The "December Dilemma": A Non-Issue
During the waning days of autumn and of the calendar year, an emotionally charged debate has for years become as much of an annual ritual as watching football games or counting down the seconds to the new year. Popularly known as the “December Dilemma,” this debate centers on public displays of religious holiday symbols and the coping of minority religious groups with the predominance of Christian symbols and themes in stores, the media, and even public schools.
As the days grow shorter and the weather colder, this issue inevitably emerges in numerous letters to the editor and on radio and television shows. Every year, at least a few lawsuits are filed, and courts hear cases for months afterward and often end up overturning previous precedents. Yet in spite of all this sound and fury, the “December Dilemma” is really a non-issue, and it is high time we finally put it to rest.
The historical reality is that almost all December holiday celebrations have their roots in the seasonal commemoration of the Winter Solstice, the first day of winter and the shortest day of the year. Down through the centuries, the waning daylight and increasing darkness and cold of late autumn have filled people with trepidation.
Facing winter was an issue of life and death in which people never knew if there would be enough food for the lean months or if they and their families would survive the brutality of the elements and of possible illness.
When the hours of sunlight grew fewer, and the natural world appeared to be overrun with death, the subconscious fear often arose within people that the sun would wane to the point of non-existence, and the world would be plunged into darkness and cold. This fear has even been linked to the modern phenomenon of depression and fatigue at this time of year known as Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Ancient peoples were usually competent astronomical observers, and it did not take them long to recognize the reversal of the increasing darkness at December’s end. Going back thousands of years, people have recognized December 21 as the day of greatest darkness, the day after which the tide begins to turn; the sun grows stronger, and the days grow longer. This day, and the weeks immediately before and after it, became recognized not only as the nadir of the sun’s strength, but also as a time of rebirth, and from this came the great seasonal celebrations.
The legend that grew around the Winter Solstice was of the sun that dies and is reborn on the same night. It invoked profound joy, the type of joy that accompanies a reprieve from execution, a feeling of light and life having been spared. While many cultures and religions developed their own unique celebrations at this time, most seasonal symbols to this day hearken back to Winter Solstice imagery. The many stories of a lone light that shines in the darkness, of small candelabra that illuminate the night, have their roots in humanity’s perception of the reborn sun.
Today, Western civilization has largely dissociated people from our natural environment. Winter is merely an inconvenience for most people, and the seasons are barely noticeable from climate-controlled and artificially lit offices where many people spend a large portion of their waking hours. And because we have lost touch with the natural world around us, it has become easier to feel superior to it or see it as irrelevant. One hundred and fifty years of this view have allowed abuse and degradation of our natural environment to the point that we have altered the earth’s climate and threatened the future of our own existence.
The answer to the “December Dilemma” is to go back to the original celebration at this time of year. No matter what our ethnic, cultural, or religious background, we all experience the seasonal cycles; we all feel the loss of life and light in late autumn, and we all instinctively sense the hope of spring and rebirth as the sun grows stronger after December 21. This could and should be the focus of our public celebrations.
We could take advantage of this time of year to encourage people to plant potted evergreens and other trees as part of a natural effort at reforestation. Schools could emphasize ecology, the astronomical reason why we have seasons (notably, a question that many college graduates, in a recent survey, were unable to answer), and the cycle of life as well as how history and culture have been influenced by climate and natural conditions. Religious celebrations should be confined to homes and houses of worship and kept away from municipal buildings and government programs.
However, even churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship of all denominations could take this opportunity to focus on uniting humanity in preserving God’s gift of the earth and the natural world. Public squares could focus on displaying solely seasonal symbols such as winter landscapes, snowmen, suns, animals associated with winter (polar bears, stags, etc.) or non-religious winter traditions representing that particular region’s many ethnic populations.
For the first time in human history, we face the very real possibility of human extinction at our own hands. The latest climate studies now show that global climate change is rapidly accelerating, to the point that if we do not change our ways, the earth could face a catastrophic 11 degree Fahrenheit global surface temperature increase within only 100 years. And this is only one of many instances of environmental degradation that are coming frighteningly close to the point of no return.
This time, it is up to us to turn the tide, to reverse the course of darkness and death and provide ourselves and all life on earth with a reprieve, a chance for a new birth and a new spring. All humanity, regardless of ethnicity or religion, shares this very real dilemma. By focusing on the Winter Solstice and its profound meaning and significance for our time, we can invoke a universal inspiration and hope that resonate within all people and provide the impetus for us to confront and overcome the life and death challenges facing our world.