Celebrating winter solstice with the holidays

Posted: Friday, December 22, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Winter solstice may not get the same reverence as its summertime antithesis, but the occurrence, which happened in Fairbanks at 4:39 Thursday morning, is still a marker of rituals.

''Religions have often used that time as a time of putting together a festi-val; the end of darkness and the beginning of light,'' said Curt Karns, a pastor at New Hope Methodist-Presbyterian Church.

Winter solstice is the moment the sun appears at its southernmost point, farthest away from the Northern Hemisphere, and the day it happens is the last day sunlight is lost.

Christians had the change from darkness to light in mind when they chose Dec. 25 as the day Jesus Christ was born, Karns said. Christ's birthday had to be derived because researchers don't know the date.

''When you think of darkness as brokenness, then Jesus as light gives a visual impact to what it means for the Savior to come because Jesus is healing to the brokenness,'' Karns said.

The decision to choose a date after winter solstice was controversial up until about 100 years ago. That, Karns said, was in part because the Christmas holiday coincides with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a celebration of freedom and equality in which gifts were exchanged.

''They didn't want anyone to connect them (Christmas and Saturnalia), and they didn't want anyone to think they were giving into pagan rituals,'' he said.

The fact that the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, which is usually in December, sometimes falls near the time of winter solstice is a coincidence. The holiday has no direct connection to winter or solstice though legend associates it with light.

It marks an event on the Jewish calender when the Jews reclaimed their cultural center from the Greeks 2,000 years ago. At one temple, there was only enough oil to keep the symbolic Eternal Light burning for one day. By some miracle, it is said, the light burned eight days until more oil could be obtained.

Gunter Weller, a professor emeritus of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, believes people long ago celebrated the solstice simply because it is a cue of light to come.

''All of the primitive ancestors celebrated it because they knew the sun was going to return and it would get warmer again,'' Weller said.

However, what actually happens in the north is that it continues to get colder after solstice, he said, because the sun is still too low on the horizon and the earth is continuing to cool. ''The coldest time is usually in January.''

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