Holidays bring return of light and hope
By Dr. Heather Biola
This Sunday will be the fourth and last Sunday in Advent, and many Christians will celebrate by lighting four candles on an Advent wreath. The candles often represent Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace. In 2020 we need these signs of hope during the Covid-19 Pandemic when modern Americans fear for their lives and economic stability.
This Advent tradition is much like older festivals of light that celebrated the return of the sun all over the northern hemisphere at the time of Winter Solstice. Last week’s column described some of the Asian and Native American festivals of light honoring the return of the sun, and this week we will look into some of the ancient European customs that came before the Christian Church.
The shortest day and longest night of the year usually occur on December 21st when the sun is as far south as possible. This dark, cold Yuletide has long been the time when Europeans had to stuggle to survive. For centuries before Christ, ancient Druids used Stonehenge to mark the movement of the sun within a circle of huge stones. When light came through two particular stones, Druids knew warmer weather would return.
In Persia people celebrated Yalda marked the end of Azar (the month of victory over darkness and the birth of the sun god Mithra). When the harvest was home, families gathered to eat pomegranates, nuts, and other festive foods and stayed awake all night on the longest night of the year to greet the new morning sun.
The ancient Romans enjoyed Saturnalia, a festival honoring Saturn, the father of Jupiter. Modern Christmas customs can be linked to this extended festival period. It came at the end of the harvest season and included feasting, gift giving, playing games and having drama for several days. Slaves did not work and were treated as equals during this festive time.
On Dec. 13 Scandinavian Christians honor St. Lucia Day when girls wear a wreath with four candles on their heads and bring food to their families. This custom commemorates a 4th Century Christian martyr who, according to legend, brought help to Christians hiding in the Roman catacombs. She put candles on her head to keep her hands free for carrying food.
All these festivals of light remind us that people have suffered greatly in the past, and the bleak news of our day is not hopeless.
We can look forward to health and happiness in the New Year.