It’s Winter Solstice – er, holiday – time again.
The Winter Solstice has traditionally been celebrated by homo sapiens in the northern hemisphere for at least 5,000 years as marking the point where the days start getting longer. Maes Howe in Orkney (north of Scotland) is a very large chambered cairn. The 45 foot long entrance way is constructed so that the setting sun shines directly through the passageway onto the back wall of the cairn on the shortest day of the year, setting directly over a large standing stone placed a half-mile or so from the entrance. And of course a similar setup at Stonehenge is even more well-known. There are even several hundred such sites in New England (“Mystery Hill” for example).
Pre-historic/neolithic peoples were of necessity acute astronomers – their existence depended on crops and seasons. The Mayan long calender was more accurate than our current calender with its leap years every four years and "super leap years" at the turn of the century once every 400 years. Other calendars (in India and Mesopotamia – Omar Khayyam was a much better mathematician and astronomer than he was a poet) were also more accurate than our current one.
The early Puritans in New England outlawed the celebration of Christmas between 1659 and 1681 due to its pagan roots, as well as the fact that the "lower classes" used it as an excuse for "rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mockery of established authority, aggressive begging (often involving the thread of doing harm), and even the invasion of wealthy homes." (Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas). There was a fine of five shillings for “keeping” Christmas. Christmas as we know it, with a focus on children and gift-giving, was not celebrated until the mid-1800's.
It is well-established that some time in the fourth century the early Christians moved the date of Jesus’ birth to December so it would coincide with the Roman Saturnalia and thus avoid persecution. Other religious year-end myths are manifestly modeled on the celebration of the Winter Solstice. So during this winter holiday season, I wish you all a Happy Winter Solstice. Spring is coming.