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Slayton: 'Tis The Season'

And now Christmas bustles in with its great load of festivity and excess. It’s an interesting holiday, celebrating the birth of Jesus in the dead of winter, even though most researchers have concluded that Jesus was probably born in late spring. And probably not in Bethlehem.

It was Pope Liberius who, in the year 354, saw how much fun the Romans were having with their solstice festival, Saturnalia, and decreed that Jesus had been born on Dec. 25, thus co-opting the Roman celebration.

But the actual origins of the holiday go back far beyond the birth of Jesus. In fact, throughout history, this time of year – near the winter solstice – has driven humankind to wonder and celebrate.

The Jewish festival of Hannukah is familiar to us. Perhaps less familiar are celebrations such as Soyal, the Hopi Indian winter solstice celebration when Hopis welcome the Earth-spirits they call Kachinas, purify themselves, craft prayer sticks and dance.

Or Dong Zhi, China’s winter festival, when families gather to celebrate the past year and hope for a good year ahead. Traditional Chinese make balls of glutinous rice, which symbolize the gathering of the family.

Zen Buddhists celebrate Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment at about this time with all-night meditation vigils.

St. Lucia’s Day in the Scandinavian countries now honors a Christian martyr with candles and carols, but began with earlier Norse traditions, lighting fires to ward off spirits during the longest nights of the year.

Fires and candles, obvious symbols of both spiritual and physical light, are used around the world to celebrate the season.

What all these festivals say, in one way or another, is that we want the days to get longer, for Spring to return. Somewhere back in the wrinkled recesses of our alligator brain, we do not like to see it getting dark. We want the sun to come back. We need Persephone to return from Hades.

Since time immemorial, drinking, eating, exchanging gifts, and in general, overindulging, are one way we have expressed and perhaps expunged our deep-seated nervousness about the darkness of winter. We’ve got enough to make it through this, we have told ourselves over and over, each year. We’ve got more than enough! We can eat and drink heartily! We can share!

And just this past week, a merry band of our friends nearly filled our good-sized family room to sing Christmas carols to us. What a delight! Proof once more that the light really does shine in the darkness – and the darkness can never put it out.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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