We seldom stop to think nowadays about the positions of festivals in the calendar. Are they arbitrary, or does a deeper wisdom play in to the many decisions made in the past on dates for festivals, whether Christian or other?
One reflection is on the date of the festivals around the Winter Solstice, Christmas and the New Year. The date for Christmas has undergone changes since the time of Jesus’ birth. In its current position (for most countries) on December 25th, it lies several days after the Winter Solstice, the time when people of all cultures and religions over millennia have celebrated the ‘rebirth’ of the sun. In a way, it is an obvious and significant place for it to stand. But it also stands in relation to the date when New Year was often celebrated earlier, at the Spring Equinox time, Easter time, or at the Annunciation on 25th March, 9 months ahead of Christmas. Purely from the experience of the seasons it has significance: spring is the time when new life begins, and we celebrate as it were a second birth or the beginning of a new cycle at Christmas, thus bringing together the earth’s seasonal cycle with the mother’s nine month cycle fro inception until birth.
Christmas in the Christian calendar is preceded by the period of Advent. This is a period of preparation, each of the four Sundays taking on a particular significance. In traditions there is the advent wreath with four candles for the four Sundays, and children love the ceremony that can be built around lighting the candles, a new one for each new Sunday. It provides an inspiring visual image for the build-up towards Christmas. In some traditions each Advent Sunday celebrated a new element or kingdom: from mineral, to plant, animal and finally human.
In some areas of the world, Christmas is still celebrated on another day, one which used to be more important in the early centuries of the western orthodox church: the 6th of January, or Epiphany.
Why? Though we know it more popularly as Three Kings Day, and there are many interpretations on deeper meanings behind the three kings, it is also the day of the baptism of Jesus, which was and still is by some celebrated as the birth of Christ, i.e. when the Christ descended into Jesus, in the picture of the dove descending from above at the baptism. It is thus a very spiritual and esoteric event and symbol; yet as the centuries and millennium became more and more materialistically inclined, it was too difficult of a concept for many to grasp and relate to. Except for the Eastern Orthodox church, a decision to shift the celebrated date to Christmas allowed a more experiential relationship to a new child born, coming shortly after the solstice: an outwardly visible event of the sun regaining its force. Following just after Adam and Eve Day on December 24th, the emphasis is on the innocent and pure child, before the fall as it were, before the temptation of the purely material pleasures of the physical world. Lived into, it could become a symbol for the birth of an inner child that can show us the way to our higher self…
Thus there was created a period from the innocent Jesus child’s birth to the Christ birth: the twelve days of Christmas and the twelve Holy Nights. This period is a journey, portrayed for instance in the very old Scandinavian ‘Dream Song of Olaf Asteson’, where Olaf awakens on the 13th day after a long spiritual experience – awakens to proclaim the birth of Christ on Epiphany, the 6th January. Such ‘journeys’ can be worked on in our own inner imagination and meditations: the picture of the innocent infant child, as a small radiating flame needing nurturing, bringing hope; through a period of growth to realise a conscious birth or rebirth of spirit, where the flame can radiate and shine to all around, in our thoughts, words and deeds.
Standing approximately in the middle of these 12 days is New Year’s Eve. As with the Roman god, Janus, we look back and we look forward: a time of decision where we summon the will to move forward to a conscious spiritual rebirth. Another aspect: New Year’s day was ‘an octave’ or exactly one week away from Christmas day – as we’re all familiar with (if Christmas is on a Tuesday, we know that New Year’s day will also be).
The principle of ‘Octaves‘ began fairly early in Christian calendars as something that surrounded festival days, used more earlier, now less. This also wasn’t something arbitrary – the principle of the Octave has rhythms, again, as a basis: the rhythm of the week takes you through seven days of different experiences, each day of the week perceived in relation to another quality, governed by the planets. On the eighth day you don’t simply return home: through the experience, like the seven colours of the rainbow, you have magnified the original and arrive at a higher level. One can muse on the number relationships in music and a similar octave principle there. Truly, as Pythagoras expounded and demonstrated, number principles permeate the whole universe!
Naturally there are still many other ‘New Year’ dates around the world. Some, mainly in the East, are based on a lunar calendar: The Chinese New Year begins on the first new moon between 21 January and 20 February – the period one full month after the winter equinox. The name given to the year follows the cycle of the 12 Chinese zodiac. The Chinese New Year 2020 will be on January 25th. The year 2020 is the Year of the Rat, the first of the 12 constellations.
Whatever the older tradition, we need to resist the modern materialist temptation to think of them as set arbitrarily, or formed ‘merely’ according to religious beliefs or superstitions. Many are based on seasonal, planetary and zodiacal rhythms, weaving together in many wonderful ways. Relating in real ways to the earthly and cosmic rhythms surrounding us used to be very important and is something we have largely lost. But it can become more significant again for us if we renew this in a conscious way. Nurturing these and other rhythms brings an inner strength and resilience…
We wish everyone a wonderful Advent, Winter Solstice, Christmas and New Year, full of inspiration and initiatives. May it bring renewed and strengthened inner spiritual commitment!