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Solstice Celebrations

Modern and Ancient Festivals of Light


If future archaeologists were to replay news audiotapes from the turn-of-the-21st century holidays, they would hear weekly updates on the success or failure of area merchants and editorials on how their sales figures reveal the true state of the economy. If they also had access to computer records, they might assume the legal definition of Christmas in the U.S. includes a fiscal obligation for each family to incur self-destructive debt.

Is there a connection between dwindling light and conspicuous consumption? Between the end of the year and irresponsible behavior? Certainly there is a connection between the solstice and the presence of millions of twinkling little bulbs illuminating a sky that has been dark for too long. And there is a biological connection between cold and overindulgence in food, but even if less logical, the connection between festivities and year's end seems just as central to our behavior.

There are many winter celebrations that antedate our placement of Christmas on December 25, three of which are described on the following pages:

  1. Saturnalia
  2. Hanukkah
  3. Mithras

Holiday Extravagance

The festival of the Kalends is celebrated everywhere as far as the limits of the Roman Empire extend... The impulse to spend seizes everyone.... People are not only generous towards themselves, but also towards their fellow-men. A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides.... The Kalends festival banishes all that is connected with toil, and allows men to give themselves up to undisturbed enjoyment. From the minds of young people it removes two kinds of dread: the dread of the schoolmaster and the dread of the stern pedagogue.... Another great quality of the festival is that it teaches men not to hold too fast to their money, but to part with it and let it pass into other hands.
Libanius, quoted in The Xmas Story Part 3

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