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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Winter Solstice Past and Present: Return of the Sun

Air Date: Week of

John Matthews is a connoisseur of ancient celebrations and author of The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas. The book traces many of today’s solstice activities and legends back to their roots. Mr. Matthews speaks with Steve Curwood about winter solstice past and present, and what the shortest days and darkest time of year has represented to various cultures over time.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For much of modern western society, the Winter Solstice and the darkest days of the year have become inextricably linked with the traditions of Christmas. But as those traditions themselves have dissolved into commercialism and materialism, there is a push to revisit winters of old, when the return of the sun was the gift most people wanted. John Matthews is a connoisseur of ancient celebrations and author of The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas. The book traces many of today's solstice activities and legends back to their often unexpected roots. Take Santa Claus.

MATTHEWS: One of the images that comes up again and again is the idea of the shaman climbing up the outside of the house or the tent, or the hut or wherever it was you lived, and coming down through the chimney. Coming down the smoke hole, with the gift of wisdom or the gift of knowledge, which he had acquired from the other world, from the spirit world. And if you sort of forget for a moment all the things you know about Father Christmas, and think just of, you know, a red-suited figure coming down the chimney with a sack on his back, suddenly the whole image changes. Immediately, you begin to realize that this character that we're so used to thinking about, you know, as I say, the jolly giant who comes down the chimney with presents for children, goes back much further.

CURWOOD: What has happened to our solstice celebration over these many years?

MATTHEWS: Well, it's become overlaid by many different traditions from many parts of the world. If you go back as far as you can in time, then you can imagine people maybe sitting in a dark cave waiting for the sun to return, lighting a fire, perhaps singing songs, perhaps chanting, calling out to the sun to return. Since then, of course, a great deal has happened. So we have many different kinds of historical overlay in this. You know, we have the idea of the Christian Christmas. We have celebrations borrowed from ancient Rome. We have celebrations borrowed from the Greeks and the Turks, from all over the world. And wherever you go, now, you find a real hodgepodge of traditions, a real mixture of traditions. Some of which are understood and many of which are not understood at all.

CURWOOD: Any in particular that stand out for you?

MATTHEWS: Well, I'm thinking perhaps of the whole idea of giving gifts at this time of year. We tend to think of that as coming, again, from the Christian tradition, from the idea of the Three Wise Men. In fact, it goes back to Roman times, again, when at this time of year there was a holiday, and the master of the house would give the slaves the day off, would give gifts to them. Would often give them green boughs in token of the return of the year, the turning of the old year into the new.

CURWOOD: Do you suppose the Romans got up the day after this holiday with their credit cards stretched to the limit and not a whole lot of money in the bank?

MATTHEWS: (laughs) It's certainly possible. I think they probably all got up with hangovers in the way we do today as well, because a lot of celebrating went on. And a lot of (laughs) a lot of fun, I think.

CURWOOD: What was the Roman holiday? Who's the god?

MATTHEWS: Saturn, the god Saturn. They had Saturnalia. And it was generally considered to be a time when, you know, anything went, basically. Things were reversed. Masters waited on servants. And everyone had a really great time. I mean, there was feasting and drinking and generally disporting oneself as much as possible at this time of the year over that holiday.

CURWOOD: Sounds rather naughty to me.

MATTHEWS: Well, it probably was a bit. I mean, I think quite a bit of naughtiness went on in that time as well. But it was all part of the idea that you were celebrating in every possible way that you could, with as much abandon as possible, the return of the sun and the beginning, indeed of the new year. Because all of this runs on into the celebration of the new year, the start of a new period of time.

CURWOOD: What's your favorite solstice celebration?

MATTHEWS: There's a wonderful one which actually takes place a little bit after the solstice, but which is certainly part of the celebrations that go on at this time of year, and that's called Wassailing. And what you do when you wassail is you get a group of people together, and you go out and you sing to your apple trees. And this is supposed --

CURWOOD: You sing to the trees?

MATTHEWS: You sing to the trees. And the idea is that you make as much noise as possible. You don't always have to sing tunefully or harmoniously, and sometimes people even take out old tin lids and dustbins and things like that and bang on them and make as much noise as possible. It's a very jolly ceremony. And the idea is that you're supposed to be driving out any evil spirits that might have been hanging around your trees, to make sure that your trees will give plenty of fruit in the coming year. And you may be interested to know that this tradition has now been brought into the Americas, because someone was visiting here a few years back, a farmer, and he saw this taking place. And he thought it was such a wonderful idea that he decided to import it into the US, and I gather that it's now catching on. And that in certain parts of the country, now, you can hear people wassailing their apple trees and singing the same chants and songs that they'd been singing here for hundreds of years.

CURWOOD: I have an apple tree. I'm wondering if you would teach me a song, John, that I could go out and sing to my apple tree this time of year.

MATTHEWS: Oh, goodness. Um, well, I could try, although you probably wouldn't want me to sing it. But I can certainly --

CURWOOD: Why don't you give it a try?

MATTHEWS: I'm looking quickly through the book here. Well, here's one, goes something like this: (sings) Here's to thee, old apple tree, when thou may spurt and whence thou mayest blow. And whence thou mayest there apples in now, hats full, caps full, bushel, bushel, sacks full. And my pockets full, too. Huzzah!

(Curwood laughs)

MATTHEWS: I don't know what that sounded like. But you know, it's one of those great things and, you know, there are, people will go around towns and villages still in England and sing those songs. And I think if they're beginning to be sung in America, that's great.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today. John Matthews is author of The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas. Thanks so much for joining us.

MATTHEWS: Thank you. Glad to be here.



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