Solstice v Christmas – who wins the holy war?

December 28, 2011

While gazillions of those in Christian lands celebrate the 25th of December with gifts and carols dedicated to baby Jesus, the virgin mother, holly and other good stuff, we gathered at two ancient Celtic sites to welcome the rebirth of the sun in the depths of the shortest and darkest days of winter in Ireland. Not many other people did, probably a matter of mere hundreds in total, which means the answer to this post’s question is purely rhetorical. And i’m not going to bemoan the loss of pagan religious sentiments at the hands of the medieval church, or the associated loss of nature healers during the Inquisition and witch hunts, or grind any of my other favourite axes. The Christian church ended up on the winning side due to a mix of cultural and historical factors, not least amongst them alignment with the late Roman empire.

It’s done and here we are. Many Christians the world over are realigning their faith with environmental principles of earthcare, many already held such issues dear to their hearts, even more care little either way. Pagans are a motley lot, rarely aligned with each other, mostly living the way they feel is right with the earth. And the similarities between the two different ways of being are probably just as strong as the differences: both celebrate the return of the light in the middle of winter (in the northern hemisphere at least) and both see this as a metaphor at cosmic, cultural and personal levels. When the year seems to have ended, the darkness deepened and won, the spirit of death overcoming the hope and regeneration of new life finally, momentously, permanently, the days finally begin to become longer again, the light proves its perennial love of life, and everything is promised another round of the seasons in another year on earth. Cool.

So what would be the difference if people started going back to the old ways, and followed the winter solstice in an astronomical and mythic sense instead of Christmas and its religious and material promises? For a start, i’m not saying this has happened here in Ireland just because the land boasts so many astounding stone sites with incredible art and obvious meaning. The folk here mostly think of the megalithic sites as a mysterious anomaly, a hint of some ancient magic, but not really anything to do with their modern lives. The fact that the builders of the stone sites here were literally ancestors to the current population led me to wonder if there was any direct link still operating. At this stage i would say no, Christianity made a complete break between pagan ways and the modern Irish world (more on this in another, later post, as well as comparisons with Australia).

So: the winter solstice and a pagan new year, promising regeneration and a return of plenty in material and spiritual terms, would suggest that the renewed sense of abundance should only occur to the extent that we lead lives in accord with the ways of the earth.The promise of regeneration is therefore a contract, which asks that we treat the earth in ways that ensure that each population of animals and plants can replenish, and not just us and our domesticated stock and crops (and pets). This contract suggests that the air can be clean, the water unpoisoned, the soil fresh and rich; but only if we really care (ie enough to actually change the way we live) about pollutants and deforestation and soil runoff and ugly beasts like peccaries as well as cute icons like pandas and dolphins. (Regular readers will begin to think i have a thing with peccaries, but this is not the case. I just think of them now whenever i mention ugly animals. I should extend myself with warthogs. And pugs.)

In short, i’m not sure Christmas asks us to change much about the way we live, in an ecological sense. It promises a better world with more care shown to the moral order – social justice and loving thy neighbour and all that, which is great. But it doesn’t teach ecological justice and relationships and that is what a pagan celebration of the winter solstice can do. I’ll have to start selling calendars 😉



  1. It’s interesting that Ireland still has such a strong link to religion. I remember driving around Ireland and seeing shrines to Mary by the side of the road. I would love to see such dedication by regular folk to caring about the environment or even about their fellow man. I think a change is happening, but very slowly and possibly too late. We really have to wonder where we’re going to end up when scientists are busily creating super viruses in the lab and want to publish the results so that terrorists can recreate the same thing for the general population. Are we living in the end times or what???

    • Hi Darrell. Yeah, if you look for signs it is very easy to come up with an end times scenario. And the fact that so many respectable scientists are claiming that change is coming too little too late plays into that conclusion. (The fact that others are no doubt working on more effective superviruses ditto!) My friend Maya Ward recently spoke to me about giving up on hope, because it can delay efforts and because the dream of a stable biosphere or anything like it is probably already illusory and therefore just delays the pain. (I can’t recall who she’d read on this but it sounded like a reasonable set of assertions.)
      The Irish are certainly still very Catholic and some folk i got talking to around the solstice celebrations certainly felt this was the big reason any residue of ancient Celtic earth religion was sentimental at best. There is still an incredible level of friendliness in the people here, no doubt; but as everywhere, the shallow materialism of capitalism has eroded some of the extended kin care factor. I guess what frustrates me is the lack of a living link to the pagan ancestors – Christianity wins again (this was definitely the sense i got from the shrugged shoulders of my solstice buddies).
      As far as the 21st century goes, i’m fairly confident we can all strap in for a rough ride. But if we give in to a kind of decadent, laissez faire selfishness, we’ve already lost. At least in terms of any effective earthcare ethic, which requires dedication in the face of both escapism (be titillated by the trauma on the flatscreen tv and do nothing to change consumption habits, religion or no) and nihilism (which often has exactly the same result). I just found out my house and yard got trashed in freak hailstorms on Christmas night back in Melbourne, so there is truly no escape! At least we’re not corresponding from Bangladesh, or some Pacific island about 1m above sea level (although they at least get lovely weather and fresh fish most of the time) …

  2. “not least amongst them alignment with the late Roman empire.”

    Christianity appears to have lost when it became a political function. While not all Christians lack spirituality, most simply do what religious authority tells them to do, and for many centuries, that has been matters of conquest. Conquest is a matter of government and military, not spirituality.

    Numbers are a measure of achievement to politicians at polls and generals assessing the probability of victory. The spiritual person seeks quality, not quantity… so they will always be the smallest number regardless what the labels of the day may be. In other words, those with the greatest numbers win the “war,” but those with the least win the “holiness.” Shall we call it a draw?

    • Haha, well i’d hate to think of myself as being on the same side as the holiest, but certainly any authentic spirituality is going to have to work against dominant or mass interests, for sure. I guess that’s the way civilisation plays out; there is a vested interest in conservative values, which serve the corporate elite, and have a very effective mythology to ‘justify’ them. The weird thing is that the ideologies of Jesus, which were totally radical and anti-authoritarian, get co-opted by the very kind of dominant interests he was railing against! But that is the genius of ruling – any idea that can be twisted to serve those at the top will be converted.
      I guess the conclusion we probably all need now is that anyone prepared to work together to protect the earth and its right to flourish, rather than just be treated as the farm for human use, is an ally in the cause. Thanks for the comment, i’ll check out your blog soon.

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