higher
in the sky is a guarantee that spring and summer will come
once again. The day of the winter solstice — the birth
of a new summer Sun, is thus a time for celebrating the
rescue of all life!
|The most familiar solstice celebration
of ancient times was that of the Romans. The Roman god of
agriculture, Saturn, was believed by them to have ruled Italy
during an early golden age of rich crops and plentiful food.
The winter solstice, then, with its promise of a return of
summer and of the golden time of Saturnian agriculture, was
celebrated with a weeklong “Saturnalia” from December
17 to 24. It was a time of unrelieved merriment and joy. Businesses
closed so that nothing would interfere with the celebration
and gifts were given all round. It was a time of the brotherhood
of humanity, for on that day servants and slaves were given
their temporary freedom and were allowed to join in the celebration
with their masters.
In the later Roman Empire, about 218
onward, the worship of Mithras, a Sun-god of Persia, became
popular among Roman soldiers. The birth of Mithras, the
Sun, was set on December 25 (not on December 21, the solstice
day), so that the Roman Saturnalia could build up to the
Mithraist “Day of the Sun” as a climax.
About 300 A.D., Christianity managed the coup of absorbing
the Saturnalia. The birth of Jesus was then fixed on December
25, and the great festival was made Christian. There is
absolutely no biblical authority for December 25 as the
day of the Nativity; in fact, from the biblical tale one
can be quite certain the Nativity came at some other time,
for there would be no shepherds tending sheep on frozen
All the appurtenances of the Saturnalia were adopted anyway
— the joy and merriment, the closed businesses, the
brotherhood, the gift-giving. All the paganism was now clad
in Christian garb. All was given new meaning, but all was
So that underneath the panoply of celebration of the birth
of the Son is the distant echo of that far older rite, the
celebration of the birth of the Sun.