Before There Was Christmas

A Sermon by the Rev. Aaron McEmrys

Delivered to the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, December 20, 2009

In Ireland, outside the small country town of Newgrange, there is an ancient mound of earth and stone.  It is enormous, covering over an acre of lush green fields.  On one side, a sweeping wall of glittering white quartz twenty-feet high gleams in the sun like a beacon.

In the very center of that crystalline wall is a dark gateway, the entrance to the mound, a portal into the dark.  Down, down, down we walk, out of the pre-dawn darkness into the eternal darkness of the Cave. The air is cool and the darkness feels substantial, weighty.  Our feet find their way on old stone worn by millennia of older feet than ours.  Inside the mound there is no more green Irish grass or warm brown dirt.  Everything here is made of stone slabs that have not felt the warmth of the sun for a very long time.

Finally the passage widens into a chamber, and here we wait.  We wait in the darkness as the chill settles into our very bones.  There is no sound except for the muffled shuffling of feet and the sounds of our rib cages moving in and out.  Even the smallest children are hushed, not by their parents, but by a nameless quality in the air that defies all words.

We wait.  We wait.  We wait.  And then, moving steadily, grandly, imperiously, softly, beautifully – it comes!  The Sun’s golden rays flow like warm honey down the length of the passageway into the heart of the central chamber.  We squint as our eyes adjust to such light in the heart of such darkness, and for a moment we are dazzled, unable to see or think or understand anything beyond the sudden warmth.

And then we see it.  We see the back wall of the chamber for the first time.  The Sun shines upon it like a spotlight and we see the glorious tangle of intricately carved spirals and solar discs, running floor to ceiling like a tapestry made of stone.

We stare in wonder and awe as the minutes go by, and then too soon, too quickly, in less time than it will take to deliver this sermon – the sunlight withdraws back up the passageway, leading us step by step out of the mound and into the dawning light of the Winter Solstice.

The mound at Newgrange has been known for thousands of years now as the Cave of the Sun.  It was built around 3200BCE, nobody knows by whom.  The Sun shines there in the womb of the earth, for about 17 minutes on the Winter Solstice, and for the rest of the year the stones rest in cold and silence.[1]

We do not know who built that great mound, but this morning we will talk about why those anonymous builders spent decades building a place where sunlight falls only once a year.

People all over the world have been celebrating the Winter Solstice for thousands upon thousands of years, and the addition of Christmas to these festivals is a very late addition.  “The earliest date to which any celebration of Christmas can be traced is 336CE, in Rome”, and the celebration of Christmas didn’t become common until the middle of the 19th century.[2]

Some argue that Christmas was strapped onto December 25th only after hundreds of year’s of unsuccessful attempts to get common folk to let go of their pagan past.  In his book, “The Gallic Wars”, for example, the Emperor Julius Caesar describes the tortures and mass executions he inflicted as part of his campaign to kill every Druid he could find.  The Druids were the carriers of an ancient oral culture, and he believed that once he killed them, tore down their standing stones and burned their sacred groves, that everything would be fine, the people pliable and ready for “civilization.”  And of course the Christians, who came along later, killed, burned and destroyed whatever Caesar didn’t have time to get to.  So perhaps there is an element of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” here – but I don’t think that’s the whole story.

I believe that late December, right on top of the ancient Midwinter festivals, is the perfect time to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  But we’ll come back to that later.  In the meantime let’s consider the core themes of these ancient celebrations and the people who celebrated them in story, song and stone.

Let’s begin with the theme of Feasting and Fallow.  In the British Isles, like most of Europe, people lived agrarian lives that changed very little from generation to generation.  It was a world of small farms and hard work, and they lived their lives as farmers have always done (until very recently, anyway), closely aligned with the cycles of nature.

Life was at its fullest and most triumphant at midsummer, when the days were long, the Sun was warm and the crops grew tall in the swaying fields.  As the days grew shorter and the ground grew harder, those ancient farmers threw themselves into the harvest with desperate energy, trying to beat the killing frosts that were already on their way.  Winter was coming and there would not be enough fodder for all the animals, and so this was a time of slaughter too, keeping just enough animals alive to give birth again in the spring.

Finally the harvest was done and winter pressed close, dusting the grass white every morning.  And suddenly, almost like the flip of a switch – everything changed.  Shorter days meant there was less daylight for outside work.  Cold weather meant it was better to stay inside by the fire, and the whole household took heed – people, sheep, goats, everybody.  The huts were round with thatch or turf roofs built around a hearth where the fire would burn all winter long.  The animals shared the warmth of their bodies to warm the hut no matter what kinds of storms railed outside.  And lest our imaginations form too romantic a picture – just stop and imagine what that hut would smell like by February!

The beer from the last harvest was ready right about then, and had to be drunk before it went bad – and this was also the only time of year where there was plenty of fresh meat.  Anything they couldn’t eat very, very quickly would either go bad (which was unacceptable) or would have to be heavily smoked or salted (which was unappetizing). [3] And so the ancient farmers did what humans always do when the work is done, the nights are dark and the beer is ready – they feasted! 

The Midwinter god was a hard god.  The Midsummer god had left, and now the people had to ensure his return by tending the light in his absence.  They kept their hearth fires burning every hour of every day, not only to keep warm, but in symbolic remembrance of the Sun, who would someday come again and make the world green once more.  Every hearth, every heart became a cradle for the hidden Sun.

The Midwinter god was not their enemy though.  Those farmers knew that life lives on the bones and ashes of death, and that every field must freeze and lie fallow if it is to feed the generations.  These days of dark and cold were hard on the old and the weak, and some of them would surely die – and they would die, human and animal alike, in the smoky warmth of the family hearth.  The Solstices were known as the Gateways of Life and Death.  New souls came into the world on the Summer Solstice and older souls left through the gates of the Winter Solstice to return to their cosmic homeland.

How appropriate to celebrate the birth of Jesus here.  In the darkest, coldest night of them all, in the least expected place and at the most unlikely time, a tiny, precious flame sparks into life, a hidden sun, and a herald of hope, renewal and possibility.

Another key element of the Winter Solstice is Reversal, or Misrule.  The Winter Solstice is a time where everything gets turned on its head and all the usual rules cease to apply.  Poor farmers are suddenly rich with beer, fresh meat and leisure time.  It is a time when the Sun is hidden away and tended by simple farmers who are suddenly hosts and caretakers for the light of life itself.  It is a time when the walls between the worlds grow thin and the spirits of the dead walk side by side with the living.  It’s a time of excess, feasting, drunkenness and beginnings of babies who will come at summer’s end.  As Nathaniel Ames quipped in the December edition of his Almanac in 1749:

“This cold, uncomfortable Weather,

makes Jack and Jill lie close together.”[4]

Medieval records are full of first hand accounts of the kinds of things that happened every Solstice when the tables turned. One letter, written in 1445, describes a Feast of Fools, when, under the leadership of the “Boy Bishop”:

“Priests and clerics may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of the office.  They dance in the choir dressed as women, panders or minstrels.  They sing wanton songs.  They eat black puddings at the horn of the altar while the celebrant is saying Mass.  They play at dice there.  They cense with stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes.  They run and leap through the church, without a blush at their own shame.  Finally they drive about the town in shabby traps and carts, and rouse the laughter of their fellows and bystanders in infamous performances, with indecent gestures and verse scurrilous and unchaste.”[5]

In another letter, written by Caesarius of Arles in the 6th century CE we are told that:

On those days the heathen…put on counterfeit forms and monstrous faces.  Some are clothed in the hide of cattle; others put on the heads of beasts, rejoicing and exulting that they have so transformed themselves into the shapes of animals…furthermore, it is those who have been born men who are clothed in women’s dresses…and effeminate their manly strength by taking on the forms of girls, blushing not to clothe their warlike arms in women’s garments”[6]

Boy Bishops? Infamous performances? Cross-dressing? How fun is that!?

For hundreds of years it was customary on the Solstice for groups of poor people to visit the houses of the rich and make themselves quite at home, drinking up the best wine and feasting on the richest foods – which would often be personally served to them by the master of the house.  He might literally wield the power of life and death over them on every other day – but on this day – everything was reversed.

When Christmas started to become popular, most common folk carried over the Reversal and Misrule of the Solstice along with it.  This is why Christmas was banned and actively suppressed in Europe and America for so long.  The rich and powerful were understandably put out at being treated like servants by crowds of their drunken underlings every year – and so celebrating Christmas was made a criminal offense.  As late as the 1680s anyone found guilty of celebrating Christmas in Massachusetts would be arrested and fined 5 shillings!

But no matter how powerful or rich you may be it is impossible to abolish the law of reversal.  You can suppress a holiday, but not the truth that undergirds it.  Reversal is a fact of life.  Things change: fortunes are won and lost, crops thrive or fail, some children grow to adulthood and some do not.  The human condition is one in which everything can change in the blink of an eye.  And this is a double-edged proposition: for the poor, the lonely, the fearful and the oppressed the law of reversal is a law of hope.  Change can happen, your chains can be broken, you can rise, you can love – you do not have to suffer forever!  For the rest of us, the law of reversal reminds (to use a baseball analogy) us that although we may want to go through life thinking we’ve hit a triple, we may really just have been born on third base.  The law of reversal teaches us not to let things like power, riches or success go to our heads because we only have these things on loan, and that in the end, there is very little real difference between Master and Servant.

Feasting is great, and I admit I think our world could use a big dose of Misrule now and then, but for me it is Hope and Faith that lie at the heart of the Winter Solstice.  The very act of feasting requires a leap of faith, even today.  The only reason we ever eats to their heart’s content is because we believe that when we are done there will still be enough food, money and opportunity to see us through.  To feast is to affirm life’s abundance, to affirm that however long the winter and however small the paycheck – there will be enough; someway, somehow, there will be enough. Winter will not stay forever. Spring will come again.  The wheat and corn will grow tall, and so will the children. 

Hope is at the very core of the Winter Solstice.  There will be hunger, darkness, fear, loneliness, grief and suffering.  People die, cities crumble, rivers freeze and green things wither away (except for evergreens, of course, which is why we treasure them) – and throughout it all we go on hoping that better days will come, even if we can’t imagine what those days might look like or where on earth they will come from.  We go on hoping, tending the hidden suns deep inside of ourselves even as our bodies freeze, our stomachs grumble and our hearts break. We go on tending that tiny flame even after it seems reduced to nothing but cold grey ashes.  We go on tending that tiny flame as if our very lives depend upon it – and you know what?  They do.  Our lives do depend on tending that little flame, that hidden sun.  They really do, and in order to tend that flame we have no choice but to wait with it in the darkness from time to time.


As poet Wendell Berry writes,

To go into the dark with a light is to know the light

To go into the dark, go dark

go without light, and find that the dark, too,

blooms and sings and is traveled by dark feet and wings.

In the dark of Winter it is easy to forget that Winter is not forever, and in the depths of despair it is tempting to stop hoping altogether because there are few things in life as painful as hopes too long unfulfilled.  This is why those ancient megalithic builders built that great mound at Newgrange, the Cave of the Sun.  This is why we build churches; even today, and why Jesus is often referred to as a “light unto the world.” The forms of observation change with time, as we do – but the brilliant core of wonder and awe that underlies them does not.

We build these sacred places so that we do not forget, so that we do not lose hope, and to help us remember what it is that we live for.  In the moment that the Sun’s rays finally illuminate the beautiful stone rings, knots and whorls inside the central chamber of that dark mound, we are reminded that just as the Hidden Sun is finally revealed as the Unconquered Sun - hope really does spring eternal.


[1] John Matthews, The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1998) p. 16

[2] Ibid, p. 12

[3] Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday (New York: Vintage Books, 1996) p. 5

[4] Ibid, p. 23

[5] E.K. Chambers, The Medieval Stage (New York: Dover Books, 1996).

[6] John Matthews, The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1998) p. 27