[this was originally written for philosophical magazine]
What does it mean for something to be “occult”, or “mystical”? I would say that one of the fundamental features of a mystical or occult worldview is looking deeply into the symbol sets that we use to think about our lives, and participating in the construction and interpretation of these systems of meaning.
This has been one of the basic joys of my life, and if you are in any way involved in philosophy, I am sure you understand the enjoyment found in pushing around and examining the building blocks that make up our inner lives—even though this process may not, for you, have a theological component. For whatever reason, my philosophical and theological inclinations have always been wed, so it is with great pleasure that I will now give you my window into what is objectively the best time of year: Christmas and the winter solstice. We are going to move fast; this will be somewhat of a “crash course,” a small gift from me to you.
Temporal events like the winter solstice can only exist in our minds within a larger chronological framework: it is a small event existing within a larger system of time. This is important for us to consider at the outset because this system of time is partially imposed from the outside and partially generated from within. It has an objective quality: the sun sets and rises at regular intervals regardless of your own intelligence. However, there is also a subjective component. It is absolutely mind-boggling to consider the millions if not billions of people who have walked the earth lazing under the hot sun, perhaps forced to notice the passing of day and night, but in general having no conception of anything like a week, a month, or a year—perhaps even without any sense of time—wandering around in a state of ignorant eternity “forever.”
We have been lucky enough to inherit a system of timekeeping from our ancestors. However “universal” it may seem to us, in reality, encoded into this system are the values and ideas that governed the lives of the people that came before us. We just have to know how to look for them.
As many of you know, the hours of light and darkness are not fixed, they move throughout the year. At two opposite ends of the spectrum, we have maximum daylight (summer solstice) and maximum darkness (winter solstice). Between them are two points where day and night are equal: the spring and fall equinoxes (“equinox,” literally “equal night”).
In many Western cultures (and of course others), people celebrated on these days. In some cases, there would also be some festivals to mark the midpoint between these times. For modern people interested in paganism, the pagan “wheel of the year” is a map of these festivals, with four festivals on the equinoxes and solstices (these marking the height of each season) and four festivals between them marking the transitions between the seasons. This is just a model and does not map directly onto one culture, but it is useful when considering the symbolic nature of the year.
Each one of these points on the year can be seen as an embodiment of the symbolic and spiritual nature of each season. In spring, we have festivals of rebirth for obvious reasons. Summer festivals celebrate the height of life and the “easy” part of the year, and fall festivals are often about harvesting or transitions of some kind. Our winter festivals, however, do not follow this linear relationship and are thus, to me, the most interesting and worth examining.
Winter contains an obvious language and mode of being for man: everything is essentially dead or hibernating, waiting for the coming of more hospitable times. Yet, paradoxically, our winter festivals are not a celebration of this state, or a way of reinforcing our apparently natural relationship to the season (like the festivals of every other season): they are a rebellion against it. Winter is obviously the season of death, yet festivals “about” the dead are generally reserved for fall (Halloween, for example).
This is interesting to consider: it would not be intuitive to an outsider that the festival that is the most explicit and general celebration of life would come at the darkest and most dead part of the year, yet it is apparently so natural to us that we eagerly take to it: everyone loves Christmas (which, non-coincidentally, is within days of the winter solstice).
For this reason, the winter solstice is absolutely my favorite time of year. Plunged into the most inhospitable and trying time of the year, man intuitively reaches into himself and his traditions to tap into the redemptive power of the human imagination—it is quite amazing. It is as though our minds have a deep and primordial need to connect with each other in this difficult period. Everyone is familiar with the “dark night of the soul” archetype—well, the dark night of the year is the winter solstice.
This is what Christmas and winter celebrations are, in one sense: a way for us to remind ourselves of the better things that are possible when we need it most. Today, this is a pleasant thing we can choose to enjoy, but it is possible that for early groups of people living in extreme climates, this would have actually given them an advantage in terms of morale over other groups.
With this context for the solstice established, let’s take a look at some of the more esoteric themes associated with this day—I think you will find they suit this interpretation.
Firstly, if we’re talking about symbolic time in western culture, we have to take a look at the zodiac. The zodiac sign that the winter solstice “falls under” is Capricorn. Capricorn is one of the more enigmatic signs: the other signs are obvious symbols (twins, scales, a lion, etc.), but what is a Capricorn?
The “capricorn” we see in our zodiac today (most likely going back to the Bronze Age and earlier, possibly into Vedic civilization as well) is a half-mountain goat, half-fish hybrid. This is a great image for the symbolic nature of Capricorn because a mountain goat is tethered to the earth, yet, paradoxically, it ascends the mountain and climbs up into the higher realms. Likewise, its other half, the fish, also relates to this quest. In western occult, an animal’s ability to navigate the oceans is symbolic of the ability to dive deep into the subconscious and investigate these deeper parts of the psyche.
Each zodiac sign also has an elemental attribution. Capricorn is assigned to the element of earth, and it is the final earth sign. This means that it is the ultimate culmination of earth and represents its divine attributes. In this sense, Capricorn embodies the mysterious and alchemical powers of the earth, its cavernous depths where gems and crystals may grow via some mysterious process—a process that naturally takes place in darkness.
When alchemists had to lay out and create symbols for the different chemical processes that lead to the creation of the philosopher’s stone, they mapped these “steps” onto the 12-fold wheel of the zodiac.
As they were aware of the symbology we’ve discussed here thus far, Capricorn was fittingly given the process of fermentation or putrefaction. This is often a disgusting process: it is intimately woven into the side of life that most of us try to avoid or find off-putting (please imagine smelling beer that has gone bad or something decaying to get the full effect here). Paradoxically, it produces some of the most refined and delightful things known to man. Wine, a substance Christ felt worthy of “designating” as his blood, literally must be created in darkness.
This is just a small window into one aspect of the occult symbolism of the winter solstice. We could literally continue this forever, but I’d rather take a brief detour to leave you with something pleasant and perhaps more applicable to holiday party conversation. We are all familiar with the Christmas tree, and if you’ve looked into it, you know there are a million stories as to its origin. I happen to have a personal favorite.
“Yahweh,” “God” from the Hebrew Bible, wasn’t always a capital G ultimate “god” in the sense that we think of him; he used to be a god among others, kind of like a god in a pantheon (I’m oversimplifying here for brevity). He, and many other gods like him, had consorts, and his may have been a goddess named Asherah. One of her symbols was a tree. There is a similar relationship found in many cultures wherein there is a high male god with a “wife” whose earthly embodiment is a tree.
So, some scholars think that the “Christmas tree” practice may have originated for this reason. During the darkest, coldest part of the year, we go out and find the embodiment of God’s wife on earth (a tree) and bring it inside, dress “her” up, decorate her, and keep her warm.
Whether this is true or just a great story passed amongst people in universities is irrelevant to me as it perfectly illustrates the nature of our winter solstice traditions: their origins are often enigmatic and lost to time, yet their overt meaning is secondary to the psychological function they provide for us. They are, in a sense, our culture’s own version of a semi-shamanic and socially bonding celebratory medicine. Please take with alcohol.