People in cultures much, much older than ours here in the U.S. have turned to this time of year with hope and awe. Tucked in beside the commercial giant of Christmas we also find Diwali (Hindu festival of Lights), Yule (Celtic/Pagan and others’ celebration of the Winter Solstice), Hanukkah (Jewish celebration of Lights in the miracle of the Oil), the Persian Yalda festival which commemorates the birth of Mithra, an angel of light, and the Dōngzhì festival – celebrated in China – that marks the time in the Northern hemisphere as Winter’s darkness cedes to the coming light of Spring. While I am certain that similar traditions exist in the Southern hemisphere that follow the seasons, being an inhabitant of the North, the scope of this piece focuses on those of us who live in the climate where December claims the longest night.
From a survival perspective, it is easy to see why light was so revered. In our modern context, few of us having the privilege of reading this (or any) blog have had to worry if we would have enough food to last throughout the long Winter. Even if we’ve had lean times, there was always an ample supply available at the local store, and with the shift toward a 24/7 society, the supply is ever-available. If we can get there, food is available.
Ancient peoples did not have a big box store on every corner, or a grocery store in the middle of town where a truck delivered goods every week. Whatever they gathered or harvested from the crops they grew and were able to hunt was the sum-total of their stores until that time the following year when the harsh Winter gave way to the warmer days of Spring. Death by starvation was a very real fear.
As human societies evolved into more modern communities, the traditions continued; the impulse to celebrate the return to Light remained even while the physical and practical reasons for the great relief diminished. As this shift away from surviving to being able to think about thriving took place, the world saw a shift away from the deeply-superstitious perspective that had been core to their lives, and into a more self-directed reality. Wayne Dyer referred to this shift in many of his writings and teachings; it is known as the Axial Age and it is identified as the period from 800 to 200 BCE.
These foundations were laid by individual thinkers – known as Axial Sages, who developed and shared a radical philosophy (for that time) whereby people were encouraged to seek reality inside themselves instead of looking outward – looking to controlling gods and heavenly forces (Stenger, V.). We benefit today from this transformation away from old superstitions of helplessness to the modern traditions of empowerment, and yet we still seek the Light in practice and celebrations that mirror those of the ancients.
And yet despite our modern technological and spiritual advancement, the Christian tradition of Christmas continues to lean heavily on the interpretation that the world needs someone powerful – an external someone – to save it. This is Old World thinking, aligned with the superstitions that pre-date the Enlightenment and the earlier Axial Age. The story of a new mother and her baby; angels and shepherds; stars and kings; all of this appeals to us on a human level, although it is indeed a much bigger story – a story that encourages our continued spiritual enlightenment.
From a modern, intellectual context it’s easy to become frustrated with what can seem to be simplistic thinking, but fighting against anything showers attention on the opposite of what we wish to transform and is a doomed approach. Instead, let’s embrace the symbols so ubiquitous this time of year and know that their messages for us are strong, meaningful and filled with promise: lights of all color and format, Angels, shepherds and kings, stars in the heavens, and of course, the new baby.
Connect with the happy spirit of this time of year. Embrace the feelings of goodwill and outreach to others. Participate in the joy that is the Christmas season, and know that we all walk our own spiritual path. Walk yours, focus on the light YOU seek, and enjoy the sights and sounds of the season for it truly can be the most wonderful time of the year!
(( coming up next: the role of the Christmas Angels ))