As a seminary student, I was vaguely aware of these roots: I knew that in ancient times the solstice was celebrated as the "birth day" of various pagan sun gods and that the celebrations were often riotous affairs, full of orgiastic drinking and sexual license. I knew that Christians in the Roman Empire specifically chose December 25 to celebrate Christ's birth in order to compete with the Roman celebration of the solstice, known as the birthday of Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun. (The cult of Mithra—a Persian god of light, truth, and goodness—was also popular back then; in Mithraic cults, the solstice was the day that Mithra was born. In images from pre-Christian times, the Queen of Heaven holding an infant sun god can easily be mistaken for Mary holding an infant Jesus.) I also knew that the rituals of sun worship were gradually reconfigured and renamed as Christian, the solstice celebration becoming Christ's Mass, or Christmas, and the Roman weeklong Saturnalia festivals, which involved feasting, dancing, and the giving of gifts, eventually becoming the Twelve Days of Christmas. But I was stumped by the few days' gap between Christmas and the solstice; as drunk as the ancient pagans got, they managed to hold soberly to the celestial calendar, reliably celebrating the solstice on December 20 or 21, so why didn't the Roman Christians follow suit?
It turns out that by the Julian calendar, which Julius Caesar introduced in 45 B.C., the shortest day of the year was December 25, the turning point when the light began to increase. Centuries later, after the Gregorian calendar came along to reflect a 16th-century understanding of astronomy, December 25 would be permanently separated from the solstice. But though the connection is now hidden, it endures: Christmas is deeply linked to the human desire to mark the return of light.
And it's not just Christmas. The indigenous people of Mexico and Japan, China and Ireland celebrated the day of the winter solstice, too, because light equals life. For the same reason, many scholars believe ancient Brits were driven to haul enormous stones over great distances to designated sites, and arrange them in configurations to align with the solstice sunset. How, exactly, their culture described that wondrous, vital ball of fire in the sky is open to debate. Was theirs a sun god with a Hugh Grant accent? We don't know. For me, it's enough to think that the builders of Stonehenge expended incredible energy and effort to mark and celebrate the winter day on which the light returns.
Recently, in my capacity as chaplain to the Maine Warden Service, I responded to a search for a 10-year-old who was lost overnight in the wooded and mountainous terrain in the western part of the state. This blonde, bespectacled child—I'll call her Susan—had eaten breakfast surrounded by cousins at the kitchen table in her grandmother's house. It was to be a late-summer weekend full of relatives and activities, and the grandmother was preoccupied with the details of hospitality; she nodded absently when Susan announced plans for a morning's adventure ("like Dora the Explorer!"). After the adults noticed the little girl was missing, search parties were sent into the woods, but Susan did not turn up. The approach of night at last persuaded the adults to call 911.
In darkness, the Maine Warden Service arrived at the scene to begin the complex process of organizing an efficient search and rescue operation. Small teams of wardens with and without K-9s went out on quick, urgent sorties to places whose proximity to the "point last seen," or whose hazards (an old well, a piece of trail that snaked along a rocky cliff) made them "high priority." But the enveloping darkness inhibited a broader, more thorough search, even as it intensified the parents' fear almost beyond enduring.