Christmas has a special appeal all over the world. Some see this as an example of Western cultural influence, which is true. Some see it as the result of manipulating people into feeling festive so as to spend more, which is also true. Still, Christmas’s appeal transcends all of that, even in societies with limited exposure to Christian heritage.
This is because the idea inherent in Christmas is ancient, and resides in humans’ collective psyche, especially in societies where agriculture played a decisive role in social development, and in turn in shaping worldview and religion.
Christmas, in this collective psyche, is the birth of light, literally: the rise of the sun after its disappearance. It is that momentous point in earth’s relationship with the sun: the winter solstice - the moment at which night’s (and darkness’s) length and dominance comes to an end (in the northern hemisphere, where the vast majority of people have always lived), and day begins to grow again.
This is a long moment, from 21st to 25th December. This is why in many ancient civilisations, chiefly the Egyptian, it was a moment of transition – when the year’s longest nights were seen as a death of the sun in our world, during which the people wait in darkness for it to return, until it indeed is reborn in the observable world on 25th December.
This is why we see in ancient Egyptian thinking, Horus (who could be thought of as a manifestation of the god Raa, that roams the sky and incorporates the sun) disappear on 21 December only to return to be born again every year on the 25th. Here, Horus’s disappearance is an imaginary death of light before its resuscitation that brings about growth and life.
The same idea existed in ancient Mesopotamia, western Iran, pre-Christian France and Ireland, several South American cultures, and of course in Greece (the early students of ancient Egypt). All of these societies venerated the days from 21 to 25 December as they realised they signify a momentous point in earth’s link to the sun, which they understood as the source of light and life in our solar system, which for them was the observable universe.
Veneration differed, according to the religious understandings underneath it. Subtle and secret for the elite. Simple and public for the rest. And so, indeed, at the basic level, many societies worshiped the sun, or denoted gods to represent it. In reality however, for those with a more sophisticated understanding, the veneration was for the cycle of light and the energy emanating out of it - and the energy of which this cycle is an emanation.
Through this veneration humanity evolved different conceptualisations that connected this cycle of light – and accordingly of life – with the One God. And again, in all of them, there were the simple theology for the many, and the subtle and sophisticated for the few.
Perhaps the key question in these conceptualisations concerned the nature of that connection between the cycle of light and the One God. All approaches (or religions) understood that that connection is a manifestation of creation. But the differences – or the varying creative approaches – concerned the nature of creation. This was important in itself, as well as in being an approach to get closer to the Creator – yet with the realisation of those in the Know that the nature of the One is beyond the understanding of humanity in its current form.
These different approaches and the underlying sophisticated theologies inspired and bewildered and illuminated some minds. For most people, however, that momentous point in the cycle of light – Christmas - simply remained a season of celebration. And indeed it should be, for at its core, this cycle is not only the most visible manifestation of life and its sustenance on earth, but also, understanding that cycle has always been one of the key steps for humanity to approach the Creator, the ultimate source of light.