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There's a really beautiful piece about the Winter Solstice, on The Huffington Post, that speaks to cosmic essence of its quiet darkness.
Dec. 21st, we enter the belly of the night.
Winter Solstice: We come to the portal that separates darkness from light. Standing in this arch of time where Earth takes a breath before facing us back towards the sun, we too, take a breath, turn inward, pause in this pregnant moment and let darkness reveal its gifts:
Winter Solstice: A time to look back at the year gone by, gather its lessons and put them in the stew of your life. Time to let the heat of your presence cook the stew. Render the lessons into the sweet nectar of wisdom. Then drink of it. One-small-sip-at-a-time.
Winter Solstice: A time to let the longest night of the year seduce you into stillness. Time to silence inner voices, listen to the beating of your own heart. Time to breathe slowly, become the breath. Linger here. The night is long...
Winter Solstice, by any other name, is the celebration of this celestial mystery, observed from time immemorial.
Long before the "war on Christmas," the early Christian Church waged its own war on Sol Invictus, and co-opted numerous pagan traditions that celebrated the mystery of the virgin darkness giving birth to the glorious sun.
Constantine may not have completely established the date of Christmas, but what is clear is that he had considerable influence in setting the date of December 25 as Christ's birthday. After Constantine's victory, in perhaps 320 or 353 C.E. the church decreed that December 25 would become the standard day of observance for the birth of Christ. However, this date had long been recognized in antiquity as the return of the sun, for in ancient times, before the establishment of the Gregorian calendar, December 25 was the date of the winter solstice, the point when the sun has reached its southern most trek below the equator, where it appears to stand still for three days. After that time it begins to move back toward the northern hemisphere, gaining strength with each passing day the "sun is born," or the "light comes into the world," or "the light of the world" is at hand. Christmas, during the early centuries, was the most variable of the Christian feast days, and was often confused with the Epiphany, and celebrated in the months of April and May. Pope Julius I, in the fourth century commanded a committee of bishops to establish the date of the nativity of Jesus. December 25 (the day of Sol Invictus, the invincible sun) was decided upon. Not coincidentally, that is the day when the "pagan world celebrated the birth of their Sun Gods-Egyptian Osiris, Greek Apollo and Bacchus, Chaldean Adonis, Persian Mithra-when the Zodiacal sign of Virgo (the sun is born of a virgin) rose on the horizon. Thus the ancient festival of the Winter Solstice, the pagan festival of the birth of the Sun, came to be adopted by the Christian Church as the nativity of Jesus, and was called Christmas" (Crosbie). The church found itself:By the end of the fourth century the whole Christian world was celebrating Christmas on that day, with the exception of the Eastern churches, where it was celebrated on January 6. The choice of December 25 was probably influenced by the fact that on this day the Romans celebrated the Mithraic feast of the Sun-god (natalis solis invicti), and that the Saturnalia also came at this time(Collier's Encyclopedia, CD-ROM).
Sol Invictus was also a hybrid of many sun god myths; most notably that of Mithras (Mitras, Mithra).
The striking parallels to Christianity in Mithraism have long been pointed out, for Mithras was said to have been: born of a virgin birth, had twelve followers or disciples, was killed and resurrected, performed miracles, and was known as mankind's savior who was called the light of the world and his virgin birth occurred on December 25. Indeed, the resemblances are so striking in that all of the Christian mysteries were known nearly five hundred years before the birth of Christ that later church fathers claimed that Satan had created all of this prior to Christ's birth so as to confuse the laity.
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Reverence for the reborn sun may be as old as religion itself, predating not only Christianity, but even recorded history. It stretches back at least as far as the Neolithic Era. Stonehenge, whose earliest artifacts date to Neolithic origins, is believed by many modern pagans to be a celestial observatory marking both the summer and winter solstices, although there is some archaeological evidence pointing to its being entirely dedicated to the Winter Solstice.
The latest archaeological findings add weight to growing evidence that our ancestors visited Stonehenge to celebrate the winter solstice.
Analysis of pigs's teeth found at Durrington Walls, a ceremonial site of wooden post circles near Stonehenge on the River Avon, has shown that most pigs were less than a year old when slaughtered.
Dr Umburto Albarella, an animal bone expert at the University of Sheffield's archaeology department, which is studying monuments around Stonehenge, said pigs in the Neolithic period were born in spring and were an early form of domestic pig that farrowed once a year. The existence of large numbers of bones from pigs slaughtered in December or January supports the view that our Neolithic ancestors took part in a winter solstice festival.
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Older still is the amazing structure at Newgrange in Ireland, with an internal passageway oriented toward the sun at Winter Solstice.
At Newgrange, in Brugh-na-Boyne, County Meath, in eastern Ireland. It is perhaps the most famous of the 250 passage tombs in Ireland. It covers an area of one acre, and has an internal passage that is almost 60 feet (19 m) long. The tomb has been dated at about 3,200 BCE; it is one of the oldest structures in the world -- and the roof still doesn't leak after 5,200 years! Above the entrance way is a stone "roof box" that allows the light from the sun to penetrate to the back of the cairn at sunrise on and near the winter solstice. The horizontal dimension of the box matches the width of the sun as viewed from the back of the passage. In the years since the tomb was constructed by Neolithic farmers, the Earth's tilt on its axis has changed from about 24 to about 23� degrees now. As a result, the sun rises about two solar diameters farther south today. The monument is surrounded by a circle of standing stones that were added later during the Bronze Age.
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When we observe this sacred pause in the sun's transit in this timeless holiday, we participate in a ritual that may be as old as humanity itself.
"Shall we liken Christmas to the web in a loom? There are many weavers, who work into the pattern the experience of their lives. When one generation goes, another comes to take up the weft where it has been dropped. The pattern changes as the mind changes, yet never begins quite anew. At first, we are not sure that we discern the pattern, but at last we see that, unknown to the weavers themselves, something has taken shape before our eyes, and that they have made something very beautiful, something which compels our understanding."
~ Earl W. Count, 4000 Years of Christmas