Sun Stands Still

The Lord lured the Hebrew people into the wilderness with promises of a land flowing with milk and honey. The only trouble was the land was already occupied. So it fell to Joshua to clear some space, which he did by annihilating the occupants. This was not hard to do -- at least not according to the biblical account -- because God was on his side. But at one point Joshua faced the combined armies of five Amorite kings. As before, the tide of battle went his way. However, the sun was going down, and it looked like the Amorites might be able to run out the clock. Since this was some 1500 years before Christ, there were no actual clocks as such. Nevertheless, Joshua needed to buy some time, so the Lord caused the sun to stand still in the sky for a full day, which enabled Joshua to finish what he had started.

For thousands of years, people told time by the movement of the sun across the sky. Because the sun rose each day in the east and set in the west, they thought of time as circular rather than linear. It was the same with the seasons. The days would get shorter, then longer, then shorter again, completing a circuit. At the solstice twice each year, the sun would appear to set at the same point on the horizon for several days in a row, reversing its journey north or south; hence, the term solstice (sol+stice), from the Latin meaning “sun stands still.”

The solstice was often the occasion for pagan revels, even human sacrifices. In northern Europe, the winter solstice festival was known as Midvinterblot, meaning “midwinter blood.” As the name suggests, animal or human sacrifice was practiced as a way of appealing to the gods to bring back the waning sun. Elsewhere, sacrificial rituals were enacted at the winter solstice to represent the death and rebirth of pagan gods, including the Egyptian god Osiris and the Greek Dionysus. The Roman Saturnalia was a weeklong debauch, much like the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro, in which traditional master-slave roles were briefly reversed. A slave or criminal was crowned as mock king and got to live it up before he was killed at the end of the festival.

The convergence of the modern Christmas celebration with the winter solstice is hardly accidental. The early church initially observed the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ on the same day around the vernal equinox in March. However, not long after Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, Pope Julius I decreed that Christ’s birth should henceforth be celebrated on December 25, which is when the solstice fell on the Roman calendar at the time. The date was deliberately chosen to help supplant the pagan sun gods who were born or reborn on that day. In Christianity, there are no human or animal sacrifices to mark the occasion; in Christianity, God himself is sacrificed to save the world from darkness.

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