Joy to the world, because today is the winter solstice, ending the slow decline of the sun in its march to the south. Each day has become shorter since the peak in June, and this metaphorical death, followed by a rebirth, mirrors the cycle of life and death that is part of the miracle and mystery of our existence.
Human life, indeed all life, in the northern hemisphere is tied to this rhythm, though modern life has sheltered us a bit from many of its natural consequences. Is it any wonder, then, that Christianity, as it spread north to where the influence of the solstice is more strongly felt, subsumed the solstice festivals into its mythology? After all, the mystery and miracle of death and rebirth revealed by the sun’s yearly journey is the same as that at the heart of the story of Christ.
The story of Christ connects millions all over the world, and during the Christmas season we sing about peace on earth and goodwill to men, because both the narrative and the seasonal rhythm give us hope and spark our faith. You needn’t be a Christian to feel the power of his story because the idea of rebirth at the heart of the season gives us a primal sense of optimism and connectedness, as well as a link to something greater than we are.
Though the materialistic side of gift-giving can sometimes overwhelm our good sense, the spirit behind it still appeals to a deeper part of our natures. We give because, as the Magi sought Christ and brought him gifts, giving communicates a hope for the future embedded in the miracle at the heart of the season. We give because, as Good King Wenceslas braved the harsh winter to give alms to a peasant, giving to others nourishes our souls as we consider their needs above ours. We give because it feels good to give, and because it feels good to be given to. We bask in the warmth of human connections, delighting in the knowledge of loving and being loved, even if it is just a little bit and in the most mechanical and fleeting manner. At its heart, both giving and receiving at Christmas remind us that we belong to something larger than ourselves.
In 1876, a young girl asked her father if there really was a Santa Claus. He suggested she send her question to the newspaper, because if she read it there, she would know it was true. “Yes, Virginia,” they replied to her letter, “there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy."
This wisdom is partly a reflection of the natural process created by the slight tilting of the earth's axis, which brings about the winter solstice, which, in turn, inspires human beings to have faith–whether it be in Santa Claus, or Stonehenge, or the birth of Jesus–and faith is what gives us reason to celebrate at this time of the year.
So make it a point to be of good cheer today. 'Tis the season to be jolly, because we have again survived the death of the sun, and along with it, we are reborn. It is an everyday sort of miracle that inspires us to feel a part of the mystery of life. It also reminds us we are not alone on this planet, but share its trials, tribulations, and joys with others, deriving strength and sustenance thereby. Joy to the world, because Santa Claus is coming to town.
Oh, and by the way, it won't hurt anything at all to celebrate again on December 25th.