Hey Christians — You’re Late!: People were looking at stars long before Bethlehem

Christians are late-comers to the annual celebration of the winter solstice. For thousands of years various cultures from across the globe have celebrated this important astronomical event. The convenience of electricity that turns night into day, refrigerates our food and heats our homes, makes it hard to imagine what fears were generated as the sun appeared to go farther south. Freezing and starving were stark and harsh possibilities as the days grew shorter and the nights longer.

It is no wonder that from Persia to Peru (in the southern hemisphere the winter solstice is in June) celebrations took place marking the rebirth of the sun and the victory of light over dark. Eating, drinking and making merry kept the darkness and fear at bay. The Romans had Saturnalia, in honor of the Roman god Saturn, the Persians (current day Iran) celebrated the birth of the sun god Mithra, for Aztecs it was the birth of Huitzilopochtli that called for ceremony and celebration. The story of the death and rebirth of deities related to the sun was an old one by the time the star drew nigh over Bethlehem town.

Lest you think it was all fun and games, the great stone monuments, mounds and medicine wheels throughout the world that are related to this important moment, will correct that notion. The intense labor, the marvel of engineering and the communal effort required point to years, even decades, of sustained industry to complete them.

Perhaps the most famous is Stonehenge, that circle of stones on the Salisbury Plain, England, which is perfectly aligned with the setting sun at the winter solstice. Just as famous and as remarkable is the grand passage tomb, Newgrange located in County Meath, Ireland (see below).

In the Americas, Cahokia, the site of a pre-Columbian Native American city, consists of a series of 120 man-made earthen mounds. Here you find Cahokia’s Woodhenge, large timber circles constructed in alignment with sunrise at the winter solstice. The sun appears to rise from Fox Mound where a temple structure would have stood, indicating an important holy moment.

The ancients watched the movement of the sun in order to know when to plant, when to harvest and when to husband resources. As you celebrate this festive season realize that you are part of an ancient tradition. There is reason to celebrate for there is great joy. Winter is here, but it will not last, and soon the sun will shine high in the sky again. So, hoist a glass, hug a friend and forgive an enemy. And be thankful, the Earth still turns and the sun will rise in the morning.

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