Christmas and the Solstice

There were more than 20 people around the table. It was a “Birthdays of the Month” kind of lunch and when somebody asked who was actually celebrating their birthdays, the answer came through a show of hands (there were two women); and then I said: “let’s not forget Jesus!”

We celebrate Jesus’ birthday in December, right? It is called Christmas! But was he really born on December 25th? Definitely no! So what are we celebrating, after all?

The astronomer in me is screaming: “we are celebrating the solstice!” (And some of you might be whispering: “C’mon! This guy will turn anything into Astronomy…”)

Fact: we really do not know when Jesus was born. Day, month AND year!

Fact: due to Earth’s orbit around the Sun, and the tilt of its axis, seasons happen, and the amount of sunlight a certain place will have during the year changes, sometimes radically depending on latitude. There are two extreme dates and they are called solstices.

(The word solstice derives from Latin: sol, sun, -stitium, stoppage. It literally means “when the sun stops”, denoting it has reached its maximum distance from the Celestial Equator, either to the North or the South.)

In december, the sun reaches its maximum southern distance to the Celestial Equator. For us in the South, it is the Summer Solstice. Winter Solstice in the North. This means that, in the North, it will be the year’s longest night. It sounds ominous, but it also means that the next night will be a little shorter, and the night after that, and so on…

Or, like some ancient civilizations would put it, “the proof that the Sun is invincible, and that it will turn around and win the fight against darkness”. And that is a fair reason to celebrate! Let us rejoice and pay homage to the Invincible Sun! Let’s gather and feast and exchange gifts.

Centuries have passed and the Christian Church comes along. Instead of banning this habit, they incorporated it. They just added the story of Jesus and slowly the Solstice celebration became Christmas.

Merry Christmas and Happy Solstice! I’ll be taking some time off myself, and will be back in February! ■