Holiday Spirit: Winter Solstice

A dispatch from our resident interpreter of ancient mysteries

The 2016 movie Gods Of Egypt is another forgettable big-budget action fantasy, but it includes one sequence that is truly immortal. Academy Award-winning actor Geoffrey Rush plays the Egyptian sun god Ra, who orbits the Earth on a celestial barge. Each morning he must face the daunting task, after disappearing at nightfall the previous day, of proving to earthlings below that the sun also rises. In a fun and powerful depiction of the most ancient experience of the structure of reality, Ra brings the dawn of a new day by engaging in a violent struggle with the force of darkness. 

The mythology of an eternal battle between the fearsome night and the source of light and life is the centerpiece of most of the world’s great civilizations. In fact, the sun is considered the very origin of civilization itself,  king of the sky, savior of mankind, and redeemer of the world. “Think of man at the dawn of time,” writes Max Muller, a pioneering scholar in the field of Eastern spirituality. “Was not the sunrise to him the first wonder, the first beginning of all reflection, all thought, all philosophy?” In Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda was the solar god engaged in perennial battle with Ahriman, the bringer of evil and destruction, while in the Roman Empire, the cult of the solar god Mithras nearly became the official religion before a different son of the sun rose in the east. 

So at this most wonderful time of the year, let us bundle up and take a stroll through the themes that converge at the time of the winter solstice and year’s end when traditions and legends dramatize metaphysical realities of life and truth, rebirth, and the divine child that lives in all of us. 

Typically occurring on the 22nd of December, the winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year. According to the mythology of prehistory as recounted in the ancient empires of Greece, Persia, and India, at the top of the world — the place where Santa Claus lives — there was once a “white island” called Hyperborea, for “land beyond the north wind.” The sun was more vital to its inhabitants than for any other people on the earth, and each year when the sun reached its lowest point, it would seem to lie down and “die” in a terrestrial tomb. There it would stay for three days, until on the 25th of December it would be seen to rise just a sliver higher in the sky, beginning its long climb to its apex six months later at the summer solstice. The solar deity had been reborn, resurrected as the sol invictus or unconquered sun, thereby setting by example and analogy the meaning of spiritual rebirth for mankind. It’s easy to see how this primordial experience of nature’s annual cycle combines elements of the two Christian holy days of Christmas and Easter.

Powerful symbols surround us everywhere at this time of year, which is why it’s considered the time of holiday magic. The traditional Christmas star that rests atop trees is a five-pointed pentacle, one of the most powerful and misunderstood ancient symbols. When turned upside-down, as disseminated via horror films and heavy metal bands, it is called a pentagram and is associated with demonic forces of inversion. When right-side-up and placed atop a fir tree beside the perennial fire of the family hearth, it is considered in the Western Esoteric tradition to represent the quintessence or fifth element, the spiritual power or law of attraction that binds together the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. The pentacle symbolizes the dynamic animating energy of nature, meaning everything contained in heaven and earth. It is also considered a symbol of humankind, its five points representing the head and four limbs, depicting man as a microcosm of creation. 

This tree-topping star is a reference to the one followed by the three wise men, kings, or Magi, from which we get the word magic. These regal astrologers were guardians of the most ancient tradition, the one tracing its lineage to the original transmission of divine reality (“tradition” comes from the Latin verb meaning to transmit). The Magi were the supreme leaders of their people, combining in one figure the regal and solar principle with the lunar and priestly one. This is underscored by the gifts they brought to the babe born in Bethlehem, whose birth they saw foretold in that magic star in the night sky. To the Christ child they brought gold, a symbol of the regal function — for he would one day be called the “king of kings” — and frankincense for his priestly function as a spiritual leader. Myrhh, the third gift, was an ancient balm of immortality. 

The 25th of December reminds us that every child born is a miracle. Stories of a chosen child who goes on to change the world are seen across the world in figures such as the babies Moses, Krishna, Orpheus, Zoroaster, and even a plump newborn Buddha. The divine child archetype lives inside each one of us, reminding us what we really are and where we really come from. 

It is especially vital to reconnect with this energy during the growing pains of middle age, as our own solar cycle passes its apex and begins its descent. Tapping our inner child brings a newfound sense of wonder, say mythologists Robert Moore & Douglas Gillette, as “something new and creative, fresh and innocent,” awakens within us. In Jungian psychology, they write, “this Divine Child within us is the source of life. It possesses magical, empowering qualities, and getting in touch with it produces an enormous sense of well-being, enthusiasm for life, and great peace and joy.” 

Ultimately the themes that adorn this time of year like ornaments upon a tree are not of human invention, which is why they hover perennially above us providing eternal inspiration. The 1970 stop-motion Christmas TV special “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” (available in its entirety on YouTube), portrays precisely the sort of resurrection associated with this time of year, when the sun, even at its lowest point, can provide enough warmth to melt even the coldest heart. 

In the story, Kris Kringle gives a present to a mean winter warlock. This simple act of giving breaks loose the Divine Child buried beneath the frosty exterior of the bitter old man, and a joyful musical number ensues. Here, astonished at having seen the light, just like the magi who saw that sacred star shining in the sky, the winter warlock sings:

If I want to change the reflection

I see in the mirror each morn

You mean that it’s just my election

To vote for a chance to be reborn?

Happy holidays, and peace to you and yours. 

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