Santa always came a few days early for my parents and me. He requested thumbprint cookies (my dad’s favorite) and rice milk (because my dad can’t drink cow’s milk) and wrote me a touching note in perfect adult handwriting (that was very similar to my mom’s). Because Santa respected and honored the fact that my family celebrated the Winter Solstice, he always made an exception in his schedule.
My parents are Buddhists. Therefore, I was raised in a household where most popular American traditions were replaced with others more reflective of my family’s true beliefs — respect for all life and reverence for the natural world.
My family’s celebration probably wasn’t all that different from how the majority of Americans celebrate Christmas, though. On Solstice mornings, we would eat a quick breakfast of my mom’s fresh-baked scones, dive into our stockings and open our presents from under the tree, which was always decorated with golden spheres, lights and multiple species of bird ornaments. We’d enjoy a homemade brunch, then go outdoors for the afternoon, usually for a snowshoe or cross-country skiing adventure in the remaining hours of sunlight. For supper, my mom would prepare an elaborate meal as a feast to celebrate the day.
In my very traditional public school in Maine, the fact that I didn’t celebrate Christmas — and wasn’t even Jewish — stood out. When my fifth-grade teacher asked our class to use the word “heathen” in a sentence, a peer answered: “Hazel is a heathen.” By the time I reached middle school, there were some teachers and students who attempted to be inclusive of holidays beyond Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Christmas, but the Buddhist holiday they decorated for was one I had never heard of.
My family rarely got a day off from school or work due to the Winter Solstice and often had to celebrate it on a different day. But what was more important, however, was that our holidays — both the date and the traditions within—reflected our history and the aspects of life that unify us all.
The Winter Solstice usually falls on or around December 21st in the Northern Hemisphere (in the Southern Hemisphere, this is the Summer Solstice). The Winter Solstice is unique because it is the shortest, and consequently darkest, day of the year — and the official first day of winter. From the Winter Solstice until the Summer Solstice, we see the sun shine a little more each day. This day has been celebrated by a diversity of cultures all over the world as a way of honoring the return of the sun.
Most celebrations have involved multi-day festivals of feasts and symbolism of returning light. The Hopi people of the southwestern USA, for example, have a ceremony called Soyal, which in part symbolizes encouraging the sun to turn around to make the days longer again.
In pre-Islam ancient Persia, the Winter Solstice celebration involved eating the fruits of summer, such as watermelons and pomegranates, to ensure health through the coldest months. This holiday is called Yalda or Shab-e-Chelleh and is still celebrated by many Iranians.
In China, Dong Zhi is the name of the multi-day festival celebrating the return of the sun, which involves feasts and making symbolic art. For more than four hundred years (221 BCE to 206 CE), this time was considered the start of the New Year in China.
Egypt and Rome have also historically held similar multi-day festivals celebrating the Winter Solstice. St Lucia’s Day, celebrated in Scandinavian countries, while named after a Christian martyr, still incorporates ancient Norse Winter Solstice traditions during the especially dark time of year there.
In Peru, where their Winter Solstice occurs in June due to their location in the Southern Hemisphere, they have a festival called Inti Raymi. While this particular celebration was banned by Catholic conquistadors as being “too pagan” in the 1500s, along with many other Incan traditions they banned including wearing traditional clothing, Peru reinvented the annual festival to honor that history in the mid-1900’s, centered around a Catholic cathedral.
Where I grew up, we had less than nine hours of daylight on the Winter Solstice; my family, like all the cultures described above, always felt ready for longer days at this point in the calendar. The return of the sun certainly seems worthy of honoring and celebration to me. Given how widespread and long-lived Solstice traditions have been throughout human history, it actually surprises me that Christmas stuck. No one really knows Jesus’ real birthday, but December 25th was in fact chosen because so-called pagans all over the world were already having festivals and feasts around that time, so convincing them of the values of Christianity by illustrating that they have celebrations at that time, too, was much more effective.
And the tree? This tradition is yet another conveniently-adopted Solstice tradition. Especially in Scandinavian countries that were pre-Christianity, evergreens symbolized health and life through the winter and reminded them that spring would come. Evergreen boughs and trees were brought indoors during this dark time of the year to decorate and symbolize the inevitable return of the sun. Christian Germans were the first to adopt this non-Christian tradition for Christmas; yet, the habit took a while to catch on even in the USA, where people still considered the idea of a Christmas tree really quite pagan up until the mid-1800’s.
Beyond being called a heathen for doing things a little differently as a child, a moment I look back on with amusement now, I have continued to be boldly wished a “Merry Christmas” my whole life, both by people who did and did not know about my chosen holidays and beliefs. I also experience a regular barrage of reminders for “the reason for the season” and refusals to say the more generic “Happy Holidays” greeting. While these greetings are often stated with the best of intentions, I think a little more awareness of where traditions and holidays actually come from would go a long way towards inclusivity and respect.
What I think we can all agree on is that it never feels good to be stigmatized for being different and that the change of seasons is an inevitable unifier. Why else do we engage in small talk about the weather with strangers? The topic immediately acknowledges our common ground. I would hope that especially during the time of year when so many of us are enchanted by the magic of family tradition and colder weather that we could sincerely greet each other with best wishes for those things that bring us closer together, not farther apart. In a time when conflict between people who think and see the world differently is at a bit of a peak, reminding ourselves of the intentions and history behind our language and actions can go a long way.
After all, what is the reason for the season? Well, the sun. I hope we can all agree on that.