A Light in the dark

By Philp Conkling | Dec 29, 2011

In the wake of this month’s great Christmas festivals, you may have missed the recent religious news from Urfa in eastern Turkey. For the past decade, archeologists have been uncovering the ruins of the world’s oldest religious site ever discovered. The site, an enormous temple, 11,000 years old, predates the Great Pyramids by over six millennia. The vast complex of megaliths was built by an large number of hunter-gathers who needed to be fed to complete the project over a long period of time. Because the temple at Urfa predates the development of agriculture, archeologists have proposed that our religious impulses created the need for agriculture, rather than the other way around. It is an appealing notion that all of us – even primitive hunter-gatherers – yearn for spiritual enlightenment through some form of organized religion.

Our religious festivals at this time of year, from the lighting of the menorah to the lighting of the star on Mount Battie, also have roots that stretch back into prehistory. Although the Iron Age Druids did not invent the religious observance of the winter solstice, their solstice rituals were memorable to the Romans who invaded Britain and a left a record of their ceremonies.

Of course, you don’t have to be a Druid to feel the effects of the shortest days and longest nights of the year when you live in Maine or anywhere in the north. None of us can fail to notice that since June we have lost about nine hours of sunlight from our quotidian rounds. A whole extra day within a day has ineluctably disappeared from our lives. Think of all the extra things we could get done at this time of year by adding another day’s worth of sunlight! Think of all that extra shopping we could do… then we might want to thank the Druids for encouraging us to celebrate this time of year when we can go to bed early, open a book and fall into a deep sleep.

In the summer, we live at an exhausting pace. We become like terns on Maine’s nesting islands, which serve as their only home during an otherwise relentlessly peripatetic year chasing the sun. None of Maine’s other seabirds can match their intensity. What power and endurance in those furiously beating hearts! After raising their chicks, an Arctic tern will fly down the entire Atlantic seaboard to South America, cross the Southern Atlantic Ocean to Africa, fly down the coast of Africa to the region of the Cape of Good Hope and then cross back over the Southern Atlantic to spend the austral summer in Tierra del Fuego. That’s many millions of heartbeats and wing beats just to stay on the sunny side of life. Makes me tired just to think about it.

Northern people on the other hand, have adapted other strategies to deal with the shortening days, lengthening nights and the mind-numbing cold. Various tribes of Siberian nomads, for example, are said to have developed a complicated winter ritual around ingesting gradually increasing amounts of the toxic mushroom, Amanita muscaria that could induce torpor so deep, it could sustain a period of suspended animation during the worst of the winter weather. Although Amanita muscaria is relatively common in conifer stands throughout Maine, most of us would agree that even late night TV is a big cultural improvement over sub-lethal poisoning as a winter coping strategy.

As the early Christians began spreading their appealing new religious ideas and festivals northward from the Middle East and the Mediterranean in the third century A.D., they incorporated certain pagan and Druidic rituals into their ceremonies. Christmas comes around the winter solstice not because Caesar decreed that Mary and Joseph had to return to Bethlehem to be counted in the darkest month of the year, but to increase Christianity’s appeal to pagans. The winter solstice marks a turning point in celestial events, and also marks a turning, most of us would concede, for the better, toward the lengthening of light, toward hope, if not quite yet toward warmer weather.

Aside from the winter solstice, the Druids also left us with an appreciation of mistletoe, which they considered to be magical. Mistletoe grows high up in the tops of trees such as oaks, and having no roots and thus no connection to the earth, Druids considered the plant to be living in the realm of the gods, magically appearing after the oaks had dropped their leaves in the fall. To the Druids mistletoe’s evergreen foliage signified eternal life and their white berries signified the return of the sun in the heavens. On the sixth night of the new moon following the winter solstice, the arch-Druid called his people together in the oak sanctuary to cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle. Each household got a sprig to put in their barns to increase their livestock’s fertility or over their doorway to ward off evil.

Much later, biologists, as is their wont, demystified our appreciation of mistletoe’s magical qualities by pointing out that birds actually distribute their sticky white berries and seeds, which after passing through their alimentary canals, end up growing as parasites high up in the crowns of trees such as oaks. But a bit of the old magic still lives on in the English tradition of hanging mistletoe over the lintels of doorways and in hallways, where if a maiden stops unawares, she may receive a kiss, as an incentive to shorten the otherwise long and lonely nights of winter.

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